IL 2015 Girls Track & Field Season: It's on The Horizon

Aurora Central Catholic's Karina Liz may turn out to be Illinois' top middle-distance runner this season (Sabrina Mendoza photo)

Track and Field is great sport on any level, but it is especially fun on the high school level. Although the season can drag on for months (up to 8 months if you include club season), the rewards can be very gratifying. Yes, it's still cross country fever in many parts of the Land of Lincoln with Nike Cross Nationals and Footlocker Cross Country implications still to come... nothing should prevent us from talking a little prep track and field. Believe it or not but the first open track meets start in less than two weeks. The University of Chicago will be hosting their annual Ted Hayden Classic on December 20.  There is talk of an area high school track and field club going to Toronto, Canada for a meet in early December. Texas A&M University and the University of Arkansas has drawn a strong following from Illinois to its high school invitationals in early January. Before you know it, the season will be in full flight.

-The outlook for the 2015 season should see some a few big changes that will impact the team and individual outlook. Two-time 3A team champion Frankfort Lincoln-Way East may be in order for their third consecutive Gold trophy because of the subtraction of a few teams that finished below them. Coach Angelo Brown and company have been in the lab for months crafting out the 2015 product. Can a Homewood-Flossmoor team finally get their shine and dethrone LWE? We will see who the best teams are at the end of the season. The journey along the way will be like chinese water torture for sure.

Opening thoughts on the track-

Track and field is one of the most post popular sports for girls in the state of Illinois. So it should not be a surprise with long hurdlers Morgan Schulz and Jenny Kimbro (Jr., Jamaica) taking the stage.  Lane Tech senior Sabrina Matias is back in the 300H after producing an all-star performance in the post-season. Kyla Jimmar (Jr., Oak Lawn Richards) will be a force to be dealt with.

The 100 and 200 will lose some great talent and it will need to be restocked before we can start talking any serious players this time around. But we will mention that Homewood-Flossmoor senior Jayla Stewart is going to be extremely volatile in the 100H. She clocked a blazing 13.81 last year. Stewart is going to be one of the best overall performers in 2015.

-It could be Brittny Ellis' stage in the sprints-

Brittny Ellis has been a prodigy in the sport of track and field since she was in the sixth grade. Now entering her senior year at Warren Township High School, she will have an opportunity to do some very destructive things on the track this upcoming season before heading off to the University of Miami in Florida in the fall. Take a look at her personal bests: 100m- 11.94, 200m- 23.81, 400m- 53.49. In essence, her marks are outstanding and worthy of state legendary status even if she doesn't improve one bit in 2015. 

Perhaps what's been lost in Brittny's journey through high school is her selflessness. She has actually sacrificed better marks for the sake of competing on a team. Aside from running three open events every meet, Ellis teamed up and anchored her 4x100 to an impressive 48.19 clocking. As well, Ellis has competed on the team's 4x400 relay. But standing in the way, though, are a shot at some big time marks. Just like the great Shamier Little, the summer circuit may be the place to get under 53.00 and 23.50. Stay tuned!

Relays, Relays, Relays-

Last year was a banner year in Illinois for relays. Lincoln-Way East did the impossible in setting the all-time 4x100m record of 46.04 without the services of "The Franchise" Aaliyah Brown. Coach Brown and company built a foundation in the girls were able to step forward and meet. The Griffins will be solid again this season with Asia Brown and Ololade Ayoola as returners. A healthy Alexis Pierre-Antoine (Jr.) should add the missing piece to the machine. Of course, there is someone walking the halls over at LWE like junior Kendall Wallace to complete the deal. If the Griffins can't uphold their recent dominance in the event, Homewood-Flossmoor can. The Lady Vikings torched the track with a 47.60 mark last season and they return all four legs. Senior standouts Jayla Stewart and Antoinette "Angel" Broughton are the key legs. Remember this name: OLIVIA OLIVER. She is supposed to be a dynamite freshman speedster acquired by Homewood-Flossmoor. Rock Island was the state runner-up at 47.43, but the Rocs graduated Mystique Thompson and LaCresha Linton. They are going to have a tough time replacing those two outstanding sprinters. Another team to watch has to be Bolingbrook. The Raiders have a strong history of quality sprints and when you have all four legs back from a 6th place team from state, things are looking pretty. Also, keep an eye out for Oak Park-River Forest, Warren, Kankakee, Cahokia, and St. Charles East.

