Prior to this year, Zack Riley was the last Herrin performer to win The Southern Illinoisan's Boys Track Athlete of the Year, doing it in 2010.
Eleven years later, Riley has company.
Mason Clough and Billy Braid can thank their predecessor for helping them get to that level.
The two Tiger seniors share this year’s award, marking the sixth time since 1994 that the Williamson County school has claimed the prize. Herrin monopolized it from 2006-'10 with Eric Thompson winning in '06-'07 before Tommie Taylor took it home in 2008.
Riley then captured consecutive awards in '09 and '10 on the strength of winning state titles in the long jump and high jump before enjoying an outstanding college career. After winning the NJCAA title for Rend Lake in 2011 with a leap of 7-5, Riley then participated in the 2012 Olympic Trials and won four individual meets during his three-year career at Kansas State.
Now the jumps coach at Herrin under head coach James Elliott, Riley has had a major influence on this year’s co-winners.
“Zack Riley means the world to me,” Clough said Wednesday before a workout. “I definitely owe him so much for what I’ve gone through when it comes to this.”
“Me and him had a good connection,” Braid said of Riley. “Having a good relationship with your coach is really beneficial. It boosted me.”
But as Riley himself says, you can’t make the jumps for the athletes. Clough and Braid proved time and again this year that they could turn their coach’s instruction into tangible results on the biggest stages.
Both rolled through the regular season, winning almost every meet in which they participated. When they got to the Class 2A Mascoutah Sectional, it was more of the same. Clough captured the high jump with an effort of 6-1 ½ and Braid won the triple jump, soaring 44-2. That qualified each for the state meet at Eastern Illinois University.
It was a meet that didn’t exist last year, when COVID-19 wiped out all spring sports. To say that Clough and Braid derived extra motivation from the absence of competition in 2020 would be an understatement along the lines of saying Usain Bolt is fast.
“I had a year taken away from me,” Clough said.
“I definitely had a lot of motivation,” Braid said. “It gave me motivation to make that time count.”
Motivation summoned, the duo did what Braid said and made their final moment as Tigers count. Braid jumped 45-3 — just an inch off his top mark of the year — to finish second to Jayden McCulskie-Green of Sandwich.
Clough saved his best for last. There was a five-way tie for second going into his final attempt at 6-4, and he wasn’t in it. It was produce or finish lower than he wanted.
Clough ran towards the bar. He angled his body and hoisted himself into the air.
Clough hit the mat. The bar didn’t.
On the last jump of his high school career, he matched his personal best. Second place was his.
“It’s great to see guys be successful, especially when they work their butts off to get there,” Riley said.
The work continues for both kids. Clough is headed for Southeast Missouri State, where he plans to jump and believes he’s capable of adding four inches to his final jump at EIU. Braid is going to Illinois, where he’ll major in kinesiology and sports medicine.
They might be former Herrin athletes now, but Elliott said their legacy will live far beyond 2021.
“Our coaching staff has the same vision of creating a culture of success and committed athlete. Obviously, Billy and Mason exemplify that,” Elliott said.