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The members of the Evanston track coaching staff couldn’t have been more supportive when Vorn Ellis decided to resume his career in the sport as a senior.

But when the encouraging voice comes from a two-time state champion – telling you that you can be an impact performer for the Wildkits – that also rings true.

So credit former Evanston Township High School star Kalil Johnson, now one of the top freshman hurdlers in the country at the University of Iowa, for helping steer Ellis in the right direction, namely to the Class 3A Illinois High School Association state track and field finals set for next weekend at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.

Ellis’ determination and drive produced a first-place finish in the 400-meter dash, and he also helped Evanston advance two relays to the state finals following qualifying Thursday at the Glenbrook South Sectional meet. Joining Ellis as individual qualifiers for ETHS were Matt Cless in the high jump, Jalen James in the triple jump and Tim Russell in the shot put.

The top two finishers in each event, plus those who matched or bettered the established IHSA qualifying standards, punched tickets to compete on the blue oval track at EIU. Evanston finished fourth in the sectional team standings with 58 points, behind Glenbrook South (108), Prospect (91) and New Trier (74).

Ellis claimed the title with a closing burst in the 400 to win in 49.68 seconds, nosing out runner-up Dominik Balenda of Prospect by four hundredths of a second. The senior standout then teamed up with Miles Granjean, Cless and Skyler Lee for an upset victory in the 1600 relay in 3:22.70. His anchor leg split of 48.93 helped secure the win over Glenbrook South, second in 3:23.73.

The team of Ellis, Lee, Granjean and Cless also ran second in the 400 relay with a qualifying effort of 42.65.

Ellis and Johnson have been in frequent contact since the start of the season and the former Kit star’s pep talks definitely influenced Ellis, giving him a confidence boost whenever his spirits might have sagged.

“Kalil kept telling me to stick with it, that I had a lot in me, so I just wanted to show what I’ve got today,” said Ellis. “I definitely expected [the 400-meter title] because I wanted it so bad. I knew I had more in me, I knew I was somewhere in the top tier in the state. And if the race was close, I was gonna get it! I just didn’t want anyone to beat me. I’m pretty sure I have the most determination in the state, and the best way to show that was down the straightaway. I gave it everything I’ve got.”

Ellis sprinted past three other contenders in the last 200 meters, catching Balenda in the final 10 meters for the victory.

The diminutive senior proved to be the final piece to the team’s relay puzzle following his win in the 400 at the Central Suburban League South division meet. Until then, head coach Don Michelin Sr. was more inclined to run Ellis in the open 200, a move that could have prevented him from competing in all three sprint relays.

“I had a dilemma all year, but Vorn did all these great things and each week he showed me what he was capable of,” said the veteran coach. “After being off for two years, he had to get back into racing shape. Now, he’s sharp. Vorn Ellis and Matt Cless are something special. They always seem to make things OK for us – not by big talking, but by performing. Those fellas in front of Vorn [in the 1600 relay] kept things close so he could do the job at the end. Give guys like Vorn and Matt a chance and they’ll perform very, very well. They’ll do whatever the coaching staff asks of them.”

That relay victory at the conclusion of the meet helped the Wildkits get over the pain of a botched handoff that prevented them from qualifying in the 800 relay too. The Kits were running third after legs by Granjean and Chase Cubia, but botched the next-to-last handoff and didn’t finish the race.

Cless, as expected, won the high jump at 1.80 meters but admitted that he was more focused on the races on the track on Thursday. As usual, he didn’t enter the high jump competition until just about everyone else was already eliminated, and shrugged off the fact that he didn’t surpass the next height.

“I didn’t jump this whole week [based on the coach’s decision to rest him] and I didn’t like my timing today. I couldn’t get my adrenaline going,” he said. “I just did the job today and I’m OK with that. State is what matters. I still have something to prove at state, but I haven’t lost the high jump all year and the others [challengers] know who I am. They know I like to win and I just like to jump until no one else is left. At the end of the day, I just want to win.

“I was pretty emotional before the 4 x 400 and I was really upset about the DQ [disqualified], but I had to move on. I didn’t know my body was even capable of that [51.03] split!”

James earned an automatic state berth with a best leap of 13.35 meters, about 43 feet, 8 inches. That mark was a season best for the Kit senior, good enough to advance behind the event winner, Clinton Ofosu of Loyola Academy, who topped the field at 13.67.

Russell was one of four state qualifiers in the shot put, earning fourth place with a best toss of 16.06 meters (52′ 8″). But he fell short in his bid to become a rare Wildkit thrower to qualify in both the shot and discus in the same year, settling for third in the discus at 42.95. That was short of the qualifying mark of 46.71.

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