The 4x200 is a strong event statewide as evidenced by the 20 national elite marks that teams outputted last year. Lincoln-Way East led the way at 1:39.09 followed by several more squads under 1:41. Bloom Township returns three legs but lose their sparkplug Brittany Thomas to graduation. The Trojans are going to need another lead off if they want to stay in the mix. Once again Homewood-Flossmoor will be strong with a ton of depth to choose from. The Vikings boosted two freshman last season in clocking 1:40.92. They may be the next great quartet to hit the track in this event. But don't leave out 2A champion Kankakee. The Kays ran 1:41.66 last year.

Coach Brown has hinted at the 4x400 relay (above video) as the one event that he wants to win badly in the state championship. It is the one sprint event that has eluded him in his career and this may be the year that he finally gets it. St. Charles East stood in the way for the past two seasons.  The Saints will need to replace Jordan Shead if they indeed on making it three years in a row.

How could we forget the 4x800 relay? Loyola Academy surprised everyone with a 3A state runner-up finish last spring. The Ramblers will have Kathryn House back but she may be running more in a individual role this season. St. Charles East plotted their way to a title in 9:08.03 on the strength of Jordan Shead. They need every inch of Shead's presence in beating Loyola, but now she is gone to Notre Dame a new team has the ability to emerge to the forefront. Palatine will be lethal in a event they have dominated throughout its history. Kelly O'Brien has emerged as a bonafide two-miler and that could effect the team's options here.  Downers Grove North placed fourth last year return its top three legs from a 9:14 team. Lane Tech will be strong despite losing two legs including 800 3rd placer Alex Martel. They clocked 9:16 last season. Lockport will see a strong unit return as well.

The distance races will be incredibly strong-

We should expect all three classifications to be strong in each of the distance disciplines: 3200, 800, 1600 meters. 

3200: If cross country can be used as a measuring stick for the spring, we are going to see some amazing performances. For the first time in state history, there could be three performers under 10:20 in the same season. Anna Sophia Keller (So., Effingham St. Anthony) has been great in her 1.5 years of high school competition. She already has five state titles on her resume as well as two national championship meet qualifications. In cementing herself as one of the best ever Class A runners, she will attempt to gain added respect from the upperclassifications. Keller has deceptively good closing speed for a long runner clocking 2:17 in the 800m. She is not afraid to go out and lead any pace- suicide pace included. Her personal best is 10:22.16 achieved at the state meet. If Keller gets the right competition she could get under 10:15 this spring.

Maryjeanne Gilbert (Jr., Peoria Notre Dame) ran the second fastest time ever on the Detweiller Park layout at 16:12. Last year she ran 17:04 and took a distant second place. On the track Gilbert emerged as a runner of interest when she overtook and then pulled away form the state meet favorites Maura Beattie (Woodstock) and Sydney Billingsley (Normal University) to win comfortably in 10:34.37. Surely Ms. Gilbert will be better going into 2015 right? Oh yes if progress serves as proof we could see a mark certainly under 10:10 and maybe close to 10:05 for Gilbert. Some basic indicators during the journey will need to take place for this to happen like dropping the mile time from 5:06 to around 4:55 or better. The 800m mark will need significant improvement as well.

