STERLING – The baton passed between Dixon distance runners Taylor Renkes, Jade Miller, Grace Johnson and Paige Stees on Monday night served as quite a measuring stick.
Their goal at an indoor meet held at the Westwood sports complex was to piece together a time that would qualify for the Illinois Top Times Indoor Championship, slated for Saturday, March 23 at the Shirk Center in Bloomington. The top 12 teams that submit times in the 4x800 relay earn berths in the prestigious indoor meet that serves as an early gathering of some of the state’s best.
“Every meet is important, especially when you have so many events and so many girls with all kinds of talents,” Dixon coach Brandon Woodward said. “Today, though, the point is to put a 4-by-8 together, get out there and run, and try to crack that [Illinois Top Times] leaderboard, and hopefully get an invitation to that race in Bloomington.”
The Duchesses served notice they’ll be a force to be reckoned with this season in the 4x800 relay by turning in a time of 10 minutes, 3.28 seconds the first time out of the gate. It is the second-fastest 2A time thus far, behind just the 10:02.8 turned in by Tolono Unity on March 2.
“We were actually expecting around 10:15, maybe 10:10,” Renkes said. “I think with all of our hard work over the winter, it proved we could run faster than that. We all went out there and gave it our best.”
About 3 weeks after the cross country season ended in early November, Dixon distance runners gathered after school to run. Their workload gradually increased as the season drew closer, and now with the outdoor season approaching fast, the Duchesses are ready to rock.
“In the past years, we haven’t done as much winter running,” Renkes said. “This year, it’s really showing.”
Renkes, Miller and Johnson teamed with the graduated Leah Drengenberg last spring to post a time of 9:49.74 at the Class 2A outdoor state track meet, good for an 8th-place medal. With Drengenberg now competing in the triathlon at the University of South Dakota, a fourth runner was needed. That’s where Stees came in.
She was the top finisher for the Dixon girls cross country team that placed sixth at state last fall, as she covered the 3-mile Detweiller Park course in 18:16, good for 32nd individually. In the spring of 2018, however, Stees played soccer.
This spring, however, Stees is giving track a try, at the urging of various track teammates, coaches and Drengenberg – who lobbied unsuccessfully for Stees to go out for track as a freshman.
“I’ve played soccer my whole life, but I’ve also been running my whole life,” Stees said. “I decided this year I wanted to try track out. They really wanted me to do it, and I really like running with them. It’s just a fun team to be a part of, and the coaches are really awesome.”
The Duchesses will not have to look very far for elite competition, as right in their own backyard is Rock Falls. The Rockets were fourth at state last spring with a time of 9:41.02, and all four of the athletes who posted that time (Erin Porter, Alex Gomez, Bryahna Ganther and Bailee Fortney) return.
That group, however, does not plan to compete at the Illinois Top Times meet. Ganther was not in the lineup Monday night, and Rock Falls finished second to Dixon with a time of 10:11.22.
As for splits, Renkes ran about at 2:24, Stees a 2:28, Miller a 2:35 and Johnson a 2:36. They had run a few 800s at two earlier indoor meets this season, but Monday was their first combined effort.
“We’re very excited with what they were able to put together today,” Woodward said of his 4x800 foursome. “Everyone had PRs today, and that’s a big part of the recipe. We’re very proud of them, especially this early. On our team, no one works harder than those girls. I think people knew it was coming, but it was a matter of how low it was going to be.”