Brad Garron and Jonathan Wilburn earned repeat trips to the Class 3A Illinois High School Association state track and field finals by scoring individual victories Thursday at the Niles West Sectional meet.
The bad news for the two Evanston Township High School standouts? They won’t have much company for the trip to the IHSA finals at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston next weekend.
The Wildkits only mustered 4 individual qualifiers and 1 relay team, their lowest total since 2007, and saw their string of sectional championships snapped at 5 in a row. Unable to rise to the occasion on the track and in the field events, the Wildkits qualified only Garron (200-meter dash, 400-meter dash), Wilburn (triple jump), Trey Dawkins (shot put) and the 4 x 100 relay team under sunny skies in Skokie.
Prospect outscored ETHS 96-65 in the team standings, a blow to the Wildkit pride even though the sectional is strictly a qualifying meet and there’s no guarantee of success at the state finals after winning a sectional crown. Evanston had captured sectional team titles 8 of the last 9 years, the only blip on that radar a 3rd place performance in 2011.
There was plenty of bitter for Evanston head coach Don Michelin to go along with the sweet efforts of Garron and Wilburn. The veteran coach usually sees his team peaking at this time in the spring, but Thursday was the exception to the rule.
“We just had so many uneven performances today,” Michelin admitted. “There were spots where we should have been better, and we weren’t. It happens.
“I’m disappointed for the kids more than anything. The kids that are coming back next year will have to regroup, and the others will try to have the best State meet we can have. It just boils down to the fact that we didn’t put our best foot forward today. If you’re not up for the challenge, you’re going to have a hard fall down.”
Both Garron and Wilburn will get an opportunity to put their bizarre experiences at last year’s IHSA finals in the rear view mirror. A compressed time schedule initiated by meet officials who feared oncoming bad weather, forced Garron to drop out of the 200, while Wilburn’s event — the triple jump — was moved indoors and he had to wait five hours before he was able to compete in the preliminaries. He failed to advance to the finals.
On Thursday, Garron won both of his individual races — the 400 in 49.65 seconds and the 200 in a time of 21.44 that was just off the school record — and teamed up with Myles Hampton, Brian Daniels and Oluwashola Oluleye for a runnerup effort in the 400 relay in 42.51.
‘I felt like we could have won that 400 relay, but our handoffs weren’t clean,” said the senior sprinter. “I am happy with the PR (personal record) I got in the 200. I ended up switching my strategy in the 400 because I was focused early on the year on running that first 200 better, but my times kept repeating around 49.5 or 49.6. So I understood that I had to go back to my old ways and today I ran more relaxed. It was less taxing, and I felt more comfortable out there.
“Now I feel like I’m mentally in the right place going Downstate. For me, that’s what matters most. I honestly feel that State will be up for grabs (in both the 200 and 400). Everyone Downstate will pull out their best race — and the best man will win. With the good competition I’ve run against this year, I feel like I’ll be able to rise up at State.”
“Brad had a good double today, and he has a chance to win the state championship in both of those races,” Michelin added. “It’s just a matter of, how bad does he want it?”
Wilburn dominated the triple jump for the second year in a row at the sectional, although the junior’s winning leap of 45 feet, 4.75 inches was a foot shorter than his best at the 2016 sectional. Still, he won the event Thursday by 14 inches over runnerup T.J. Weinzimmer of Glenbrook North and was glad to be able to keep his season alive for another week after being plagued by a hamstring problem for the entire outdoor campaign.
“Physically I’m feeling good. Everything’s holding up now,” said Wilburn. “I did have one jump today that I thought was a 46, but they called it a scratch (foul). I was disappointed not to get to 46 today, but winning is always the ultimate goal for me. And I definitely had doubts that I could get back to this point when I injured my hamstring the second time (at the start of the outdoor season).
“Seeing that I was able to get some consistent jumps today (all in the 45-foot range) really helps my confidence a lot. I wasn’t strong enough mentally to handle what happened last year at State — and I warmed up for about 6 hours before I finally got to jump — but this year hopefully I can perform like I should.
“When I got down there (to Charleston) I was around the biggest group of guys I’d ever seen (physically) and it was nerve-wracking. I was a little intimidated, but now I feel like I belong.”
“I was expecting more from Jonathan today, but we’ll take it,” said ETHS assistant coach Vernard Harris. “I know he’s going to jump well next weekend because he got the jitters out last year in a meet that was out of whack. That was rough on him as a sophomore, but this year he’ll be more prepared. I know he’s got another year left, but I want him to be as productive as he can THIS year.
“He’s a very strong kid, and he’s so muscular that sometimes when he overstrides that hurts his leg muscles. That’s something he has to watch. We’ll see what happens next week, but I’m hoping he’ll hit 47 or 48 feet.”
Another ETHS junior, Dawkins, delivered a qualifying performance with a best throw of 51 feet, 5 inches in the shot put that clinched second place. One of the state’s top throwers, William Matzek, won with a 57-3 effort.
Closest call for Evanston’s non-qualifiers was in the open 800, where junior Logan Singer missed the state qualifying standard by an eyelash. Singer’s 3rd place time of 1:57.60 didn’t match the 1:57.31 required for any runner who didn’t automatically advance with a top two finish.
Singer had the second fastest qualifying time among the seeded runners entering the sectional showdown, but was beaten out by both James Riordan of Prospect (1:56.50) and Frankie Santa of Niles West (1:57.18).
Also scoring top six individual finishes for Evanston were Oluleye, 4th in the 100 in 11.16; Daniels, 5th in the long jump at 20-9 and 6th in the 300 hurdles in 41.70; and Ben Easington, 5th in the discus at 142-0.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.