Nearly a decade had passed since the last time the Sherrard High School boys' cross country team had the opportunity to lift a regional-championship plaque.
On a chilly Saturday afternoon at the Class 1A Alleman Regional, the Tigers crowned a first-time individual regional winner in senior Jacob Belha and got to take home hardware for the first time since 2011.
Led by Belha's winning time of 15:21.1, Sherrard had four top 10 finishers as it scored 46 points to hold off a challenge from Three Rivers Conference rival Riverdale to earn the championship at Rock Island's Saukie Golf Course.
"We had four in the top 10 and we won every flight," said Sherrard coach Joe Lopez, whose runners captured all four flights in the COVID-19 altered regional format. "Looking back at the times, I told them what they had to do, and they knew what they were doing. They all had this in their minds."
Belha's win got the boys' regional meet off to a thrilling start, as he edged West Carroll senior Briar Nevills (15:25.3) and Riverdale sophomore Tommy Murray (15:26.2) down the stretch.
"I knew Briar and Tommy would take all of us out hard," Belha said. "I felt the pressure to make it so much better than I thought it would be. As a team, we were all competing together and looking for a chance to win."
Belha's fellow Tiger senior Dayton Hauger also shined with a fourth-place, 16:16.4 clocking; Hauger had a close call at the finish, beating Riverdale sophomore Landis Musser (16:16.6) by two-tenths of a second to earn fourth.
Two more Sherrard seniors — Mike Gorey (16:38.2) and Alex Wilson (16:45.3) — placed ninth and 10th, respectively.
"Everybody was screaming, and I could hear his footsteps," said Hauger. "That's when I thought, oh no, it's time to turn it on and go."
While Sherrard was crowned as champions Saturday, Riverdale showed itself a force to be reckoned with in just its second season with a full squad following a hiatus from 2008-18.
"We worked hard over the summer and put in some big miles," Musser said. "We knew it would be pretty tight, but our goal was to win today."
The Rams' Murray was invigorated by the down-the-stretch duel with Belha and Nevills and hopes for a sequel next Saturday at the Seneca Sectional.
"I hope it goes like this at Seneca, and I think it will," he said. "I wanted to break 16 minutes; that was the main goal, and I did that. That feels really good."
Trio of area teams also advance: Joining Sherrard and Riverdale at Seneca next weekend will be three other area teams, representing the three main local conferences.
From the Lincoln Trail, Mercer County tallied 117 points to edge TRAC member Erie-Prophetstown by a point for third place. A top 10 effort by sophomore Derek Coulter, who took eighth in 16:31.7, led the way for the Golden Eagles.
Team balance boosted E-P's Panthers, who got top 20 races from Jacob Gibson (16th, 17:06.8) and Andrew Bomleny (19th, 17:12.9).
Meet host Alleman also got a top 10 showing from senior Diego Portillo as it took the final team spot by placing fifth with 125 points. Portillo hit the finish in 16:24.2 to take seventh place.
Topping Portillo by five seconds to finish sixth was Ridgewood senior Nick Janson, who along with Nevills, Monmouth-Roseville's Rafael Francisco (12th, 16:52.6), Kewanee's Colin VanStechelman (13th, 16:53.6) and Annawan-Wethersfield's Coy McKibbon (18th, 17:09.3) is sectional-bound.