The temptation for most high school track coaches to push the pace when it comes to training this year, in the wake of the coronavirus that wiped out last year’s season, is strong.
Making up for lost time, with no summer training and no indoor season being conducted, isn’t part of the agenda at Evanston. Veteran head coach Fenny Gunter will continue to nurture his runners, jumpers, and throwers with caution again this spring, just like he has for decades.
And if Coach Gunter needed a reminder that restraint is in order, it came at Saturday’s season debut at the Kankakee Kays Co-Ed Invitational when Destonae Clark suffered a pulled hamstring in the 400-meter relay race.
Clark’s injury was the only sour note as the Wildkits placed 4th in team standings with 69 points. Small school power Normal University High won the team title with 110 points.
Clark, who is being counted on as a major contributor for ETHS in the relays this year, pulled up lame on the second leg of the 400 race. The injury likely cost ETHS a sweep of the relay events. Evanston ruled the 3200-meter, 1600, and 800 races and senior Gabriella Calixte won the 300 hurdles, while Dawson Wright added a second in the open 100 and Ella Gutierrez (800) and Gabrielle Froum (1600) contributed thirds.
“Except for that one mishap, this was a pretty good day for us,” said Coach Gunter. “When Clark went down, we had to make sure the other kids didn’t fall apart, and it was just the next person up. That’s the way we had to do it, and I thought they handled it pretty well.
“Like we always do, we’re going to break the season into segments. We’ll go from Point A to whatever end point we design. In three weeks we’ll be at another point, and we’ll be at another point three weeks after that. They have to understand, and I have to understand, that there’s no hurry, that everyone’s starting from scratch. We’re all in the same boat this year. They have to know what we’re building toward.
“We want to get them down there [State finals] on that track with the opportunity to compete. Anything other than that will be a plus. Nobody likes what’s going on, but you have to appreciate it when you have the chance to achieve some things. You can only deal with what’s in front of you.”
But seniors like Calixte are still feeling a sense of urgency, with potential college scholarships at stake and time running out on their high school careers. The diminutive senior hit the last two hurdles in the 300 race and literally crawled across the finish line before posting a winning time of 48.23 seconds, almost seven seconds quicker than runnerup Nyarai Terry of Thornton Fractional North.
With her scraped knees heavily bandaged, Calixte came back in the 1600 relay and teamed with Rikki Gray, Jaclynn Okreke, and Wright for a winning effort of 4:08.01.
Like fellow ETHS standout Kalil Johnson on the boys team, maintaining strong technique in an event where it’s difficult to stay consistent even with daily repetitions has been the biggest issue with no spring or summer workouts possible.
“I’m beat, and I’m beat up,” Calixte confessed. “That’s the first time I’ve hit a hurdle like that during a race. When I came back [for preseason practice] I did a lot of stuttering with my steps [between hurdles] for the first couple of days. But your brain remembers the steps. Today the reason I fell is that I couldn’t bring my [trail] leg up.
“It’s just a matter of endurance and I have to get better at that. I tried to jog around my neighborhood every day [during the pandemic layoff] to stay in shape. I really love hurdling and I’m really taking it seriously this year.
“This year I’m hoping Evanston will have a boy win the 300 hurdles and a girl win the 300 hurdles at State. That would be perfect, and that’s my main goal.”
Calixte plans to study at San Diego State next fall whether or not she competes in track. But she knows she can catch the eye of the coaching staff there if she can put up times that are fast enough to earn some scholarship money, too.
“It’d be great to be able to run in college, and that’s totally something I’d like to do,” she said. “I want to put up some good times this year. Right now I’m at 45.3 [personal best] and 45.1 is the cutoff there [to be in the mix for a scholarship].”
Evanston started strong with a win in the 3200 relay race behind the foursome of Fromm, Gutierrez, Mollie Davis, and Caroline Klearman, clocked in 10:33.10. In the 800 relay, the team of Gray, Okreke, Dawson Wright, and Jasmine Wright won in 1:45.51.
Clark isn’t the only ETHS runner who has had to deal with leg and hamstring issues to start the spring campaign. Okreke, whose last actual competition came at the Illinois High School Association State finals in the hurdles two years ago, returned to give the Kits a lift and even surprised her head coach Saturday.
Her 1600 split of 58.7 seconds was definitely encouraging, especially considering that Evanston had virtually no competition in that race, winning by 26 seconds.
“The biggest surprise for us today was Jackie,” Coach Gunter said. “She tweaked her hamstring three weeks ago and we’ve been bringing her back real slow. She’s still not caught up when it comes to racing. We need her to be able to run ‘clean’ in those short hurdles. We need her to be one of those eight or nine girls we can line up at State.”