As a former standout runner at Oak Park and River Forest High School and then All-American at the University of Illinois, all Rich Brooks ever really knew was success.
After a 30-year career in business, Brooks has rediscovered his winning ways in track in his second go-round as Grace Lutheran’s boys and girls head coach. In fact, Brooks’ impact on the Vikings might be his proudest accomplishment.
“When I started coaching at Grace Lutheran in 2011, the program was in shambles. We had eight kids on the team,” Brooks said about the River Forest school. “This year, we had 81 kids in the program. Everybody wants to be a part of it.
“It’s not like my goal is to win a state championship,” he added. “The goals are for kids to gain in their self-esteem, self-confidence and be part of a team. That’s what really matters; if we win, that’s nice, too.”
Grace Lutheran enjoyed the best of both worlds this spring. The girls team won the state championship and the boys squad placed eighth at the 2019 Lutheran State Association Championships, hosted by Concordia University in May.
The girls team scored 90 points to finish first in a 33-team field. Eighth-grader Zawadi Brown led the Vikings by winning the 100-meter dash (13.08 seconds), 200-meter dash (27.53), 400-meter dash (1 minute, 2.18 seconds) and running the anchor leg on the victorious 1,600-meter relay team (4:29.27).
“Zawadi is a gifted athlete who knows how to prepare for meets,” Brooks said. “She eats healthy and gets her rest. I also give her parents a lot of credit for her success.”
Brown’s best sport isn’t necessarily track. She plays on an elite lacrosse team and intends on continuing her promising lax career at Fenwick High School.
“Zawadi is not planning on running track at Fenwick,” Brooks said. “Lacrosse and track both take place in the spring. She could run perhaps during the indoor track season, but I don’t know how extensive that season is at Fenwick.”
Brooks also praised seventh-grader Aaliyah Thurman, who won the long jump state title with a measurement of 16 feet, 4.75 inches.
“Aaliyah set the school record, jumping a foot and a half farther than last year,” Brooks said. “We expect big things out of her next season. She reminds me of [1960 Olympic Champion] Wilma Rudolph, a very statuesque sprinter.”
In the relays, the girls also notched a trio of top-two results in the 400 (55.31), 800 (1:55.84) and 1,600 (4:29.27).
On the boys side, Owen Augustine showed his versatility by winning the 1,600 with a time of 5:02.17 and placing fourth in the 200 with a time of 26.14. Augustine will attend OPRF High School next school year.
“I predicted to Owen’s parents that he would be a state champion before he’s done at Grace Lutheran,” Brooks said. “We’ve never have had a 1,600-meter runner win a state championship and then run the 200 (the second shortest of the races) and take fourth. It was a fantastic accomplishment.”
Tori Robinson-Thomas, Anna Scholtens, Sophia Augustine, Olivia Crame, Alyse Ryniewicz, Taylor Smith, and Brianne Davis also contributed for the girls. Gabe Becerra, Peter Armstrong, Kyle Steiner, Emmanuel Matel-Sanchez and Hendrik De Vries performed well for the boys. Brian Schultz and Glen Steiner are assistant coaches for Grace Lutheran.
Brooks also mentioned the importance of some Grace Lutheran athletes who don’t garner as much attention.
“There were some unexpected kids who don’t show up in the state results, but truly inspired me as a coach,” he said. “We have an eighth-grader, Emmet Southfield, who came out for the team just to be with his friends. It was painful for me to watch him run because he would get so sore and I would tell him to stop.
“He never quit and transformed himself into a good runner. He worked his way onto our state-qualifying 3,200 relay. Kids like Emmet can come out of nowhere and inspire the entire team.”
While several individuals excelled, the Vikings’ success was truly a team effort. Collectively, the boys and girls teams broke nine schools records at state.
“There were 57 schools at state so even getting one team on the [awards] podium is a big deal,” Brooks said. “We had both teams make it. The team chemistry was excellent and it was just a really fun year.”