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Evanston’s coaching staff and girls track athletes don’t just talk about putting team first every spring.

That’s a philosophy that everyone involved in the program has to embrace, no matter the cost.

That attitude was reinforced again Thursday at the Class 3A Loyola Academy Sectional meet when junior Rikki Gray was called on to sacrifice a possible individual title in the 200-meter dash.

One of her teammates wasn’t available at the last minute, so Gray was scratched from the 200 to run the next event, the 1600-meter relay.

Gray didn’t pout or sulk about that lost individual opportunity. Instead, she teamed up with Dawson Wright, Kai Strickland and Jacklynn Okereke to capture first place in 3 minutes, 58.89 seconds and helped the Wildkits post the fastest qualifying time statewide for next week’s Illinois High School Association state finals.

Evanston won the 800 relay — also in the state’s fastest time, 1:41.85 — and qualified automatically with a runnerup finish in the 400 relay in 48.74. None of the Wildkits advanced as individuals as ETHS settled for 6th place in the 14-team sectional field with 41 points.

Veteran head coach Fenny Gunter also pulled Okereke, who had the 3rd fastest seed time, out of the open 400 in an effort to bolster his relay lineups. The strategy paid off, even though it may have cost Gray a state individual medal.

Now the talented junior, who also ran on the other two state qualifying relays, will focus on putting her best foot forward to try to help the Wildkits score some relay points at the 3A finals at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston June 12.

“They were lining up for the first heat in the 200 (Gray was entered in Heat No. 4) when I had a quick conversation with Jesse (assistant coach Jesse Sibert),” said Gunter. “We factored in some things and then we decided. We figured we wouldn’t run quick enough in the relay without her, and we didn’t want to kill her and have her run both races (200 and 1600 relay) back to back.

“Rikki is definitely one of the top 9 girls in the state in the 200, but for right now, it’s team over individual. We need all hands on board in the relays. We needed to finish up today on a good note.”

“Since May 1 we have faced nothing but challenges, one fire after another, but fortunately we’ve been able to extinguish them. The kids and the coaching staff have done as a good a job as they can as a group, and they all really responded today.”

“I found out just before I was supposed to run the 200, and yes, I was a little upset,” Gray explained. “But I was happy to do whatever the team needed to qualify for State. If I had the choice, I still would have picked the relay. I’m only a junior and I can be patient. I didn’t want to let the others down. I feel like if you’re part of a relay, you have to be committed to that relay.

“I felt like I could have won the 200 today, for sure. But we’ll place higher in the relay at State than I would have in the 200.”

Gray’s unselfishness can be traced back to her freshman season, when she ran well in the preliminaries at State in the 800 and 1600 relays but didn’t perform well the next day. Only later did Gunter and his staff learn that she was suffering from aching shins that couldn’t stand up to the test on consecutive days.

“I just felt I had to do it for the team last time we were there, so I didn’t say anything,” she shrugged. “This year I’ve learned I should tell them when I’m not feeling good. I haven’t had any issues with it this year.

“When we were finally able to start training again this year (after a layoff forced by the coronavirus pandemic) I felt like we trained harder than ever. It’s definitely been a tough season.”

Thursday, Gray turned in the fastest split in the 1600 (58.05) running the second leg behind Dawson Wright. Okereke’s anchor leg finished off the win in 59.14 as the Kits smoked runneup Loyola by almost 5 seconds.

In the 4 x 200 relay, Gray led off the race in 24.85 and the Kits raced to victory as she combined with Okereke, Wright and Wright to beat Glenbrook South, the runnerup in 1:42.64. That win partly made up for the loss in the 4 x 100 relay, where ETHS was clocked in 48.74 to GBS’ 48.54 effort. Evanston’s team consisted of Gray, Wright, Wright and sophomore Mariah Gordon.

Gordon also scored in her two individual races to help boost Evanston’s team total. She placed 3rd in the open 100, in 13.01, and came back to win her heat in the 200 and earned 5th overall with a personal best time of 27.44.

Central Suburban League South division champion Olivia Whatley struggled in the shot put, scratching on her first 3 attempts and settling for 4th place overall with a best toss of 10.55 meters. Also scoring for the Kits was sophomore Keira Tu, 6th in the high jump at 1.45.