SPARTA — The latest in a long line of oustanding distance runners at Sparta High School, Kenny Heaton thought his time had come.
The 17th-ranked Class 1A cross country runner in the state, Heaton won six races during the 2013 season, including the River-to-River Conference and regional titles.
Heaton was considered a near cinch to better his 37th-place finish at the Class 1A State Meet the previous season and to contend for a top-25 medal.
But it didn't happen. Plaugued by a painful muscle injury between his knee and hip, Heaton placed 50th at Detweiller Park in Peoria.
"It really hit me the week of sectionals and then state. It really affected me because I couldn't practice as much as I usually did. I was going from like nine miles a day to three because the pain was so bad,'' Heaton said. "There were days when the pain was so much after practice that I could barely walk.''
Still, Heaton competed.
Making his fourth and final trip to the state finals, Heaton, although far less than 100 percent, covered the three mile course in 16 minutes 7 seconds as he led Sparta to a 19th-place finish. For that accomplishment, Heaton has been named the Belleville News-Democrat Class 1A Runner of the Year.
A four-year starter on one of the top Class 1A programs in the state, Heaton was the model of cosistancy for much of the regular season. While his six individual titles are impressive, so is the fact that Heaton never finished lower then sixth in any meet, excluding the state finals.
"Kenny had a great season for us. I don't know if many people know this but he had surgery a few years back and had part of a muscle taken out of his left leg,'' Sparta coach Darren Latham said.. "So now when he runs, he favors his stronger right leg and, as the season went on, he devleoped tendinitis in that leg.
"He was able to run through it at regional and sectional, but when we got to state, we just couldn't get it out of there. He finished 50th at state, and we were looking to be somewhere near the top 10. But Kenny is a great kid and has a great career here. Kenny did what Kenny does. He gave a great effort.''
After taking two weeks off after the state meet, Heaton is back in training -- this time in track and field, where he should be among the best in the state in both the 1,600- and 3,200-meter events.
Heaton is also looking at colleges, and is considering McKendree University.
"They're just one of the colleges. I want to run in college and have the chance to go someplace where I can be happy and get a great education,'' Heaton said. "It's been a four great years at Sparta. It would be nice to go out by winning a medal this spring in track.''
Heaton's best time of the season over three miles -- 15:45 -- came at the Springfield Invitational, where he placed second.
Heaton then was impressive in the regional, where he edged out Red Bud senior Ethan DcClos for the title. But at the sectional, Heaton was in obvious pain after finishing second in 16 minutes 24 seconds.
"It was tough, but I had worked so hard for four years to get to that point. That was the toughest part about the whole situation. I was so excited to have a chance to be mentioned with the same guys I looked up to when I was younger. Guys like Jon Hill, Wes Bradshaw and Wade Reeves.
"The physical part and dealing with the pain is something that will pass. It's the mental part of it being my last chance at state and not being at my best after working so hard to get there which will stay with me.''