Evanston’s track team claimed seven first place finishes, won the plaque that goes to the sectional  team champion, and set the qualifying pace for the Illinois High School Association state finals among all of the teams entered at the Class 3A Loyola Academy Sectional meet Thursday in Wilmette.

So why wasn’t Wildkit head coach Don Michelin smiling?

Because  the windy and cold weather may have put a crimp in ETHS plans to challenge for a state trophy next weekend at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.

Evanston may need to embrace a “next man up” philosophy fully after senior Denzel Thomas and freshman Julion Michelin both pulled up lame with hamstring issues during the competition. Those injuries damped any cause for celebration for the Wildkits, even after they rolled to the team title with 110 points to 59 for runnerup New Trier in the 16-team field.

Both Thomas, a former baseball player, and Michelin have dealt with hamstring problems before as Mother Nature hasn’t provided many warm days for anyone participating in a spring sport this year. If neither can compete in Charleston, Evanston’s chances for success in the relay races will be severely limited.

The Wildkits won the 3200-meter, 400-meter, and 1600-meter relays Thursday and only a disqualification in the 800 relay prevented a clean sweep of those races at Loyola’s Sachs Stadium.

Individual qualifiers for ETHS included sophomore Sacrad Michelin, 1st in the 200 in 22.30 seconds and 2nd in the 100 in 11.17; senior Gabe Cheeks, 1st in the long jump at 22 feet, 1 inch; senior Jonathan Wilburn, 1st in the triple jump at 46-7.5; senior Will McMichael, 1st in the 400 in 50.48; senior Logan Singer, 2nd in the 800 in 1:58.75; and sophomore Quentin Ivory, 3rd in the shot put at 52-8.25.

“Fifty percent of me feels good, and fifty percent of me feels bad,” said Coach Michelin. “The bad is because of those injuries we sustained due to the cold weather. We’ve been battling those hamstring injuries all year and we’ll just see what happens next week.

“We’re still not out of the trophy hunt, but we’ll have to make some adjustments if they can’t go. We’ll go back to the drawing board, because we’ll have to re-figure both the 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 without Denzel. But it was a total team effort today. That was one of our goals at the start of the season, to perform well and win the sectional, and we performed well today.”

Wilburn, the first man up when Julion Michelin was scratched out of the 1600 lineup, responded with a split of 50.41 — a career best — and lifted the Wildkits from 4th place to the lead after his No. 3 leg. Anchor McMichael finished off the win as the Kits were clocked in 3:27.88, beating out Glenbrook North’s 3:28.54.

“That was a PR (personal record) for Wilburn, and he had a PR in the long jump (non-qualifying 3rd at 21-6.5) and won the triple jump. He had quite a day,” Michelin pointed out. “He’s doing what a captain does, what a champion does, for us. He’s the type of kid who just keeps going no matter what you ask of him.”

Wilburn’s participation in more relay races this year has hampered the senior standout’s jumping somewhat, along with bursitis problems. But he’s back on track now after a slow start to the outdoor season, recording a best triple jump  leap of 46-7.5 and punching a ticket to the IHSA state finals for the third year in a row in his specialty.

“I think slump is a good word for it,” Wilburn said. “I went 46 indoors, but my best since we got outdoors was only 44-3. It took a moment — OK, the entire outdoor season — for me to figure out what I was doing wrong. But once I fixed it, I’ve been able to get it back together. I can’t pinpoint one exact thing that I’d attribute to the decline in my jumps. I did have bursitis for awhile, and I’ve struggled to find the energy I need sometimes after running in the other events (mostly relays).

“In practice this week I did a lot of runway work, and getting to where I need to be on the board was pretty huge for me.”

Wilburn also combined with Isaac Hunter, Sacrad Michelin and Thomas to rule the 400 relay in 43.58. The unit of Max Peterson, Joe Eovaldi, Julion Michelin and Singer combined for a win in the 3200 in 7:56.09, as Peterson set the tone with a leadoff split of 1:57.70.
In the 800 relay, the Wildkits were disqualified when a limping Julion Michelin prompted inexperienced anchor Thomas to extend out of the exchange zone on the final handoff.

Sacrad Michelin, who was only running in 5th place midway through the race, surged in the final 50 meters to place runnerup in the open 100 and then came back to capture top honors in the 200. McMichael won the 400 by almost a full second over runnerup Wei Chen of New Trier, and Singer battled to an automatic qualifying berth in the 800 behind only the winning effort of 1:58.43 by Wheeling sophomore Jordan Teran.

Both Cheeks and Ivory made decisions to focus on track this year and those decisions paid off in trips to State.

Cheeks actually quit basketball to devote his full-time efforts to jumping starting with the indoor campaign and pulled off a “double” Thursday after also winning the Central Suburban League South division title one week earlier.

His winning leap of 22-1 exactly matched the IHSA state qualifying standard and was a breakthrough for the senior on his last jump of the day.

“I’m really excited, and I really surprised myself today,” said Cheeks. “I guess I saved my best for last. Last night I was thinking about going 22 all night in my head, and I let it sink in and then it just came out today.

“My PR this year was 21-6 and I got 21-7 on my second jump (in the preliminary qualifying). Last year my best was 21-2. This is only my second year in track and I just decided that I wanted to be a two-sport athlete. I fell in love with the long jump even though basketball had always been my main thing. I quit to focus on track and see if I could improve, and I gave it everything I had today.

“I think I made the right decision. This was a very good day.”

Ivory’s day was even better because it was so unexpected. He beat the state qualifying standard by an inch and one quarter, not bad for someone who had never even exceeded 50 feet until connecting on a practice throw earlier this week.

The mammoth sophomore — who admits to measuring 6-foot-3 and 330 pounds — is a football lineman who earned a promotion to the varsity for the IHSA playoffs last fall, but might find that he has a bright future in another sport, too.

“Right now I’m just speechless,” he grinned. “I didn’t think this would happen for me this year. All year I’ve been under 50 but I’ve been increasing my throws slowly, from 46 feet to 47 to 48. Then I threw badly for awhile, but when I hit 50 (in practice) I realized I had a bigger chance than I thought I’d have.

“I was super relaxed today because I knew I had nothing to lose. I didn’t think about anything.  My first throw in the prelims was that 52-7, and after that I fouled on four straight throws.”

One good throw was good enough for a rookie thrower who is still searching for some consistency in a sport where that characteristic is just as important as raw strength.

“I got into track because that way I’d do a lot more lifting (weights) and get stronger for football,” Ivory said. “As I got farther into it and got better it was like omigod, I CAN do this! Learning to spin has been the biggest adjustment for me and that’s helped boost my throws a lot. Don’t get me wrong, I still have a lot of flaws, but I’m doing the best I can.”

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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