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CHARLESTON, IL — Ever since he was young, Matt Cless has dreamed of a career as a commercial airline pilot.

No one flew higher than the Evanston senior here Saturday at the Illinois High School Association Class 3A state track and field finals hosted by Eastern Illinois University.

Cless climaxed his unlikely climb in the sport – from basketball bench warmer to state track champion in two short years – by capturing the high jump state championship with a leap of 2.02 meters, or 6 feet, 7.5 inches.

The irrepressible senior improved on his 3rd place finish at State a year ago and helped the Wildkits earn a tie for 14th place in the team standings with 20 points. He teamed with Miles Granjean, Skyler Lee and Vorn Ellis for a 3rd place finish in the 1600-meter relay with a season best time of 3 minutes, 21.42 seconds, and Ellis placed 7th overall in the 400 for ETHS.

Cless is only the sixth individual from Evanston to win the state high jump crown in the long history of the competition, joining Dave Evans (1919), Don Calhoun (1946), Steve Campbell (1966), Ben Gaines (1967) and Nat Page (1974 and 1975). He soared above a field that included last year’s state champion, Rob Pulliam of Moline, and the defending state runner-up, Jonovan Findley of Normal West.

The lanky ETHS senior had to deal with rainy conditions that limited him to just one (successful) qualifying jump during the preliminaries Friday, May 27. Meet officials moved the other high jump flights indoors, resulting in 20 individual qualifiers to sort out during the finals on Saturday, May 28.

Like he has been all season, Cless was the last man jumping – and the last man standing on top of the awards podium before being awarded the gold medal.

“Coming down here last year, I didn’t have any experience, I didn’t know what to expect, and I was NOT satisfied with the results,” Cless said. “I’ve got to be on top. I like to compete and I don’t care about PRs (personal bests). I just wanted to win.

“I came back after those two misses (at 1.96 meters), used my hops to get up there and said, ‘OK, now this is mine.’ ”

That dramatic clearance on his final try at 1.96 kept Cless in the hunt when he could have been eliminated, back in sixth or seventh place. Instead, he cleared 1.99 with ease, then needed just two attempts at 2.02 to beat out Pulliam.

Some last minute drama was still in effect. Pulliam was charged with an attempt on his final try even though the Moline senior never got off the ground for an actual attempt. He veered away from the pit at the last second, but broke the plane and the official immediately raised the red flag that ended the competition.

“When I saw that flag go up, I knew it was mine!” Cless exclaimed. “I just jumped up and said let’s go! Nothing was going to stop me today.

“I went from a benchwarmer for the sophomore basketball team to a state champion, and it feels really good. It feels amazing. I had three dunks that year and one of them came on an alley-oop play that was the highlight for me.

“Now I’ve got another highlight.”

Cless went across the track to consult with ETHS assistant coach Kevin Caines with his season on the line following those uncharacteristic misses at 1.96.

“I just said you came down on the bar, so either move a step up or come in faster (on the approach),” Caines said. “To tell you the truth, I really don’t know what adjustment he made. But sure enough, he got his best approach of the day and I always preach to our jumpers that the approach is 90 percent of the jump.

“Matt has done a great job all year making corrections and that’s a credit to him. He’s the one who did all the work and it’s been a pleasure coaching someone like Matt. I’m very fortunate. We got to a point in the outdoor season where I realized he was undefeated but I wasn’t one to say it out loud. I was guardedly optimistic — so many (bad) things can happen in the field events — but yeah, I had a gut feeling this would happen.”

So did head coach Don Michelin.

“Matt was on a mission to win it this year,” Michelin pointed out. “He corrected some little flaws of nervousness that he had down here last year. He sat down, he had a hat on, he had an umbrella (to provide shade on an 80-degree afternoon) and he listened to Coach Caines and saved his energy. He did all the right things for himself, and for his team.

“Right after winning that state championship, he wanted to run the relay for the team. That’s what that guy brings every day, that’s what’s inside of him. It’s a great day to be a Wildkit — especially when you have Matt Cless on your team.”

Cless had no more than 10 minutes of rest before it was time for the final heat of the final race of the day, the Class 3A 1,600-meter relay showdown. The Wildkits actually challenged for the title – after turning in a qualifying time that only ranked sixth coming out of the prelims – and settled for third after chopping three seconds off that prelim time of 3:24.82.

A leadoff leg of 49.93 by junior Miles Granjean pushed the Kits to an early lead. Cless faded halfway through his leg, but clung stubbornly to fifth place with a split of 51.40. Lee’s 51.59 effort closed the gap to fourth place, and anchorman Ellis sprinted into the second position with about 300-meters remaining and finished his final race in 48.37.

That split by Ellis helped him make up for a less-than-satisfying showing by the senior sparkplug in the open 400, where he was clocked in 49.44. In the prelims, he won his heat in 51 flat and meet officials actually had to hold two sections of the race in Saturday’s finals because two other runners posted identical times and that led to 10 qualifiers for what is normally a nine-person finals race.

Granjean closed out the campaign as an impact runner for Evanston after coming out late following the school’s hockey season.

“We didn’t know what to do with him,” Michelin admitted. “Now he’s going to be our quarter-miler next year. He let us know what he can do and now he’s a bigger, stronger version of Vorn Ellis. That was a great way to end it for us.”

None of the other Evanston state qualifiers survived the prelims on Friday. The 400-meter relay team of Lee, Granjean, Ellis and Cless finished back in the pack in 43.31, Tim Russell could only muster a best throw of 14.73 meters in the shot put, and Jalen James fouled on all of his triple jump attempts.        

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