Dangerous... watch out for Lindsay Graham. She has been on a rampage since losing to in-state foe Maryjeanne Gilbert and then Annie Heffernan (Sr., Cincinnati St. Ursula) at the Peoria Notre Dame Richard Spring Invite and Wheaton North Falcon Classic. Those two defeats seem to spark the Glenbard West junior star. The end results was five victories in a row against the best talent in 3A cross country and a state crown for Graham. Now that cross country is over for Lindsay, she has indicated she is ready for a long track season that could extend into June and the national level competition. If so, we are will be spoiled and salivating for a great track season in the deuce. Graham clocked 10:36.83 and finished second in the 3200m state final last year. Graham loves track so expect some great times. 

The field itself is going to be littered with top talent such as 3A third placer Mimi Smith (Sr., Winnetka New Trier). Smith was expected to have a wonderful cross country season but instead the perpetual wait in running with the state's elite never occurred. The consolation prize was an 8th place finish. Hopefully some time away from the grind of training and racing will refuel one of the state's best runners this spring.

800: Who is the best half-mile in the state of Illinois? Is it the magnificent Lauren Van Vlierbergen (Sr., Algonquin Jacobs) who ran 2:10.14 in winning the 3A title? She ran the 1600m heat in route and still won the title by almost three seconds. How about Karina Liz? She is the defending 2A champ at 2:10.74 from Aurora Central Catholic. She won her championship by over five seconds in addition to running the 400m as a sophomore.

Cassie Mundekis (Sr., Midwest Central) could be one of the top three half-milers in the state as two-time 1A state champion. She ran her personal best after state at the Festival of Miles in St. Louis rolling along in 2:12.89. It is hard to get great competiion... can someone like Imani Davis (Jr., Chicago Lane Tech) step up and emerge like her former teammate Alex Martel did a season ago? She has run 2:17 on the 4x8 relay and has a personal best of 58.67 in the open 400m. She has the mindset which is a key ingredient in becoming great.

Deep faces will include Michaela Hackbarth (Jr., Downers Grove South), Morgan Schulz (Sr., Cary-Grove), and Jenna Lutzow (Jr., Belvidere North). Hackbarth and Schulz will be coming off of foot injuries occured in the fall.

Remember this name: Ashleigh Wilson. She is a senior at Minooka who experimented with the event this past summer and ran 2:16.82 in her first attempt as a member of the Aurora Flyers Track Club over the summer. Wilson also clocked 57.03 in the 400m which makes her deadly in an event that requires speed as a basic element.

1600: Anna Sophia Keller returns in the #1 spot at 4:52.7 followed by Mary Blankemeier (So., Oak Park-River Forest) a tick back in 4:53.8. There is hope of the first sub- 4:50 clocking in several years with these two. But keep in mind that Blankemeier will be coming off a stress fracture which derailed her summer and fall training that forced her off the competition circuit. She will be spending the next several months getting fit. Lauren Van Vlierbergen has indicated that she wants to build up her resume in this event this season. In order for that to happen means that she is going to have to specialize a bit more and put another event on hold.  Anne Zaher (Jr., Hinsdale Central) is the 3A state champion who surprised a lot of faces. Can she improve along with the expected players this season? Also keep an eye on Mimi Smith, Ayaiko Higuchi (Sr., Palatine Fremd), Kelly O'Brien (Jr., Palatine), Lauren Opartny (Sr., McHenry), and Torree Scull (Sr., St. Charles East). All of these girls are sub- 5:00 or on the border performers. We almost forgot that Skyler Bollinger (Jr., Yorkville) ran 4:56.09 indoors last year. Not...

Field events appears to be a work in progress this season-

The state of Illinois has had some great production in the field event arena over the past decade and then some. We should some areas experience a slow down while others maintain a steady pulse. Let's take a look.

