Tauja Foreman didn’t think she’d won the 300-meter hurdle race at Thursday’s Niles West Sectional meet.
Neither did most of the Evanston coaching staff gathered near the finish line.
But as it turns out, the camera doesn’t lie.
Foreman’s photo finish victory capped the junior’s best day to date in a Wildkit uniform as she recorded two hurdles victories and joined teammates Hailey Taylor (long jump) and Noni Shelton (triple jump) as qualifiers for next week’s Illinois High School Association Class 3A state finals at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.
In a wild finish, Foreman posted a winning time of 46.59, a personal best, to edge Lake Forest’s Haley Click (46.61) and Deerfield pre-race favorite Michela Emmerich (46.67) with just enough of a lean to provide the margin of victory.
The junior, who never ran the hurdles before this season, also claimed top honors in the 100 hurdles with a time of 15.32, another PR. She led Evanston to a 5th place finish in the team standings with 47 points, behind only New Trier (138), Loyola Academy (77.5), Lake Forest (53) and Highland Park (51) in the 14-team field.
The irony of Foreman’s close win in the longer race is that she’s the first to acknowledge that she’s still a work in progress when it comes to learning how to finish strong over the final stretch of both hurdles races. And she clipped the final hurdle with her lead foot to help contribute to that close finish.
“At the finish you have to take your guts and throw them out there on the track, and I’m still working on that,” Foreman said. “I yell at myself, in my mind, to finish, finish, finish, but I’m still learning how to do that.
“I thought I was 2nd in that race, until right before the 200 when Tameeka (assistant coach Tameeka McFarlane) came up and said to me did you know you won that race? I’m very surprised I won both races. It shows me that my hard work is paying off. It feels good — but I’m not done yet. I still have work to do and places to go.
“I’m glad I won that 300 because I really fought for it. It was the most competitive race I’ve ever been in, and I love that type of competition. But I’m not celebrating because my work isn’t done yet.”
ETHS head coach Fenton Gunter admitted that he went against his original inclination to drop Foreman out of the 300 race so she could contribute on the 4 x 200 relay team.
Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make.
“I was just happy when I thought she was 2nd,” Gunter said. “She hasn’t scratched the surface yet for the potential she has. I wasn’t going to run her in the 300 because I didn’t think she had enough extra conditioning she needed to finish races, and the rest of the coaches thought so, too. They all said she needed more time.
“When I told her we were going to pull her out of the 300, and I told her the reasons why, she dropped a few tears on me and said she really wanted to run that race. She showed me something there — and I changed my mind. I’m glad we decided to give her the opportunity. Last year she had one of the worst days for a kid ever, when she blew up in all 3 relays at the sectional. She ran horrible that day.”
Both Taylor and Shelton earned automatic qualifying spots with runnerup finishes in their respective jumps. Taylor’s best long jump of 17 feet, 1 inch trailed only New Trier senior Alex Cook’s winning effort of 18-2, and Shelton settled for 2nd in the triple jump at 34-11, only one inch behind New Trier freshman Sydney Kunkler.
Taylor’s best effort this spring is 18 feet, but the Wildkit junior was still surprised to earn her first trip to the blue oval track at EIU.
“This is above and beyond what I expected. I surprised myself!” Taylor exclaimed. “I’ve really only hit 18 feet that one time, and today it was my teammates who really motivated me. I couldn’t have done it without their support.
“This year I think I’m much more focused compared to last year, when I couldn’t focus on one thing for more than 20 minutes at a time. The coaches have really helped me zone in more this year. It’s a privilege for me to make it Downstate. That was my goal at the beginning of the year, and it feels amazing.”
“This is great for those two young ladies, because it hasn’t been easy for either Tauja or Hailey,” Gunter pointed out. “Neither one of them really ran as freshmen — Tauja because of her bad shins and Hailey didn’t come out for track — and both of them have come so far since then.
“We got all 3 of them through and they’ve been our top girls all season. Noni is young (sophomore) and she showed that she needs to learn how to handle the pressure better, because I think her nerves got to her today. And we were hoping to get that (3rd place) 4 x 100 relay to sneak in, too. We ran our best time, so we did our best there.”
The short relay team of Foreman, Taylor and two freshmen, Sabine Gratch and Iman Musinovic, just missed advancing with a time of 49.95 that was .45 off the established IHSA qualifying standard. New Trier (49.12) and Highland Park (49.45) beat out the Kits in that race.
Also scoring non-qualifying top 6 finishes for Evanston were Foreman, 5th in the open 200 in 26.58;Taylor, 6th in the 100 in 12.87; and the 5th place 800 relay team of Cindji Dieujuste, Anja Eason-Johnson, Cassis Tingley and Musinovic, timed in 1:50.11.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.