With the Edwardsville Tigers and Belleville West Maroons returning most of their key athletes from teams which finished first and second at last year's Class 3A state track and field meet, the O'Fallon Panthers were almost an afterthought heading into the 2013 season.
Last week at the Southwestern Conference Meet, O'Fallon provided a not so gentle reminder that not all of the top Class 3A athletes in the metro-east live in Edwardsville or on the west side of Belleville.
Led by the brilliance of sophomore Tami Cardenas and excellence throughout its lineup, O'Fallon captured its third SWC title in four years.
Heading into the Class 3A Belleville East Sectional on Friday, the Panthers will try to ride the emotion of that win once again.
"We just need to keep the momentum going that we built at conference. Our kids were really ready to compete that day and have had good practices since,'' O'Fallon coach Neil James said. "The focus for sectional changes as we concentrate more on trying to qualify in as many events as possible.''
"Our kids have really worked hard this season and are looking forward to the challenge of competing in one of the best sectionals in the state.''
While Edwardsville and West will lead the way, five other SWC schools -- Belleville East, Alton, Collinsville, Granite City and O'Fallon -- will battle along with athletes from nine other schools at East.
Preliminaries begin at 2 p.m., with finals to follow. The top two finishers in each event, along with any other athletes equaling or betters qualifying times and distances. will advance to the Class 3A state finals, May 17-18 at O'Brien Stadium in Charleston.
Rounding out the field are (East Moline) United Township, Moline, Normal West, Normal Community, Pekin, Peoria Richwoods, Quincy, Rock Island and Springfield.
Edwardsville will have extra incentive this week after losing the SWC title to O'Fallon by a point. The Tigers are led by the senior Emmonnie Henderson and junior Aaliyah Covington in the shot put and discus.
Looking to put the finishing touches on one of the most remarkable high school careers in state history, Henderson is heavily favored to win her fourth straight state shot put title and third discus crown this spring.
According to Dyestats.com, Henderson has the third-best throw in the nation in the discus (167-feet-8-inches) and ranks fourth best in the shot put ( 49-10 1/2). Covington ranks fourth in the state in the shot put and is fifth in the discus.
Other top hopes for Edwardsville include Debra Blackburn in the high jump, Kristen Dowell (100 and 300 meter hurdles) and long jumper Lauren White.
While Edwardsville should put itself in position to defend its state title next week, West has been riddled by injuries for much of the season. Maroons coach Paul James still has two of the top hurdlers in the state in Claudette Day and Imani Berry and a top-level high jumper in junior Kelsey Shannon.
Day also could be a state title contender in the long jump. The Maroons also can field strong 400, 800 and 1,600 relays.
O'Fallon's top hopes are Cardenas in the 800, Sam Lapp in the 1,600 and Deneasha Swift in the 100. The Panthers also can put together four strong relays.
Granite City's Natalie O'Keefe is the state's top-ranked high jumper, having cleared 5-8.
The host Lancers are led by pole vaulter Anna Gailius and sprinter Aniecia Brewers in the 100 and 200.