How close was Evanston’s track team to scoring an upset at the Central Suburban League South division championship meet Friday on the new blue oval at ETHS?
The difference was between 300 meters — and a flinch. Take your pick.
A disqualification for a false start in the second race of the day, the 400-meter relay, brought on an uphill battle for the Wildkits, and Glenbrook South anchor runner George Dornan chased down his rivals from both ETHS and Niles West in the final 300 meters of the 1600 relay for a come-from-behind win that delivered South’s first conference team championship in boys track since 1987.
GBS finished with 141 points to 135 for Evanston. New Trier (105), defending champion Maine South (65), Niles West (60) and Glenbrook North (50) followed in order.
That false start will haunt veteran Wildkit coach Don Michelin Sr. until Evanston wins another league title. But he couldn’t fault his team’s effort, led by double hurdles winner Kalil Johnson and a host of his teammates who ran faster than their seeds and established season and personal bests.
The Kits never quit after digging that early hole for themselves.
And long-time fans of the program may have trouble considering it an upset any time there’s a championship on the line for ETHS among conference schools, but Evanston was out-performed badly by both GBS and New Trier at the Deerfield Invitational last month and hadn’t shown signs they were ready to make a serious challenge even on their own turf on a warm and windy Friday.
“We were wearing Evanston uniforms that day, but that wasn’t Evanston,” Michelin declared. “It hurts bad to lose like that today, but we talk a lot about character as coaches, and you saw some real character out there today. The way our kids battled was really something. This is the reason you coach, to see that dig-down character in your kids.
“Our fellas held the lead as long as they could in that last race. Give GBS all the credit in the world, because they didn’t back into it, they won it.”
Johnson, Kevin Thomas and sophomore Boaz Lieberman provided an early edge in the final race for ETHS before Dornan kicked it home for the Titans, who were clocked in 3:33 flat. Niles West was 2nd in 3:33.41, with Evanston fading to 3rd at 3:34.33.
The hosts counted a pair of individual victories from Johnson, who again ran without any competition to win the 110 hurdles (in 14.30 seconds) and 300 hurdles (personal best 38.60), and one from junior Matt Cless in the high jump (6 feet, 4 inches or 1.92 meters). They stayed in contention in the team race with a display of depth that featured 7 runnerup efforts, usually in events where they were seeded lower.
Johnson couldn’t crack the 14 second mark in the short hurdles race, even with a stiff wind at his back, but still won easily. He came back in the longer race and showed why he’ll be on the short list of state championship contenders in Class 3A in the state of Illinois after posting the quickest time to date in the 300 — with no one near him at the finish. Runnerup Ryan Schaefer of Glenbrook South was almost a full 3 seconds behind him.
“I think Kalil is right on course,” said Michelin about his star hurdler. “He’s doing everything right (to prepare for the sectional and State), and he’s a once-in-a-lifetime runner. He’s a special guy.”
“I’m still upset that we lost right now,” said Johnson, who was slated to run a leg of that 400 relay. “I wanted to get that conference championship back. Most of our guys did what we had to do after we messed up in the 4 x 100.
“Winning conference (in the hurdles) is a big deal for me, but I’m also looking at the end goal. I know I just have to take it 1 step at a time. It feels good to win conference, but I still want this feeling for the next 2 weeks, too.”
High jump champion Cless, who also earned runnerup honors in the triple jump, and sprinter Chris Tchibozo had their best days wearing the Orange and Blue so far. Tchibozo ran 2nd in the 400 meters (personal best 50.94), 2nd in the 200 (personal best 22.17), and 2nd in the 100 (11.22, another PR).
And Cless? He still has some improvement to make for the leap to the state qualifying standards, but right now he ranks as the “most improved” jumper in the state of Illinois.
After winning the high jump, Cless topped his previous personal best all 4 times in the triple jump, with a best effort of 13.09 meters. He was beaten out for the title by GBS’ Stefan West, who soared 13.27.
Not bad for a rookie in the sport who decided at 6-foot-5 that he didn’t want to play basketball anymore. He’s tackling two of the most difficult areas of track where mastering — and then maintaining — technique can be a daily challenge.
“I got tired of playing basketball and I wanted to try something new,” he said. “When you’re doing something for the first time, obviously there are some growing pains. In our first meet at Kankakee (in the high jump) I failed at 5-4. Now, my STARTING height is 5-11. I’ve improved a foot in just a month. I’m starting to figure out my form and I’m hoping to get to 6-6 or 6-8 consistently by the end of the year. That’s my goal.
“The coaches just kinda threw me into the triple jump when I first came out, and I don’t practice it very much. I’m not really comfortable with it yet, but if I can improve my 2nd jump (middle portion of the event), I could add 3 feet. I’m getting there.”
“Everything Matt Cless does is impressive to me,” Michelin praised. “He’s a joy to coach and now I think he really loves the sport. He’s enjoying it and he’s already learned so much. Next year, we’re thinking of introducing him to the hurdles. He’s a real competitor who loves the sport, and loves the pressure, too.”
Another junior, Tim Russell, contributed 2nd place finishes in the shot put (13.38 meters) and discus (39.49). Aaron Hutchins added a runnerup effort in the 110 hurdles, in 15.86.