About one month ago, Kankakee’s track and field team proved it was amongst the state’s best when its 4-by-200-meter relay team of Matthew Thomas, Jayon Morrow, Quaevon Autman and Jyaire Hill secured a state title in the IHSA Class 2A State Finals at Eastern Illinois University.

Now more than one month later, the four will get a shot to show why they aren’t just amongst the best in Illinois but the entire country.

The Kankakee quartet qualified for the 2021 USATF National Junior Olympic Track & Field Championships in Jacksonville, Fla., where they will compete against the nation’s top track stars in a seven-day event at the University of North Florida from July 25 to Aug. 1.

Morrow will be taking part in the 15/16 and younger age division, running in the 400-meter dash as an individual and in the 4-by-100-meter relay and 4-by-400-meter relay races with Cabbot Craft, of St. Thomas More; Cedric Sabin, of Urbana; and Hill, who also will run the 200-meter dash.

Thomas will compete in the 17/18 and younger age division, sprinting in the 4-by-100-meter relay and 4-by-400-meter relays with Autman; Kyle Burgoni, of Unity; and Jackson Gilbert, of Urbana, as well as a solo sprint in the 400-meter.

Autman also will be competing both as an individual and in the relays for the 17/18 and younger age division, running the 100- and 200-meter dashes, long jump and the 4-by-100-meter relay with Burgoni, Gilbert and Thomas.

“With it being a COVID-19 year, I would say it’s special,” Kankakee coach Marques Lowe said. “Through it all, these guys stayed consistent, worked hard and didn’t quit. We have a special group, and I can’t wait to see them lock in and compete at the national level.”

Although there are multiple types of Junior Olympics, the USATF National Junior Olympics are not to be confused with the AAU Junior Olympics. Any given year, one could be stronger than the other in terms of competition, but the USATF Junior Olympics is more difficult to qualify for and has the backing of the governing body.

“The AAU Olympics and the USATF Olympics are two totally different things,” Lowe said. “USATF is the national entity and the governing body of track and field, and AAU is more on the amateur side, but it still has the same feel. ... Both are for kids who can go and be noticed by collegiate coaches and run qualifying times at a university track instead of a high school track.”

Typically, individuals or relay teams have to meet certain qualifications, such as finishing in the top percentile of their state and region to qualify for the USATF Junior Olympics, but because it still is considered a COVID-19 season anyone can go this year. Nonetheless, the Kankakee squad made sure to qualify in the upper echelon of its state and region and would have qualified either way.

Four of the Kankakee-involved relay teams are ranked in the top 20 nationally, led by the 17/18 4-by-100-meter relay team that’s ranked second. As talented as the four Kays have been during the course of their careers, they really never thought they would get a chance to showcase themselves in front of the numerous college scouts who will be attending the seven-day event.

“It’s been a blessing because I really didn’t think I could make it here, but I did,” Thomas said.

However, now that they made it, Kankakee’s sprinters believe they will have what it takes, especially because they ran the second-fastest qualifying time in the 17/18 4-by-100-meter relay race (41.93 seconds).

“I have big expectations for when we get down there,” Morrow said. “I’m really focused on all events, and I think our relays can run much faster when there’s competition in front of us.”

A huge part in the Kays’ confidence comes from their state title run last July. Kankakee already displayed why it was the fastest team in the state in the 4-by-200-meter relay, and now the team believes it can do it again, only this time in the 4-by-100-meter relay race.

“Winning state last month helps a lot because I think there’s three guys who are state champions on the 17/18 relay team,” Autman said. “It helps a lot knowing we already did it once, and if we can do it again on the national level, it would be even better. It’s exciting just thinking about it.”

All three of the Kays are hopeful they can finish in the top eight of their respective events in order to secure themselves All-American honors.

“It would mean a lot to earn All-American status,” Autman said. “It’s just exciting, and I’m ready to show the world that I can be the best in everything I do.”

Cody is a sports journalist who's been with the Daily Journal since 2020. He's been a sports reporter since his days at the University of Iowa where he graduated in 2019.