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Focus and determination can take you a long way in high school athletics.
Kalil Johnson used that formula – along with his remarkable talent – to rise to the top Saturday at the Illinois High School Association Class 3A state track and field finals at Eastern Illinois University.
Johnson blazed his way to a pair of hurdles championships, in the 110-meter and 300-meter events on the blue oval at EIU. The Evanston senior became only the third competitor in ETHS track and field history to score two hurdles wins at the same State championship meet, duplicating the feats of James Ashmore (1958) and Robert McGee (1979).
How significant is that accomplishment? Both of those athletes are members of the ETHS Hall of Fame.
Johnson’s two victories and a third-place finish by junior Matt Cless in the high jump powered the Wildkits to a 6th place finish in the team standings, their best finish since a runnerup effort in 2015. Evanston scored 27 points, only nine fewer than State champion Neuqua Valley in one of the closest team races ever in the big school category.
Johnson’s winning time of 14.01 seconds in the 110 hurdles was a career best and the second fastest time in school history. He also posted a personal best time of 38.08 on his way to collecting another gold medal in the 300 hurdles.
How good was the day for the ETHS senior? In between races, he received a text from the University of Iowa that he was being upgraded to a full scholarship next year after previously committing to the school for a partial scholarship.
That news didn’t distract Johnson for his final race of the day, the 300 hurdles. Instead, he fought off his toughest challenge of the season – racing past Gabe Czako of Lockport and Jalen Johnson of Metea Valley – and completed a season in which he was unbeaten in both the short and long hurdles.
Denied a chance to win a State title as a junior due to the coronavirus pandemic, Johnson was driven to succeed in his final year of high school racing and wasn’t about to be denied on Saturday.
“It wasn’t too hard for me to stay focused,” he said, after catching his breath. “I had one goal, to finish unbeaten and be a two-time state champion, because I missed out last season. My focus never changed all season.
“When Coach Woody texted me [after the 110 win] and said great job, a time like that earns you a scholarship, I was so surprised. I didn’t expect that. That just pumped me up and I knew I had to go all out for my last race. I didn’t get out as fast as I should have, but this was my last time running for the Orange and Blue and I knew I had to dig down and fight. I had to fight through everything. I heard [assistant coach Kevin Caines] voice saying ‘pick it up!’ and I knew I had to start moving.
“It feels so good right now. If you train hard and fight hard and trust yourself, you can accomplish a lot.”
“What a great day to be a Wildkit!” exclaimed veteran ETHS head coach Don Michelin Sr. “I’m so proud of Kalil and Matt. You have to give credit to our coaching staff, especially Coach [Joey] Caines, who gave Kalil a clear vision of what he had to do to succeed. He told Kalil he had the ability to win two State championships, if he was willing to work hard, and Kalil was all in on that. That’s maturity, and that’s the difference between winning a State championship – and not winning. He kept his focus all year long.
“We’ve had some great hurdlers here at Evanston, but Kalil is something special. He’s in that conversation with Bob McGee now.”
Johnson, who earlier this year was designated as the winner (and the $500 scholarship money that goes with the honor) of the ETHS Coaches’ Award for the top senior contributor in the program, had to overcome slow starts in both races to claim gold.
That mishap at the start of the 110 race likely cost him a chance to break the 14-second barrier, one of his goals all season.
“I wanted to be in the 13s, but the [starting] block slipped at the start and it affected me a lot,” he said. “I don’t usually have someone around me [competing] by the first hurdle, and I had to pick up the pace because of that. I hit a couple of hurdles, too.”
Johnson’s focus was tested in a variety of ways during his career. He has dealt with hamstring issues ever since his sophomore year, had to train on his own during the pandemic quarantine, and stayed true to his work ethic at the end of his senior year even though the State finals were held a full five weeks after the Class of 2021 had graduated.
Coach Michelin personally guided Johnson through regular swimming pool workouts on an-almost daily basis over the past three years to help strengthen those hamstrings and pulled him off the State qualifying 400-meter relay team Saturday in order to help keep his legs fresh.
The Wildkit team of freshman Jeremiah Schwartz, senior Chris Tchibozo, senior Afandi Oraelosi and sophomore Jordan Crumpton was unable to match the sectional championship time of 42.88 achieved with Johnson in the lineup, and settled for 44.12 to place 21st overall.
Cless continued his Cinderella season, but like that old Tom Petty song, learned that the waiting is the hardest part of competing at the State finals. Illinois High School Association officials bunched all 38 of the high jumpers together in one flight – instead of the usual two or three flights – and that meant long delays between jumps while most of the qualifiers failed to make even the starting height of 1.85 meters.
Cless, who had the best jump in Illinois coming out of the sectional at 2.0 meters, could only clear 1.98 meters on Saturday and trailed both champion Rob Pulliam of Moline (2.06) and Charlie Nolan of Normal West (1.98, fewer misses than Cless).
All three standouts are juniors but Cless’ remarkable progress in a sport he’d never even tried until two months ago showed that he may have the most potential in that group.
“You saw Matt Cless grow up today,” Coach Michelin praised. “There were a couple of times he could have folded, but he didn’t. When you come to State you have to bring something from inside of you, it’s not what the coaches do. That’s what he did today. He’ll have a full year to work on it now, not just two months, and if he shores up a couple of things in the triple jump, he’ll have two outstanding events next year.”
Cless’ lack of experience in big meets kept him from establishing his usual rhythm and cost him a pair of misses at 1.90 meters (about 6 feet, 2-plus inches) before he kept his bid alive by clearing it on his final try.
“I’m mad right now. You always want to win,” he said. “But this guy from Moline [Pulliam] is just insane and he’s been doing it for a lot longer than I have. I can’t complain about finishing in the top three in the State, I guess. But I think next year it will be a different story.
“I struggled at the lower heights today. It was hard to get into a rhythm when you jump, and then have to wait 20 or 30 minutes to jump again. I’m not used to that. I’d get my adrenaline going, and then it would die down. I just had too many misses at the lower heights. I was hoping to knock them all out.
“I have a whole year to get ready now. I just need more reps – a lot more reps – and I’ll be back in the weight room in the off-season, too. I want it to be a different story next year.”