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Kalil Johnson is convinced that the coronavirus pandemic cost him a State hurdles championship last spring.
On Saturday he delivered a statement to the rest of the State of Illinois that it’s going to happen this year.
The Evanston senior set two meet records, winning both the 110-meter and 300-meter hurdle races while leading the Wildkits to the team title at the Kankakee Kays Co-Ed Invitational meet.
Johnson and teammate Tim Russell (shot put, discus throw) accounted for four first place finishes between them. Matt Cress won the high jump, the 800-meter relay team also took first place, and Solomon Greene paced a 1-2-3 finish in the 3200 as the Wildkits piled up 185 points and dominated the nine-team field in their season debut.
Back in action after losing the entire 2020 spring season (and subsequent possible summer workouts, too), Johnson has had to deal with trying to maintain his technique in races where that’s difficult to achieve even when you have daily repetitions.
He showed Saturday that he hasn’t lost a step, winning in meet record times in the 110 hurdles (a speedy 14.24 seconds) and 300 hurdles (40.07).
“He’s the cream of the crop of hurdlers in the state of Illinois, and he’d have won State last year,” said Evanston head coach Don Michelin Sr. “His leg tightened up on him today, though, and that’s something we have to figure out.”
Johnson actually ran through at least three hurdles on his way to victory in the short race and still recorded a time that most competitors in that race would settle for at the END of the season. The senior standout is aiming to be even quicker, though, in an effort to keep college coaches like those at the University of Iowa, Wisconsin-Oshkosh and Michigan State interested when it comes to handing out scholarship money.
He’s also motivated to win a gold medal that eluded him as a junior.
“Coming off two years of not running, I’ve really had to step up,” Johnson said. “Today I was very strong over the first 60 meters [in the 110 race], but I don’t remember how many hurdles I hit after that. I just powered right through. I’d break them all to get a good time!
“I didn’t think time-wise I’d come out this fast, but mentally? Yes, I was ready. I definitely believe last year [decision of the Illinois High School Association to cancel the season] cost me a State championship. I was running real good times and I thought I’d go in the low 14s, or maybe the high 13s, that year.
“Most colleges want you to be at least 14.1 to walk on, but I couldn’t do anything about it until I actually had a season. Today, my technique through the first seven hurdles was pretty good, then my trail leg started to drop. It’s physical, and it’s something I need to work on. And the next step is to be able to finish the races stronger – without dying.”
Greene (10:41.10), Henry O’Malley (10:54.90) and Paul Garcia (11:20.65) got ETHS off to a strong start in the 3200, with the first two breaking the previous meet record of 11:17.70. Evanston’s other win on the track came in the 800 relay, where the unit of Bernard Jones, Afandi Oraelosi, George Hannah, and Khaleil Gumbs won in 1:35.08, beating runnerup St. Laurence by four seconds.
Russell scored wins in the shot (12.41 meters) and broke the meet mark in the discus with a top effort of 115.20 meters. Cress took top honors in the high jump at 6-feet even.
Coach Michelin was happy with his team’s performance, but also recognizes that operating with caution is important with athletes who still must shake off the rust of inactivity, both mentally and physically.
“The aches and pains kids have are something that will make you back off,” said the veteran coach. “We were allowed [by the IHSA] some contact days for the kids before the season, so that helped. Some of the technique will suffer, but you’ve got to go and do the drills to get through that.
“It’s like classical music. You have to continue to practice, and you have to play those scales every day.”