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The belief among the members of the girls track coaching staff at Evanston is that injuries were the only reason Abrielle Artley didn’t qualify for the Illinois High School Association state finals as a sophomore.

But no hurdler in the state has made bigger strides so far this year – and it’s only April.

Competing in one of the toughest events there is to master in the sport, the 300-meter hurdles, Artley bettered the established IHSA state qualifying standard for the second week in a row and won the event at the wind-swept and chilly Kankakee Kays Coed Invitational meet on Saturday.

Artley’s time of 46.19 seconds ranks as one of the state’s best performances so far. She accounted for one of three individual wins earned by the Wildkits on their way to a third place finish in the girls team standings with 70 points, behind only Kankakee (105) and Chicago Kenwood (101) among the 16 teams competing.

Lauren Dain breezed to the title in the 3200 meter run with a time of 11 minutes, 47.45 seconds, and Maidison Hardamon won the 200 in 26.54. ETHS also counted runnerup finishes from Artley in the 100 hurdles (15.12), Oliva Whatley in the shotput (best throw of 39 feet, 4 inches) and in the 400 relay (49.44), 800 relay (1:44.25) and 3200 relay (10:59.27).

Artley’s prowess as a 400-meter runner played into the decision by the ETHS staff to move her to the hurdles. That combination of stamina and endurance, plus the ability to learn the technique involved, has propelled the ETHS junior to a pair of 300 wins in as many tries this spring.

In some states she’d already be a state qualifier with an in-season time that makes the grade. But Illinois isn’t one of those states, and that fact will help keep the ETHS standout both humble and working toward a strong finish to the season.

“Last year was a setback for me [due to a knee injury], but it was an opportunity for me to get my mindset right and that helped me set some goals. I had a lot of motivation in my environment and that helped me push forward,” said Artley, who is the daughter of ETHS assistant track coach Tranquil Wilson.

“I still struggle a lot with stutter steps [hesitation right before each hurdle barrier] and I still need to be more aggressive. That’s something I need to work on. I’m really an introvert, I’m kinda quiet, so it’s a really big adjustment for me to attack like that and to be aggressive. I’m a Christian and I’ve learned to stay humble because of that, so I’ve just got to keep working to get better and not get ahead of myself.”

So far, not many runners have been ahead of her. Her loss in the shorter race Saturday came against the defending Class 2A state champion Brianna Dixon of Rantoul.

“I think she could have been a state qualifier last year, but she had so many injuries she just couldn’t get anything going,” pointed out Evanston head coach Fenny Gunter. “She came in with not a lot of running experience, not in [Amateur Athletic Union] or nationals, just everything low-key. Now she’s locked in and this is something she really wants to do. Her mother was an All-American [at Nebraska] and All-State (at Evanston), so it’s in her blood.

“Every time she gets a chance to run, she gets more experience and she gets more comfortable. She ran close to that really good girl [Dixon] and she dropped a full second in the 300 and really ran it with some confidence. She’s really starting to understand  that you have to be aggressive and pick [opponents] off.”

Dain delivered a victory for the Wildkits in the 3200 and lapped most of the rest of the field. Second place finisher Madeline Mellin of Bradley-Bourbonnais was clocked in 13:36.87. And Hardamon, who dropped out of the open 400 and was just expected to put in some turnover work at the end of the meet, instead topped two Kankakee runners to take top honors in the 200.

Gunter also pulled his squad out of the 1600 relay after a long and chilly day, wiping out a scheduled confrontation with Kenwood in that event, but the Wildkits did finish second in three other relays.

The veteran coach entered seed times in both the 400 and 800 that didn’t qualify for spots in the fastest heats at the invite, but the Kits still pulled off runnerup finishes in both. The 800 unit of Rikki Gray, Jacklynn Okereke, Dystonae Clark and Kai Strickland posted a time of 1:44.25 and trailed only Kenwood’s 1:43.77 and both marks are already under the state qualifying time of 1:44.87.

Gunter insisted that he wasn’t sand-bagging the rest of the field by intentionally submitting slow times. He’s still trying to determine the best fits for each relay and is sticking to his pre-season vow to put the emphasis on individual events this spring.

Hardamon, anchoring that race for the first time in her career, combined with Gray, Okereke and Clark in the 400. The 3200 runner-up foursome included Hannah Finkelstein, Caroline Klearman, Sophie Milner-Gorvine and Kendall Jack.

“There are a couple of teams here that are super fast and have run [together] a few times more than we have. I didn’t want to get into a bragging rights thing here today, or make the relays a priority,” said Gunter. “We just wanted the work. It’s still trial and error in the relays and we still have plenty of room for improvement. No matter what foursome we run, we tell them they have to be competitive.”

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