Sterling girls track coach Tyler Gaumer described his team's performance at this past Friday's 2A Burlington Central Sectional as a "perfect storm."
The point of a sectional, after all, is to advance as many athletes as possible to the state meet, which begins today in Charleston with Class 1A. Heading into the sectional, just two Golden Warriors were considered favorites to move on.
They were Lauren Zuidema, who has cleared 10 feet, 9 inches in the pole vault, a full foot over the state-qualifying standard, and Mercedes Sanchez, whose top time of 11 minutes, 41.45 seconds in the 3,200 was more than 6 seconds under the qualifying mark of 11:48.04.
Zuidema and Sanchez will have some unexpected company, however, when the 2A state finals begin on Friday. They'll be joined by teammates Emily Crossley, Peyton Cater and Morgan Zuidema, who each earned surprising state berths.
Likely the most surprising of them all was Crossley, whose top time of 1:02.62 had her seeded ninth in the 400 meters. Her expectations were modest.
"I had no idea I was going to make it," Crossley said. "I just went in thinking this is my last race, and I just have to go out and try my best."
There were four heats in the 400, from slowest to fastest, and Crossley was in the third heat. She ended up running the race of her life, posting a 1:01.85.
After that, it was a waiting game to see how the runners in the fast heat fared. There was good news even before that race started.
Kaneland's Lauren Zick and Dixon's Lexy Duncan, the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the event, did not run to concentrate on other events. Race favorite Ashley Fouch of Hampshire won in 1:00.56, then the second-place finisher, Lakonka Collins of Freeport, crossed the finish line in 1:01.93, .08 slower than Crossley.
"If I was in the fast heat, I think it would have mentally scared me," Crossley said. "Being in the third heat was a good thing for me."
Cater's top 100-meter dash time of 13.32 entering the sectional was fifth, but miles away from the qualifying standard of 12.74. She would need to finish in the top two to qualify, and took a step in that direction by running a 12.98 in the preliminaries.
About a week before the sectional, she changed the blocks she used at the starting line. Instead of a pair in which she was upright with her feet close together, she used blocks which spread her feet apart and kept her lower (and faster) for the initial part of the race.
"I've always been pretty good out of the blocks," Cater said, "but this really made a big difference for me."
In the finals, Cater posted a time of 13.0, behind just Shasta Day of Rock Falls, who ran a 12.88. Their closest pursuer, Gabrielle Noland of Boylan, had a 13.17.
"I didn't really expect I was going to get second, so I just figured I'd go out there, run my best race and see what I could do," Cater said. "I pulled it off, and I was pretty satisfied with that. I wasn't expecting that."
Morgan Zuidema, Lauren's younger sister, had cleared 5-0 in the high jump about half a dozen times in the regular season, but was unable to improve on that mark. That changed at the sectional, however, as she cleared 5-2 on her second attempt.
"It was really a mental block that I had," Zuidema said. "I've made it over 5-foot a lot, but that 5-2 seemed so much higher than it really was. I felt like I had to change my form once I got to the higher height, but I really didn't have to do anything different."
Gaumer will now be one happily busy coach at state, keeping track of five athletes instead of the two he anticipated.
"I'm so proud of each and every one of those girls for just competing when they had the opportunity to," Gaumer said.
Sterling state qualifiers
Lauren Zuidema (PV)
Mercedes Sanchez (3,200)
Emily Crossley (400)
Peyton Cater (100)
Morgan Zuidema (HJ)