CHARLESTON – Of the 29 area entries in the Class 1A preliminaries at the IHSA girls state track & field meet Thursday, the Erie-Prophetstown Panthers and Oregon Hawks had 19 of them.
But it was the Panthers who put themselves into position for a team medal come Saturday.
E-P had nine of the 14 local finalists, sitting behind only Moweaqua Central A&M (10) in total number of final qualifiers.
"We weren't thinking about that before [Thursday]," Erie senior Paige Rus said. "But with as well as we did, I think it will sink in more [Friday] that we have the chance to bring home the first state title for either school.
"But we're not focused on that. We're thankful to be in this position – a state title would be more than I ever expected – but we still have to focus on each specific race and jump Saturday."
Paige Rus, her freshman sister, Peyton, and fellow frosh Rachel Cobert will all be competing in four finals this weekend at O'Brien Stadium. Paige, who leads the field in the triple jump (36 feet, 9 1/2 inches), cleared 5-2 on her first try in the high jump, and ran on the winning 800 relay (1:44.07, No. 2 seed heading into finals), and the 1,600 relay (4:04.23, No. 2 seed). The Panthers dominated their heats in all three sprint relays.
Peyton was on the 800 relay and the 400 relay (49.25 seconds, top seed), and also advanced in the long jump (16-10 3/4, No. 6 seed) and 200 (26.20, No. 4 seed). Rachel Cobert ran on the 400, 800 and 1,600 relays, and also moved on in the triple jump (33-11 1/2, No. 9 seed).
Courtney Cobert will also run on those relays, and Corrie Reiley ran legs in the 1,600 relay and 3,200 relay (10:03.60, No. 10 seed), the latter a somewhat surprising finalist; the quartet of Reiley, Breanna Jensen, Kassi Henrekin and Brooke Remley flew under the radar this year, despite the Panthers' fourth-place finish in the event a year ago.
"We were so pumped up after that first relay qualified," Reiley said, "and I especially wanted us to do well, because it's the only race the other girls are going to run down here. Now, we have to focus and have the mental toughness to bring home a team medal."
Courtney Cobert came up short in her bid for four finals, as she and 400 relay teammate Heather Strike failed to advance in the 100 dash. The relay was especially nerve-racking for Cobert, as a problem with the FAT timing device forced the stoppage of the third heat of the race after the first handoff. To give those runners time to rest, the fourth heat – E-P's heat – was flip-flopped with the third.
But as the delay to fix the problem lingered, leadoff runner Cobert and her teammates did whatever they could to stay out of their own heads.
"Right when it happened, my mouth fell open, and I told the other girls I was glad we weren't in that heat," Cobert said. "After that, I just kept stretching my legs; I didn't even sit down when they told us we could. But we got through that, and the rest of the day went really well."
Unfortunately for the Hawks, they didn't have the same experience. The 400 relay (50.94) and 800 relay (1:47.56) both missed out on the finals, finishing the prelims 10th. The top nine move on. They missed it by 34-hundredths of a second in the 400 and 28-hundredths in the 800.
"It [stinks], but we got PRs in all three, and that's what maters to me," said senior Devyn Absher, who ran on both of those relays and the 1,600 relay, which placed 15th (4:13.46). "We got the chance to come down here and test ourselves against the best in the state, and it was a great end to my high school career."
Another close call didn't go Oregon's way either, but junior Cydney Long still made out OK. Her 15.77-second time in the 100 hurdle matched that of heat winner Taylor Adcock of Moweaqua Central A&M, but Adcock was awarded the automatic berth in the finals.
Still, Long's time was the second-best among non-heat winners and fifth-best overall, so she'll run on Saturday. She'll be joined by teammate Shannon Cullen, who qualified for the shot put with a heave of 38-2 1/4 (No. 4 seed).
"I thought I got her after she hit the second-to-last hurdle," said Long, who also ran in the 400 relay, 800 relay and 200 (17th, 27.05). "It's tough not making it in the relays – I thought we had both of them when Emy got off to such great starts – but I'm going to turn all my focus on the 100 hurdles Saturday and be ready to make the most of it."
Another local thrower made it through to Saturday, as Polo-Forreston senior Mykil Baker advanced in the discus (115-4, No. 7 seed), just a couple of hours after coming up short in the shot (21st, 33-2 3/4). Amboy senior Autumn Smith came close in the shot, missing the final dozen by three spots and 14 1/2 inches.
West Carroll senior Kaylee Vos also moved on, clearing 5-2 in the high jump on her third and final try at that finals-cutoff height.
Bureau Valley will also have a pair of athletes competing this weekend. Sophomore Regan Weidner will run in the fast heat of the 3,200, which is only run on Saturday; she'll be joined by classmate Lindsey Hoffert, who came up short in the 200 (24th, 27.34) after qualifying in the long jump (16-1 3/4, No. 4 seed).
Paige Rus, Erie-Prophetstown, triple jump & high jump
Peyton Rus, Erie-Prophetstown, long jump & 200
Mykil Baker, Polo-Forreston, discus
Rachel Cobert, Erie-Prophetstown, triple jump
Shannon Cullen, Oregon, shot put
Lindsey Hoffert, Bureau Valley, long jump
Cydney Long, Oregon, 100 hurdles
Kaylee Vos, West Carroll, high jump
Erie-Prophetstown 400 relay (Courtney Cobert, Peyton Rus, Heather Strike, Rachel Cobert)
Erie-Prophetstown 800 relay (Courtney Cobert, Peyton Rus, Paige Rus, Rachel Cobert)
Erie-Prophetston 1,600 relay (Courtney Cobert, Paige Rus, Corrie Reiley, Rachel Cobert)
Erie-Prophetstown 3,200 relay (Corrie Reiley, Breanna Jensen, Kassi Henrekin, Brooke Remley)