Relay races are the first events young girls in the Evanston track program are exposed to, according to the philosophy of head coach Fenton Gunter and his staff.
It’s a way of introducing the “team first, me second” culture that has made ETHS the most successful program in the state of Illinois. And the chemistry lesson learned at an early age helps athletes blossom when they choose an individual event to focus on later on in their running and jumping careers.
That emphasis on relays paid off again Thursday for the Wildkits at the Class 3A Loyola Academy Sectional meet. Evanston qualified all four relays — 3200-meter, 1600-meter, 800-meter and 400-meter — and also advanced 6 individuals to the Illinois High School Association state finals scheduled for May, 16, 17 and 18 at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.
It marks the first time the Kits have qualified all four relays in back-to-back years. But that wasn’t accomplished by keeping relay units from the 2018 season intact for another year.
Instead, the Wildkits will send different quartets in all four races down to the blue oval track at EIU to represent the program in 2019.
Evanston won both the 400 and 800 relay tests, placed second in the 3200 in a school record time, and settled for a runnerup finish in the final race of the day, the 1600. New Trier nosed out the Kits by a margin of 3:57.27 to 3:59.26 and snatched the team title with 98 points to 97 for ETHS in the team standings.
Gabriella Calixte captured the 300-meter hurdle championship in 45.30 seconds and Sasha Gordon won the triple jump at 37 feet, 8 inches. Joining them as individual state qualifiers are Alliyah Jones in the triple jump, Jacklynn Okereke in the 100 hurdles, Abby Osterlund in the 1600, and Maia Hadaway in the 200.
An influx of talented freshmen gave ETHS a boost to State this time around. But it also provided a regular season dilemma for Gunter, who juggled lineups throughout the season and is still considering some changes for the relays down in Charleston.
Finding the right four runners for each race — and then determining the right order per relay for maximum speed — must have cost the veteran coach a sleepless night or two.
“We haven’t done that before (qualified 4 in two straight years) because we haven’t had a group like that in the 4 x 800,” said Gunter. “I have to give (2018 graduate) Enyaeva Michelin credit for that. She was with them in cross country and she’s the one who encouraged them to try track and field. She saw that there were some quality girls there who would fit in with us. They might not seem like much as individual runners, but as a relay team, they’re pretty dangerous.”
Dangerous? The quartet of Hannah Lipman, Gabrielle Horton, Eavan Norman and Abby Osterlund turned in a school record performance of 9:25.11, shattering the old ETHS mark of 9:27.23 that had stood since 1987. Lipman’s sizzling opening leg split of 2:16.15 set the tone, although the Kits ran behind New Trier’s winning effort of 9:22.37.
“Lipman set the tone and she and Horton both gave us a buffer for later in the race,” Gunter pointed out. “They’ve really been locked in as a group, and they’ve made a big difference for us. They ran really well today and I think they still have some room to drop some time.
“I’ve never had a tougher year as a coach when it comes to working on the relays, and that covers a lot of ground. It’s been my most challenging year because of our youth, working in four freshmen while some of the upperclassmen were giving up their spots, trying to put the pieces together so we could put the best four out there to succeed at the end of the year.
“We put them in the slow heats in some of the invitationals we ran in because we didn’t want to rush them and put them up against the big girls (more experienced varsity runners). We just wanted them to be ready to move to the next level by Week 14 and Week 15. It was a long process, but we had to go through it. Thankfully, they’re talented enough and mature enough to handle all of those different scenarios. And it’s still a work in progress.”
Three freshmen — Rikki Gray, Dystonae Clark and Okereke — teamed up with junior Ariel Logan to rule the 800 relay in a season best time of 1:43.85 in windy conditions in Wilmette. Evanston also hit the finish line first, in 48.82, behind junior Chassa Pratt, Calixte, Logan and Clark in the 400.
Calixte’s ailing back kept her out of the final relay, but Horton stepped in and rose to the occasion on a unit that also featured Gray, Okereke and Lipman.
“Horton had about 10 minutes notice that we needed her to run and she did an outstanding job of stepping in,” Gunter praised. “That’s two weeks in a row that she’s done that for us. And we just put Chassa back on that 4 x 100 and she made the most of her opportunity and ran really well. ”
Calixte’s balky back may keep her out of the hurdles competition at EIU, but she could run in 3 relays unless the coaches decide to make other changes.
Whatever the future holds, the sophomore standout earned a sectional championship in her first year competing in the most difficult race to master, the 300 hurdles.
“At first I hated the hurdles and I wanted to quit. I kept banging my knees and I had all kinds of bruises,” Calixte said. “But after a couple of races I felt a little more comfortable and I thought I could push myself to get a place at State. Now I really do enjoy running that race.
“I still have a lot of work to do on my starts. It still seems to me that I get out and I get to that first hurdle pretty quick. I have to get past that.”
Gordon punched a ticket to Charleston for the second straight year in the triple jump, leading a 1-2 finish for ETHS that found Jones placing 2nd with a personal best jump of 37-5. But unlike last year, when Gordon “backed in” as an automatic qualifier by finishing 2nd, this time she’s a threat to advance to the Class 3A finals on Saturday.
“There’s a really big difference for me from last year and this year,” said Gordon. “I got that big PR last week (at the conference meet), and I don’t want to sound cocky, but now jumping 37 feet feels normal to me. I just go out and I do it. All I wanted to do today was go 37 like last week, and qualify — and it just turned out that I won.
“Now that I know I can do it two weeks in a row, why not go for three?”
Top two finishers in each event automatically earned the right to compete next week, too. For ETHS, that included Okereke in the 100 hurdles (15.84) and Hadaway (26.38) in the 200.
Osterlund, who was seeded first in the 1600, led much of that race but placed 3rd in 5:08.12. She bettered the established state qualifying standard of 5:08.84 to keep her season alive.
Non-qualifiers for the Wildkits included junior Denise Partee, tied for 3rd in the 100 hurdles in 15.86 and 5th in the 100 in 13.12; Clark, 4th in the 100 in 13.01; and Pratt, 6th in the 300 hurdles in 49.16.