ETHS state championship 800-meter relay team, left to right: Jasmine Wright, Rikki Gray, Jacklynn Okereke and Dawson Wright. This is the first state relay title ETHS has won since 2010-11. (ETHS submitted photo)

Evanston head coach Fenton Gunter was involved in a season-long tug-of-war with his coaching staff when it comes to Jacklynn Okereke’s talents and just exactly where the junior standout could help the Wildkits most this spring.

Never bet against Gunter in a tug-of-war – or on the track, either.

The veteran coach’s decision to shift Okereke from the hurdles to relay events only paid big dividends Saturday at the Illinois High School Association Class 3A State track and field championships as the Wildkits captured their first State relay championship in 10 years.

Okereke’s strong second leg enabled ETHS to pull away for an impressive victory in the 800-meter relay, as the Kit unit of Rikki Gray, Jasmine Wright, Dawson Wright, and Okereke smoked the rest of the field with a winning time of 1 minute, 40.47 seconds on the Eastern Illinois University blue oval track.

Evanston also placed sixth in the 400-meter relay, and after a four-hour rain delay, claimed a runner-up finish in the 1600 relay. That marked the best overall relay performance at State for the Wildkits since the 2010-11 season and earned a tie for ninth place in the final team standings with 22 points, same as West Aurora.

Lincoln-Way East outscored Homewood-Flossmoor 56-50 for the team title by the end of the longest day in State meet history. The IHSA changed the format due to the coronavirus pandemic, as no preliminary races were conducted in what is usually a two-day meet.

Coach Gunter recognized  early in the year that keeping Okereke healthy would be a big plus for the Wildkits if they had any designs on postseason success – and they always do. The lanky junior had to deal with hamstring issues all year, a condition that was aggravated when she practiced the 110-meter hurdles or ran in competitions in that race.

The head coach finally called a halt to the debate prior to the conference meet.

“The assistant coaches kept telling me leave her in there, leave her in the hurdles,” Gunter recalled. “But every time I sent her over there [in practice] she’d tweak something else. She had to sit out for four weeks in April and I kept telling the other coaches because she’s so tall, she’s really a long hurdler, not a short hurdler. She’s been sprouting up since she was in sixth grade [Okereke is about 6 feet tall now] and she’s still learning to be an athlete.

“Finally I pulled a Coach May [former boys coach Willie May] on them. I said ‘Uh, uh, I’m the boss. She’s too valuable and she’s only going to run the relays.’”

Okereke’s split of 24.29 was her best of the season Saturday and she made up the stagger, allowing the Wildkits to eventually defeat runner-up Rich Township by more than a full second.

The win also helped Okereke wipe out the memory of her only other appearance at the Illinois High School Association finals. As a freshman, she qualified in the short hurdles but suffered a painful fall during the preliminary qualifying, banged up both knees, and wasn’t available to run any relays the next day.

“That fall was a bad one, but I tried to erase it from my head once we got down here,” she said. “I wasn’t going to let a bad experience get in my way today. I do like hurdling, and it was a bit irritating for me at first that I wasn’t running them at the sectional, because I could’ve won there. But I thought if the team needs me on the relays, then they need me there. I didn’t want to be selfish.

“It’s so exciting, so cool, to be the best in the whole state! We had to make so many changes this year [due to injuries] and we had to do the best we could with what we had left. But I knew we were ready for State. I was so happy, I used my last breath to cheer for Dawson on the anchor leg.”

Gray, another junior – all of Evanston’s relay runners will return to the lineup next year – competed on all three relays for the Orange and Blue. She teamed up with Jasmine Wright, Dawson Wright, and sophomore Mariah Gordon for a season-best time of 48.52 in the 400 relay – as the Kits moved from their 8th place seed to 6th place – and then finished off the long day combining with Okereke, Dawson Wright, and Kai Strickland for a 2nd place time of 3:57.72 in the 1600 race.

“I really wanted that State championship and we worked hard to get it,” Gray said. “I knew we could do it.”

The Kits were denied another relay title when Normal Community freshman Ali Ince came from almost nowhere to catch anchor Okereke with 5 meters left in the 1600 and snatched the victory. Okereke still turned in her best split of the season, in what turned out to be a tough defeat.

“It was really rough, having to wait so long to run that race. But I’m happy with what we did today,” said Gray. “At one point [during the delay] I just wanted to get that race over with.  But I’m not upset that we lost. I wanted first place – but good for her,” she said, referring to Ince, who won the 800 and 1600).

Fans who attended Saturday’s meet likely saw a future Olympian in the making in Ince.

“The people in California and Texas can talk all the junk they want about how good they are, but they should come up here and try to run against her. That’s a bad girl!” Coach Gunter raved. “We ran our best time in that race, with a brand new girl [Strickland] in there, and they had to come at get us at the finish. Our girl [Okereke] was hurting by then, but she really stood up for the team. That’s all we can ask.

“I think they’ve all got a lot to be proud of. They responded to everything the coaches asked of them, and they matured like we hoped they would. My hat’s off to them. There were a whole lot of ups and downs this year, and we all worked hard trying to get it right.

“And we got it right.”