Abrielle Artley committed Friday night to continue her track career at the University of Nebraska.

She followed up on that decision with a couple of statement wins Saturday at the Antioch Last Chance Invitational.

The Evanston senior blazed her way to victories in the 60-meter hurdles and 400-meter dash and led the Wildkits to a 3rd place finish in the team standings. ETHS piled up 59 points despite not entering any relay events and trailed only Lake Zurich (71) and McHenry (63) in the 21-team field.

Credit: Evanston Girls Track and Field Facebook page

Sophomore Stella Davis and senior Kai Strickland contributed wins in the 1600 and triple jump, respectively, and senior Dawson Wright added a runner-up finish in the shotput for the Kits.

Artley certainly looked the part of a Division I athlete Saturday with times of 56.90 seconds in the 400 and 9.28 in the hurdles. Both clockings rank among the top performances in the state of Illinois this winter and assured the ETHS senior of a trip to the Illinois Prep Top Times invitational — the unofficial indoor state championship meet — set for next weekend at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Davis turned in a winning time of  5 minutes, 4.85 seconds — a full 13 seconds faster than the runner-up in that race — and Strickland scored an unexpected triumph in the triple jump with a personal best effort of 10.55 meters, or approximately 34 feet, 7 inches.

Artley benefited from a reduced work load in practice recently, according to ETHS head coach Fenny Gunter, and now the senior seems primed for a big finish when the scene shifts outdoors in a couple of weeks. Artley placed 2nd in the 300 hurdles last year outdoors at the state finals as a junior.

“She got a little more rest after we shuffled her training schedule,” Gunter explained. “We did that so we don’t wear her out this year. That can happen to some girls and coaches have to be smart enough to make adjustments when you need to make adjustments.

“Now Abrielle is handling her workouts a lot better. She’s fresh and her times are dropping because her body is responding better. She’s getting better results, and sometimes as a coach you just have to get them to the (starting) line healthy and let their natural ability take over.”

“I thought I made a really good statement today in the hurdles,” Artley said. “I had to stay aggressive and push myself more than I have been. I already know that I’ve made a lot of progress when I compare it to last year. I think I’m running cleaner with no mistakes, no contact with the hurdles and good starts, too.

“I’m happy with where I am (in her training). I had a PR (personal record) today in the 400. I’m really looking forward to a meet like the Top Times, because I need that to help me get to the next level. I’ll most likely run the long hurdles in college. The Top Times is an important meet for me, but I already know what I’m capable of. I’ll just try to do the best I can there.”

Gunter originally wasn’t going to send Davis, a sophomore out for track for the first time, to Wesleyan next weekend even though her best 1600 time ranks in the top 10 among Class 3A challengers in that race statewide. But Davis ran virtually by herself in her second trip to an invite at the Lakes High School fieldhouse in three weeks, and the veteran coach recognizes that she needs to find some tougher competition while learning the ins and outs of distance running in the winter and spring.

“When she complained about not having any competition, we pointed at the camera and the clock and told her THAT’S your competition. They will always be there,” said the Evanston coach. “She does need more competition. She’s too nice to the other girls she runs against. She needs to bury them on the first two laps, and that’s what cost her time-wise today.”

Wright will join her teammates on the trip to IWU despite settling for second place in the shot Saturday with a best toss of 11.52 meters (about 37 feet, 9 inches) behind Stephanie Nosike of Thornwood at 11.82. The irrepressible senior is looking to write a storybook finish to her high school career after switching from contributing to Wildkit relay teams — when she was healthy, which wasn’t often — over the past 2 years to scoring points in the field events.

She hasn’t given up on running at some point on the 4 x 400 relay team when outdoor competition begins, but the ETHS coaching staff will take a conservative approach in that regard.

Gunter suggested over the summer that Wright try working with boys weight coach George Woolridge in the discus, and since that event is only conducted outdoors, she attempted the shot as a way to get comfortable throwing from a ring.

The results have been staggering.

“She caught onto the shot right away,” said Woolridge. “She tried it after she had an MRI on her calf and even the boys were impressed by the way she threw. She’s a strong and determined senior, and she listens well. She was well over 10 meters the first time she threw and I don’t want to push her too much — we haven’t taught her to glide or to spin yet — but now her goal for indoors is 12 meters.”

Woolridge devotes more time to the boys involved in the throws — that’s his day job at ETHS — and is filling in helping out on the girls side after the Wildkits weren’t able to replace the late girls throws coach, Alex Thomas, who passed away last year.

That makes things even more challenging for a newbie like Wright because Woolridge is usually traveling with the boys when both programs compete on the same day.

“I had some symptoms late in December and four weeks later it still showed up on an MRI,” said Wright, who was diagnosed with inflammation on her shin bone. “It only hurts when I run and I feel fine now. The doctor just cleared me to run again and now I want to do it all outdoors — discus, shot and the 4 x 400. That would be an amazing way for me to be able to end my senior year.

“I never would have expected this (success). I guess what happened is a blessing in disguise. It’s a different journey for me and I’m really enjoying it. I love throwing. The only hard part so far is that I have to hear Coach George in my head (during competitions) if he isn’t there. It’s up to me to capitalize on what he’s shown me in meets. The biggest challenge? Remembering all the things he’s told me.    

“When I first started with the shot I was pretty good, but at meets I’d see these girls that are so big (physically) and I’d wonder, ‘how do I compete with them?’ But now? I think I can break the state record. Coach measured it out the other day in practice (about 15 meters) and it really didn’t look that far to me.”

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