The ETHS girls track team captures their first Illinois IHSA championship since 2014.

Bumps in the road aren’t enough to slow down the members of the Evanston girls track team.

The Wildkits proved that again, in convincing fashion, and captured their first Illinois High School Association Class 3A sectional meet championship since 2014 on Wednesday at Deerfield.

Three relay titles and three individuals who accounted for multiple state qualifying spots added up to 99 points for ETHS, ahead of 95 for runner-up New Trier in the 16-team field. The champs set the qualifying pace for next weekend’s IHSA state finals at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, advancing three relays and claiming seven individual spots for that competition.

A sizzling finish to the first warm spring afternoon of the outdoor season featured Evanston’s 1600-meter relay team, as the unit of Abrielle Artley, Dystonae Clark, Rikki Gray and Jackie Okereke set a blistering pace with a winning time of 3 minutes, 49.66 seconds. That’s only one second slower than the existing school record at ETHS and a whopping 16 seconds faster than runner-up Loyola Academy and secured the team title as New Trier ran third in the same race.

Abrielle Artley hurdles to victory. Credit: Tameeka McFarlane

“I know I said this a couple of weeks ago, but even I don’t really know how fast we are,” said Evanston head coach Fenny Gunter. “This is a meet we NEEDED to win, especially for this group of [five] seniors who have been with us for four years. They earned this opportunity to go into what was potentially their last meet with just a little extra [at stake]. They really hung in there today. We hit a couple of bumps in the road, but we kept our composure.”

That wasn’t always easy for runners like Jasmine Wright and Artley, whose comebacks from injuries and adversity dominated the story line for the Wildkits Wednesday.

Wright (100 meters, 200 meters), Maidson Hardamon (200, 400) and Olivia Whatley (shot put, discus) punched tickets to the state finals in multiple events, and Artley won the 300 hurdle championship after hitting a hurdle in the 100-meter race, falling and failing to place.

The six seniors from left to right, top to bottom: Jasmine Wright, Dystonae Clark, Olivia Whatley, Jackie Okereke, Madison Hardamon and Rikki Gray.

Evanston’s victorious relay entries featured Gray, Okereke, Clark and Hardamon in the 400 in a season best 48.57; and Gray, Okereke, Clark and Kai Strickland in the 800 in 1:42.08, another season best. The Wildkits are the defending state champs in the 800 relay.

Wright’s patience in dealing with a recurring hamstring injury, plus the patience of the ETHS coaching staff that ignored the temptation to rush her back into the lineup, paid off with a championship Wednesday. The senior sprinter won the open 100 in 12.55 seconds and came back to take second in the 200 in 26.14, behind teammate Hardamon’s 25.67.

Now she might even be in the mix to contribute a leg on the 4×100 or 4×200 relays next week at EIU.

“I’m tired, but I feel good about being able to perform today,” said Wright, a Washington University recruit. “This is only the second or third meet I’ve run outdoors, but I’m good to go now.

“I’ve had this hamstring problem forever [diagnosed this year as a bruised hamstring]. I was able to come back from it my junior year and then I had another minor setback at the end of the indoor season. The timeline was so close, and the season’s so short, and I was really worried that I wouldn’t be ready by the end of my senior year. I was really motivated to rehab and get better.

“I had about five weeks where I didn’t even really practice because I didn’t want to overdo it. When I got hurt my freshman year, I came back too soon – I was pretty eager to run – and I wasn’t patient enough. I learned from that past experience and this time I knew better. Today, I wanted to do well and still be relatively cautious and make sure I was all set for the state finals. I still have room to drop time.”

“Jasmine and Dawson [Wright, no relation] have gone through a lot with their injuries and we just wanted to get them on the track today,” Gunter said. “They trusted in the coaches to help them get back healthier and the support they got from their teammates goes a long way too. I don’t know yet if we’ll use Jasmine on a relay at state. We want to give her a scenario where she can have some success in the 100 first.”

Artley faltered in the short hurdle race, where she was seeded No. 1. She hit a hurdle and tumbled about 20 meters from the finish, but bounced back from that adversity while living up to the legacy established by some of the past legendary Wildkit hurdlers who also endured mishaps, then rose to the occasion again.

Her winning time of 43.47 in the 300 hurdles should make even the defending 3A state champion from Homewood-Flossmoor sit up and take notice. And Artley didn’t stop there, contributing the fastest leg (about 55.3 seconds) on the 1600 relay in a determined bid to wipe out that early failure.

Putting past mistakes behind her is a lesson the talented junior seems to have learned quickly.

“What I’ve learned is that you can’t let what happened in the past affect the future. I’ve learned I just have to look forward to the next event,” said Artley. “This is my first year running the short hurdles and I guess it’s just not my time yet. I still have another year to go, and it was very important that I just move on from that race.

“Running like that on the relay reminds me of just how much strength I have left, and to keep pushing forward with whatever’s left in the tank. It helps me maintain my aggression running that relay, and that’s very good for me.”

“Shalina Clarke fell. Margaret Bamgbose fell. Then they regrouped and moved on to the next race,” said Gunter. “This program has owned the 300 hurdles at state and that’s our tradition here. No one expects anything less. It’s your turn, so you handle it. It’s a legacy in that event for us and there’s no time for grieving. When you mess up, you have to have a short-term memory and move on to the next event.”

Hardamon, a transfer from Lincoln Park, topped the field in the 200 in 25.67. She was edged out at the finish line by Riley Franz of Zion-Benton by a margin of 58.14 to 58.16 in the 400, but advanced to state in that event for the second year in a row.

Dawson Wright ran third for ETHS in 59.38, but couldn’t match the state qualifying standard of 59.18. Also contributing for the Wildkits on the track was senior Lauren Dain, sixth in the 3200 in 11:42.76.

Whatley settled for second best in both the shot and discus, behind New Trier nemesis Maeve Kelly in both events, but became the first Evanston thrower since Rianna Lynn back in 2004 to advance to state in both events in the same year.

Whatley’s top discus throw Wednesday reached 37.14 meters, or about 122 feet, a personal best by more than 20 feet. She was only seeded fourth in that event, but pre-meet favorite Samarah Souffrant of Loyola Academy fouled on her first two attempts and didn’t make the finals. Kelly’s winning toss was 40.09 meters.

In the shot, Kelly held the upper hand with a best throw of 13.21 meters to 12.05 (39½ feet) for Whatley.

“I certainly didn’t expect to do that in the discus,” said the Evanston senior. “I’ve been working a lot on my technique, and on staying relaxed, and it worked. I really only work on the discus about 30 minutes a day in practice [compared with 90 in the shot]. I was more aggressive in front today and kept the disc back longer, so I got a little more pull.

“I want to get to 42 in the shot next week. I’ve been at 41 and 41½ consistently in practice, but today my technique wasn’t the best. I could have stayed back a little longer. Next week I’m going to go full out after it.”

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