Discus: Aurora Metea Valley has moved into a new direction with the retirement of their head coach who directed this event and the shot put. But expect the #1 returner and 3A third place finisher senior Holly Julifs to be ready to do some big things this season. She heaved a state best 154-0 a year ago. In addition, there are three other top 10 finishers including the emerging Metea Valley sophomore Courtney Morgan who actually finished second ahead of her teammate Julifs at state despite having the same measurement of 144-6. Morgan's best is 146-9. Kathleen "KD" Young (So., Warrensburg-Latham) is perhaps the next great thrower along with Morgan despite having to compete in different classifications. Young had a banner freshman year going undefeated against Class A competitiion. She was able to set a nice personal best 143-8 and placing first in the USATF youth championships last summer.

Shot Put: KD Young leads a lean returning field with a 46-7 mark. She could reach the 50-foot mark this season and that will probably be the major highlight here. Gone are the great Lena Giger and Banki Oginni. They are off to their respective universities Stanford University and University of Wisconsin. Another young thrower back is Courtney Morgan. She won the 3A title as a freshman and could push a mark similar to Young. Unfortunately they probably won't meet unless it is in the summer time. 

Long Jump: Will we see another 20-foot effort this season like a year ago when Janile Rogers produced the only one for Minooka HS? Top returner Brianna Driver (Sr., Chicago McAuley) only placed 7th in the 3A with a mark just over 18-1. Then in the summer time she hits the board for 19-3. Driver is also a good all-around perfomer on the track running the open 400 (58.33) and competing on the team's stealth relays. Cahokia junior Raynesha Lewis cleared 19-1 last year in addition to placing 3rd in the 2A state meet. She will have the benefit of working in tandem with the great Ja'mari Ward. Ward is the top boys jumper in the state and US#1 returner.

Triple Jump: Pick your poison Raynesha Lewis or Lajarvia Brown (Jr., Alton)? They are both 40-foot performers returning. Brown is the defending 3A state champion with a personal best of 40-3.5 (+2.1)- a mark that was just barely over the allowable. She is going to be a monster on the runway. Too bad she and 2014 leader Lewis are in different classifications- plus despite being in the same proximity to the St. Louis metro area they haven't clashed. Hopefully for the sport we will be able to see a duel between the state's premier leapers.

Pole Vault: The state's all-time best vaulter Lindsey Murray has moved on to the Southern Illinois University. Although there are a hand ful of returners coming back with solid marks it is going to be difficult to get as high as 13-4. But senior Morgan Zacharias leaped 13-0 in a lowkey affair. She went on to win the 1A title with ease. But can she get up high with the bright lights shining? Kassadee Ifft (Jr., Prairie Central) was a top preformer on the 2A level a season ago at 12-9 as was 3A state champion Catherine Brooke (Sr., Normal Community). Hanna Swift (Sr., Pekin), Claire Buck (Sr., Triad), and Julia Junkroski (Sr., Lincoln-Way East) are big names to watch this season.

High Jump: The "rookie" Ayoola Ololade returns with a swift 5-8 mark- the same as her teammate Julia Junkroski. Lincoln-Way East is expected to cash in big in the field events this season and it will start there. Ololade is such a great sprinter that she could opt out of seriously high jumping if need be. The 1A champ Karissa Roman (Sr., Kewanee-Weathersfield) returns with the same 5-8 mark. So in essence, there appears to be a log jam at the top. Now the next task is to see if anyone can get near 6-feet this season. 

And last but not least is Maya Neal-

If you didn't know who the most dynamic athlete is in the state then shame on you. Maya Neal is a duo threat in two sports and she will play soccer and track and field at the next level at the University of Tennessee. In the meantime, the Neuqua Valley star is going to do yeoman's work in what ever she wants and is asked to. Neal's primary event is the Heptathlon. Unfortunately the 7-event contest is not contested regularly in high school. Neal earned All-American honors at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals. During the regular high school season Neal is busy talling big points in the long jump (19-4.75 in 2012), 300H, 100H, 200m, 400m, 800m, and several other events. Admittedly, it is hard to get at one event when you love competing in a variety of events.  Neal will be fun watching in whatever she competes in this season.

-We hope that this fix will suffice you for awhile. Check for full team and individual previews going up in January 2015!!