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Handling the anchor position on relay teams for a high-powered girls track program isn’t for everyone as an underclassman.
But so far Dawson Wright has been more than equal to the task for Evanston.
The speedy sophomore anchored not one – not two – but THREE Wildkit teams to victory on Saturday at the windswept St. Rita Invitational meet and helped the Kits pass an early season test in impressive fashion.
Evanston Township High School scored wins in the 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1600-meter relay races and now owns the fastest time in the State of Illinois in all three races to date. Add a runnerup finish by the 3200-relay team and individual wins by Gabriella Calixte (300 hurdles) and Keira Tu (high jump) and the Wildkits earned a second-place finish as a team in the 14-team field with 87 points, trailing only south suburban power Homewood-Flossmoor (166) and edging Whitney Young of Chicago (85).
Wright was hampered by injuries and couldn’t make much of an impact on the Evanston varsity girls basketball squad after moving here from Gurnee last summer. But it’s not unprecedented for ETHS head coach Fenny Gunter to trust a freshman or sophomore with major relay responsibilities right from the start of their high school careers.
It’s also a way for the coaching staff to reinforce the idea that the program mantra is “team over individual” and the emphasis on relay success helps develop young runners into competitors who are ready for more of an individual load as upperclassmen.
“I think it’s an easier transition when you get into high school, because then you’re not by yourself out there,” Coach Gunter pointed out. “You can just make a contribution and see where you fit. We’ve had a whole lot of freshmen and sophomores run anchor for us over the years. You just have to do your job. Dawson hasn’t run since 8th grade [because the pandemic wiped out the 2020 season] but we’re really thrilled to have her.
“She’s a good fit. The young girls just have to understand that everyone has a job to do, and this [relays is the only team-ish part of the sport, so you have to make the most of it. She’s a quick learner and you don’t have to tell Dawson anything twice. I know the older girls feel confident with her on that anchor leg.”
To be fair, it should be noted that Wright inherited sizable leads in all three races in conditions with winds gusting to more than 30 miles per hour much of the afternoon Saturday. She teamed up with Jasmine Wright (no relation), Jackie Okreke, and Rikki Gray to rule both the 400 (48.38 seconds) and 800 (1:43.30) races, then was added to the 1600 lineup that finished in a quick 4:01.84 and completed the job started by teammates Gray, Okreke, and Calixte.
“There is a lot of pressure. When you’re the youngest, you’re always trying to prove yourself,” Wright said. “In these relays, my goal is just not to get caught, just get out fast and bring it home.
“I started running track when I was in seventh grade, and people told me I was fast and that I should try out for an AAU team. But once I started I can’t tell you how many times I said I was going to quit. They use running as a form of punishment, you know? And I wasn’t used to all that hard work. It was a hard transition, but now I LOVE it.
“I’ve had three hamstring injuries in the past year, so I couldn’t do much work for either basketball or track. I think I had a re-occurrence because I didn’t get proper treatment at first. But the physical therapy I’m doing now has definitely made me stronger, and I do see some improvement in my running.”
Wright’s prior experience as a runner was strictly in individual events and she’s still adjusting to handoff techniques, although anchor runners only require one pass per race.
“It was a challenge, but I was excited to learn about handling the stick [baton],” she added. “The other girls are older so I just listen to them. This is a great team and I love them all.”
Wright’s presence has already helped Coach Gunter solidify his relay lineup with six weeks still left to fine-tune things before the Class 3A State finals. Even with Destonae Clark (hamstring injury) given the OK to resume running next week, it’s not likely she’ll be able to contribute on the relays at the end of the season, depending on how long it takes her to become 100% physically.
The Wildkits blew away the competition in all three races, winning the 1600 by three full seconds over runner-up Kenwood, and the 800 by more than four seconds over Homewood-Flossmoor.
“We wanted to see where we stand today against some teams with some pretty good pedigrees. I wanted to see how we’d run against Whitney Young and Kenwood because some of those girls ran indoors this year [with club teams],” said the ETHS coach.
“On the bus ride here they were very quiet, and that told me they were very focused. So far, so good when it comes to their response to good competition. This was a step in the right direction today.”
Calixte, one of just a handful of seniors on the roster, stormed to victory in the 300 hurdles in 46.71 seconds, a full hurdle faster than runnerup River Curry of Whitney Young (47.94). In the high jump, sophomore Tu cleared a personal best 4 feet, 11 inches, one of only three competitors to clear the opening heights.
Evanston’s foursome of Gabrielle Froum, Caroline Klearman, Ella Gutierrez, and Mollie Davis combined for a solid 10:26.73, good for second place in the 3200 relay. Froum added a third in the open 1600 (5:46.55), and Gutierrez placed fifth in the 800 in 2:36.71.
Junior Olivia Whatley recorded a second place finish in the shot put, at 9.79 meters, and Okreke added a third in the 100 hurdles in 15.28.