Plan B helps relay teams score at IHSA state finals

CHARLESTON --- Evanston girls track coach Fenton Gunter changed his relay lineups so many times this spring that even a computer couldn’t keep track.

And that trend continued right up until the final weekend of competition here at Eastern Illinois University.

An injury to freshman Jacklynn Okreke forced the veteran coach to find more options for the relays and he wound up pulling one of his athletes out of the stands at O’Brien Stadium to fill those spots.

Evanston advanced 3 relays to the final day of competition at the Class 3A Illinois High School Association state finals for the first time since 2011, but couldn’t generate any momentum Saturday and settled for a 7th place finish in the 800-meter relay and 8th place efforts in both the 400-meter and 1600-meter events.

The Wildkits also counted personal best performances from both triple jump qualifiers, 7th place finisher Alliyah Jones and 10th place finisher Sasha Gordon, and totaled 10 points in the team standings for a tie for 32nd place with Ottawa and Wauconda. Homewood-Flossmoor captured the team title with 59.5 points.

Okreke, a state qualifier in the 100-meter hurdles, suffered a fall and an injury to her heel during Friday’s preliminaries and Gunter found he needed a Plan B --- and quickly --- for both the 800 and 1600 relays.

He turned to sophomore Gabriella Calixte, who hadn’t practiced all week due to back spasms, scratched out of the 300-hurdle event, and certainly wasn’t expecting to run at all.

“Gabriella got thrown in there in the middle of the meet and she ran outstanding for us,” praised Gunter. “She’s experienced injuries and she’s been sick up to this point, and she learned first-hand that if you’ve got a uniform on, you’ve gotta go.

“We weren’t going to run her at all down here, but it’s a good thing she was able to answer the call, because we didn’t have any other bodies left. Gabriella really stood up and that’s all we can ask.”

“I was up in the stands with my parents and I was eating too much,” Calixte laughed. “That’s when I got the call. Coach ran up to me and said we need you to run the 4 x 200, so I got it together and got a PR (personal record) split in the low 25s. Then I stretched and came back and ran a 58 split in the 4 x 400. In that race he told me to just speed up at 100 meters, instead of 150, to make it easier on my back.

“I was stretching and icing all week and I didn’t practice all week, either. My Dad (ETHS head boys soccer coach Franz Calixte) was running me all over town to physical therapists but I was still limping really bad. I got to the point where I was really sad and unmotivated, because I wanted to run the hurdles so bad. But when we got down here I tried and got shooting pains the first hurdle I ran over. It’s one of the most painful things physically I’ve ever had to deal with.”

With Calixte’s help, the 800 relay team (which also included freshman Rikki Gray, junior Ariel Logan and freshman Dystonae Clark) qualified with the 5th fastest prelim time of 1 minute, 41.40 seconds and the 1600 team (Gray and juniors Gabrielle Horton and Hannah Lipman) posted the 3rd quickest prelim time of 3:55.79.

But the Wildkits were unable to match either effort on a windy Saturday in the championship finals, with efforts of 1:43.35 in the 800 and 4:00.87 in the 1600.

The 400 relay unit of Clark, Logan and juniors Chassa Pratt and Maia Hadaway also ran slower on Saturday, clocked in 49.19 compared to Friday’s qualifying effort of 48.55 that claimed the last qualifying spot in the 9-team field.

In the triple jump, Jones and Gordon both finished on a high note even though Jones, a junior, was the only Kit to bring home a medal. Her career best jump of 38 feet, 1.75 inches came during Friday’s prelims (efforts in the field events carry over from Friday to Saturday’s finals).

That jump was just 8 inches shy of the ETHS school record set by Amanda Caines in 2009.

“I had a couple of fouls today because of the wind, I guess my stride opened up because of that,” Jones pointed out. “Those jumps felt good, except for the scratches. But I really wanted to move up today and not stay in the same place. I know I could have jumped better.

“Yesterday my hop and step was better. I had talked with coach (former ETHS state champion Michelle Burke) about getting it out to about 25 feet (prior to the final phase of the jump), and I think I got that.”

Gordon, a senior, scored a pair of personal bests at 37-11.75 and 37-10 on Saturday but was denied a medal because only the top 9 placers earn that reward.

“I got two PRS, but honestly I’m disappointed that I didn’t get 38 today,” she said. “There’s no next year for me now, and I’m kinda sad that it’s over. But I am proud of myself and I know my family and my coaches are proud of me, too.

“On my last jump I really felt it in that second phase, but my long jump set me back a little. I am proud of myself that I stuck it  out all 4 years and made it to the finals my last year. Three weeks ago I was just at 34-35 feet and I just kept improving from there.

“I’ll really miss my jump buddy, Alliyah. We’ve been together 3 years and this year she really whipped my butt a lot, and she ended up on top. But I’d rather have her finish ahead of me than anyone else. I think we both did a really good job.”

She wouldn’t get an argument from Gunter.

“I’m so proud of Sasha,” said the Wildkit head coach. “She didn’t make the finals here last year, but she really had an excellent year for us this year. She just kept PRing and PRing and she really gave our team a tremendous boost. We’re going to miss her.

“We’ve never had a 38-foot jumper as a junior and Alliyah finally let it all click. She’s still finding herself --- she wasn’t really much of an athlete coming into high school --- but now, with a good summer of work, I think she can really put it out there. She has high expectations for herself and she’s very competitive. She’s a late bloomer with the potential for a really good future.”

Evanston’s other qualifiers were eliminated Friday in preliminaries, including senior Abby Osterlund, 5:11.29 in the open 1600; Hadaway, 26.47 in the open 200; and the 3200 relay team of Lipman, Horton, Osterlund and junior Eavan Norman, in 9:30.31.

“Considering all the injuries we had this year, we were still able to keep our heads above water,” Gunter added. “I know they all didn’t like how they finished today, but now they understand what it’s like to run in the state finals. I think they did a pretty good job.”  

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