There’s a simple recipe for the success of the Evanston Township High School girls track and field program over the years.
Combine top teachers of the sport, in the form of head coach Fenny Gunter and his assistant coaches, with student-athletes who embrace that coaching, and it all adds up to a program that consistently challenges the elite runners, jumpers and throwers in the rest of the state of Illinois.
The Wildkits put themselves in position to do that again at the Class 3A Illinois High School Association state championships, set at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston May 19-20. Evanston scored three first-place finishes – including a pair of wins by senior hurdler Abrielle Artley – at Wednesday’s Glenbrook South Sectional qualifying meet and claimed a total of five individual state qualifying spots, plus a relay.
ETHS scored a fifth-place finish in the team standings with 50 points. Prospect claimed the team crown with 165 points in the 14-team field.
Those are actually low numbers compared with past ETHS squads, in terms of qualifiers. But consider the fact that a couple of those qualifiers – sectional triple jump champion Kai Strickland and Dawson Wright, the runner-up in the shot put – are competing in those specialties for the first time as seniors, and it’s nothing short of remarkable.
And another Wildkit, sophomore Stella Davis, qualified in her first season competing in track after placing fifth in the 1600-meter run and beating the established IHSA state qualifying standard.
Assistant coaches Michelle Burke, George Woolridge and Jesse Sibert, take a bow.
They taught the techniques that helped those athletes succeed in new events.
“We’ve had a lot of good coaches come through our program, and we’re fortunate that we still have coaches who are good at developing these girls,” said Gunter. “Each one of them has done a good job of getting the messages through to them, and in a short amount of time too.
“It wasn’t easy for any of those girls, but they had faith in their coaches. They had some ups and downs, but they held true and took advantage of their opportunities. They listened while the coaches were telling them all year long that they were doing things to build up for the end of the year, for the state meet.
“Michelle and Coach G did a good job working with girls who were raw in their events. Kai didn’t start in the triple jump until February [of this year] and Dawson worked a little bit in the summer, but that was in the discus, not in the shot.”
The two ex-sprinters aren’t complaining about the changes they made at this point. Strickland soared to a personal best distance of 11.30 meters (just over 37 feet) on her final jump of the day, snatching the title away from pre-meet favorite Gabriela Manzano of New Trier.
Wright fell short of a season best, but her best throw in the shot of 12.08 meters (about 39 feet, 6 inches) earned a scond-place finish. The top two finishers in each event, plus any who matched or beat the existing qualifying standards, automatically advanced to the state finals.
“After I made 11 for the first time [on her next-to-last jump, edging past the qualifying mark], I wasn’t expecting another PR,” said Strickland. “It’s pretty cool to be a sectional champion. Coach Burke has been telling me to be aggressive in the second phase, to channel my inner dancer and stretch it out. I also did a better job of stretching my legs out in the long jump phase too.
“I started dancing when I was 2 years old and I’ve done it competitively since I was in fourth grade. But I stopped after last year because my knees were messed up. I know Michelle had her eye on me for a while for the triple jump, but with my knees in such bad shape, Fenny thought it might be too much for me. But he knew it was my senior year and he wanted me to have an individual event.
“I came over to the jumps late in the indoor season because at first I thought the coaches were just joking about having me try it. But I tried it and started getting PRs in every meet, and once I hit 32 feet, Coach said maybe I could make it to State. It’s such a different event – what is the hop, skip and jump, anyway? – but it’s fun to keep getting better and see how much I can improve in a new event. Michelle [a former ETHS jumper] has helped keep me in a good mindset and had a lot of words of encouragement so I could perform the way I did today.”
Wright, who also placed a nonqualifying sixth in the discus Wednesday, has made the best of the relationship with her new coach. The veteran Woolridge has logged double duty with the boys and girls throwers for the first time this season and both Wright and junior Ava Russell (eighth in the discus, 15th in the shot put) are thriving under his guidance.
Wright’s first throw in the preliminaries eclipsed the qualifying mark and allowed her to settle in. She wasn’t able to better that toss, but now she’s got another week to improve in practice with Woolridge.
“I would never have thought this was ever going to happen for me,” said the senior standout. “It helped a lot that I knew I qualified with that first throw. I thought, ‘Great, I made the mark, now I can just focus on getting better.’
“I had trouble with my footing [in the throwing circle] today and that’s been a problem for me from Day 1. It’s slowly been getting better, I think. I need to start throwing off my back leg, not my front leg, so I can find some more power. That’s a habit I have to fix because I want to throw 13 [meters – 42 feet, 7 inches] next week. The whole point of today was qualifying. I’m having a lot of fun with this, and I’m learning a lot.”
Artley’s impressive showing in both hurdles races, and as the anchor on the state-qualifying 1600 relay team, dazzled coaches and spectators who might not have seen the ETHS senior perform before.
She dealt with the demon of failure at last year’s sectional at Deerfield, when she hit a hurdle and failed to advance in the 100-meter event, by ripping off a personal best time of 14.85 seconds and dominating the field Wednesday.
The University of Nebraska-bound senior posted a winning time of 43.82 in the 300 race – an event she placed second in at last year’s state finals – and made sure she had some teammates along for the ride to Charleston with an anchor leg that pushed the Wildkits from fifth place to second place.
She teamed with Esther Mueller, Nyel Rollins and Strickland for a runner-up effort of 4:01.23. That was 3 seconds slower than champion Prospect.
“I really felt like I could have been in the top five in both hurdles last year [at State]. I was scared that I might make a mistake again [in the short hurdles], but I knew it was my last chance to make up for last year, so I did my best,” Artley said.
“This was a big PR for me and I’m running a lot better than I did last year. Everything happens for a reason, and what happened then pushed me a lot today. My goal for next week? Get some PRs, get a good place, and just do my best.”
Davis discovered what life in the fast lane is all about after working with Sibert during the indoor and outdoor campaigns trying to follow up on a successful cross country season and figure out which distance race (3200, 1600, 800) was best for her.
Wednesday, she ran fifth (in 5:07.46) in a 1600 showdown in which the top seven finishers all were under the IHSA standard of 5:11.78. Anna Harden of Hersey pulled away from the field early to rule in 4:58.95.
“I’m so excited to make it to State for the first time!” Davis said. “It’s kind of unreal to me right now. We went out so hard today. Coach Sibert told me not to go out and lead the race so I planned to stay in the top five, just behind the top girl. But I didn’t think I was going to be 20 meters off the lead. That was surprising.
“I didn’t know if I was on the right pace or not because they weren’t giving us any splits. My whole goal was just to qualify.”