The next time someone taps Fenny Gunter on the shoulder, don’t be surprised if the Evanston girls track coach experiences a strong case of déjà vu.
You can’t blame Gunter. He’ll always remember a tap that led to a gold medal performance.
Senior Dystonae Clark shook off an ailing hamstring and helped the Wildkits to a first place finish and a school record in the 1600-meter relay race on a soggy Saturday at the Class 3A Illinois High School Association state championship meet at Eastern Illinois University.
Clark teamed up with Abrielle Artley, Rikki Gray and Jacklynn Okereke to set a blistering pace and won the title in 3 minutes, 47.45 seconds in a driving rainstorm. That sizzling effort wiped out the previous ETHS record of 3:48.67 and now ranks as the fifth fastest clocking all-time in state history.
That fantastic – and wet – finish propelled the Wildkits to fourth place in the team standings. Gunter’s squad fell two points short in their pursuit of a state trophy, totaling 41 points behind Chicago Whitney Young (53), Homewood-Flossmoor (44) and Prospect (43). Prospect’s second-place finish behind that record effort by ETHS in the 1600 relay clinched a trophy and denied the Kits.
Evanston has scored more top 10 state team finishes than any track program in Illinois, boys or girls. On Saturday, the Wildkits added a second by the 800 relay team, a fourth in the 400 relay, a second by Artley in the 300 hurdles, and a fourth (open 400) and a seventh (200) by senior Maidson Hardamon to reach that total.
Gunter has juggled all of the sprint relay lineups all spring amongst a group of about seven or eight girls. So when Clark complained to assistant coach Tranquil Wilson about a sore hamstring following her leg of the 800 relay, the veteran coach was set to replace Clark with junior Dawson Wright as Plan B.
Turns out, he just switched back to Plan A that included Clark as the No. 2 sprinter in the lineup.
“After the 4 x 200, Dystonae said her lower leg was really tight. So we rubbed her down, she jogged a little, but she didn’t convince Ms. Wilson that she was ready to go. So we said you’re out, we’re going to put Dawson in there,” Gunter said.
“But as we started walking over to the track [from the EIU fieldhouse] I felt this tap on my shoulder. It was Dystonae and she said ‘I can do it.’ With all of the stuff she’s been through over the past four years, I thought, if anybody deserves to finish up as a champion, it’s her. So we put her back in there.”
Clark responded in championship fashion and the Wildkits won the race by 10 seconds over Prospect. Leadoff runner Artley set the tone with the fastest individual split, in 55.92, followed by Gray (56.35), Okereke (56.50) and Clark (57.65). Only the wet and sloppy track conditions prevented Evanston from making a more serious challenge to the state record of 3:44.9 set by East St. Louis Lincoln back in 1984.
Hamstring issues prevented Clark from landing a relay spot at state for ETHS as a junior and she wasn’t going to let her final opportunity slip away Saturday.
“In the past I’ve backed out of some races because I was hurt or intimidated,” Clark confessed. “This time, I believed in myself and I stuck it out. That relay has put in a lot of hard work, a lot of effort, and it was great to see it pay off.
“We were going for that state record today and I’m really proud of how close we came. It really meant a lot to me to be able to perform like that in my last race. This is really my first year running the 4 x 400. Seeing [teammates] run so many quick times was a little intimidating and sometimes it was hard for me to feel I could run those times, too.”
The current 1600 unit knocked both the 2007 (Amber Jackson, Brittany Tolar, Leah Schenkier, Adrienne Slaughter) and 1997 (Lashon Kennedy, Tameeka McFarlane, Theresa Ezenwa, Keiryn Phillips) teams out of the ETHS record book. Both those groups turned in identical times of 3:48.67.
“Getting that school record is amazing!” exclaimed Artley, the only junior in the group. “Right now I have such mixed emotions, running with these seniors, it’s joyful, sad, happy, excited. I’m just so glad we were able to push through today and perform our best.”
Artley had to overcome her personal disappointment after placing second to long-time rival Ana-Liese Torian of Homewood-Flossmoor in the 300 hurdles. The pair were almost even until Artley hit the third-to-last hurdle and stumbled to a second place finish in 44.04 to Torian’s 42.88.
“I really felt like I could have gotten first,” said Artley, who never competed in the race prior to this spring. “A mistake is a mistake. Second place isn’t so bad, and I’ve come so far this year. I still have some things to work on in the 300, and I’m proud to see where I’ll go next.”
Evanston owned the fastest time in the 800 relay coming out of Friday’s preliminaries, but Saturday it was Whitney Young that claimed first place with a time of 1:40.06. The ETHS foursome of Gray, Okereke, Clark and Wright ran the identical time (1:41.87) as in the prelims.
Young earlier had won the gold medal in the 400 relay, but a photo finish among the other challengers left the Wildkits wondering where they placed for almost two hours because of a weather delay that halted the competition. The final accounting found the unit of Gray, Okereke, Clark and Hardamon earning fourth in 48.86, a move up from the prelim rankings that had the Kits in fifth. Only five-hundredths of a second separated ETHS from the second and third place finishers.
Hardamon contributed big points in the 200 (seventh in 25.45) and 400 (fourth in 56.97) in her only season in a Wildkit uniform. She transferred in to Evanston after qualifying for State in the 400 last year at Lincoln Park, competing there for a program that didn’t even have a track facility to practice on.
She proved that she belonged in the Evanston family by rising to the occasion on the final day of the season just like many Wildkits have in the past.
“Maidson left her heart and soul out there in 200, she did a heckuva job on the 400 relay, she really contributed in all three races,” praised Gunter. “She learned a lot this year and I’m really proud of her. We’ve never had a girl transfer in here for just one year and everything we did was all new to her. We tried to cram in a lot – and maybe it got to be too much, so we backed off a little and gave her some room to grow.
“After that, she didn’t miss a beat and she really showed what she’s made of. It’s great to see her walking around with that medal on her neck.”
“That 56 today was a big [personal record]. I thought I was sixth or seventh in the race and I didn’t know until about 30 minutes after the race that I got fourth, so that was a good feeling,” Hardamon said.
“I got a lot of lessons this year about discipline, about being patient. I’m used to tough love because my Dad was really my coach for most of my life. So I think I work best under pressure,” she said. “But it’s such a difference from last year to this year. Last year, it was just me and my parents (at state). Being part of a family, and knowing you just have to do your part, plus learning from all these experienced coaches makes you feel unstoppable.”
Evanston’s other qualifiers, seniors Jasmine Wright and Oliva Whatley, were eliminated in the prelims on Friday. Wright, who battled injuries all year, posted times in the open 100 (12.32) and 200 (27.62) that didn’t come close to reaching the finals.
Whatley had the distinction of being a rare two-event qualifier for ETHS in the throws, but could only muster best tosses of 11.44 meters in the shot put and 32.90 meters in the discus and fell short of advancing.