Illinois Girls 2A State Preview: Springfield SE hopes to prevail in tough times

Believe it or not, it’s been four years since the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) implemented the three-class system for track and field. The system was supposed to balance equality throughout the class structure. Although it is too early to determine if having a third class was the right call, it’s not too soon to gauge the benefit of additional opportunities for quality athletes to compete in a state championship. Many of the supporters of the expansion are pleased with the outcomes.

Class 2A, formerly the biggest class and now the "middle" class, seems to be at full strength after four years. Sprint-rich schools Peoria Richwoods, Rock Island, and Springfield have added depth and talent. The distance powers had movement as well with Yorkville and Crystal Lake Central shoring up the division.

Springfield Southeast aims for another title through tragedy and triumph

The Spartans are in the midst of building a dynasty with two championships and a runner-up trophy in three attempts. This weekend at Eastern Illinois University’s O’Brien Stadium, it could be three plaques in a row.

Head coach Tom McBride is the patriarch of the program who will be retiring at the end of the season after a 31-year ride. He has seen some good and bad times in his program, but nothing could be worse than losing his assistant coach and long-time friend Dana Rountree, who passed away in February. “It was tough… I mean real rough not [having coach Rountree] around,” said a somber McBride during a meet in March.

Rountree was a revered coach among his peers and his athletes. He was a “lifer” in the sport. Rountree spent his entire teaching and coaching career in Springfield. Among the pupils he was most proud of was Alexandria Harden. She won four straight long jump and three triple jump titles under Rountree’s tutelage. She has earned a basketball scholarship to Wichita State University.

The Lady Spartans have taken no prisoners this season, despite the emotional downfall that engulfed the team. The team has won the city, conference, and sectional in dominating fashion. The final frontier would be the state championship.

The title chase will begin and end with emerging star junior Charday Crawford. Crawford, who cut her teeth under the guidance of Harden, now is the team leader. She also leads all sectional entrants in the 100 (12.03) and 200 (24.53).

The Spartans will also look to deploy their speed relays in which they posted the sectional best in the 4x200 (1:42.69). The 4x100 also qualified and produced a blistering 48.43 earlier in the season. The 4x400 will be a wildcard event should the Spartans need it at the end. The quartet has run 4:02 on several occasions.

In order to complete their task, the Spartans will need assistance from a strong supporting cast. Junior Brion Portis and senior Shawnise Stelivan will command the long jump. They both have competed well throughout the season and should make the final to score vital points. Portis will double back in the triple jump as one of the state’s top jumpers.

Senior K’Leesa Gilliam will look to duplicate her all-state performance from a year ago in the shot put. She has the third-best performance during the season. Gilliam doesn’t have to beat the favored Lena Giger (So., Highland); she just needs to score points. Her teammate Shauniera Wilson is a strong candidate to advance to the discus final in an evenly shaped field. The top 12 hurlers will advance to Saturday’s final.

The Shamier Little saga set for the weekend

Let the chase begin. It actually began at the beginning of the outdoor season when there was talk of junior superstar Shamier Little (Lindblom, Chicago) entering in four individual events for the state championship series. This is nothing innovative for top level track and field athletes. However, what is different is attempting four events featuring both hurdle races and with one of them back-to-back with a long sprint.

Little flew out to the prestigious Arcadia Invitational in California to test this theory. She competed in the 100H, 400, and 300H. The 400 and 300H were conducted within a 25-minute span that saw Little blaze 53.79 and 42.95 - both top ten marks in the country at the time. Those results proved to Little and her coaches that she had what it took.

Now, after easily qualifying for state in the four events, including the addition of the 200, Little has an opportunity to compete for a state title all by herself. It will be a very tall order but if anyone can garner 40 points solo, it is Little. The faithful of Charleston will have to wait until Saturday afternoon to see if history is made.

Paul focused on individual events

For the first time in her high school running career, University of Arkansas-bound senior Megan Paul of Mundelein Carmel Catholic will be entered only as an individual and free of relay duties. Paul now has the opportunity to settle matters in the 100, 200, and 400. The showdowns with Little and Crawford will be perhaps it will be the most intriguing part of the weekend on the track.

Distance running will have a new look

Last year, Kayla Beattie of Woodstock performed as Wonder Woman in the state tournament. It would be an understatement to say that she had the best performance of any athlete in the entire state meet, setting all-time records in the 3200 (9:56.96) and 1600 (4:43.65).

Junior Katie Adams of Marengo will be strangely chasing a title in the 3200 amongst strangers. None of the six girls who finished ahead of her in last fall’s cross country state championship will be competing either from moving up in class or running in other events. Even the Illinois Prep Top Times indoor champion Kristen Busch (Sr., Freeburg) has opted to run elsewhere in the meet program. Still, look for Stephanie Saey (Jr., Galesburg) to provide good company. Saey was the top sectional mark of 11:07.16 to Adam’s 11:10.20.

The 1600 will feature Adams, Sydney Billingsley (So., Normal University), Emma Preston (Sr., East Peoria), and Olivia Ryan (Fr., Oak Park Fenwick) as the prime targets- all five runners have run under 5:10. The state champion will more than likely run under 5:00.

Watch out for Sarah Bell-

Sarah Bell (Jr., Bloomington Central Catholic) has quickly become of the best if not the best pole vaulter in the country. She concluded the indoor season as co- US#1 (13-0.25) with good friend Brittany Hull (Jr., Normal Community). That confidence has continued to produce great results as Bell is a big favorite win a title in a new classification. Last year her school competed in Class A.

The US#4 ranked Bell will take on all challengers and certainly the ones that Chelsea Bingham (Sr., Effingham) and from newcomer Hannah Swift (Fr., Canton) will provide. Both young ladies have vaulted 12-0 during the season.

Don’t sleep on the relays

The 4x100 will be an event to watch because of the thrill of speed as the well as the uncertainty of the unknown. If there are no mishaps in the prelims the battle between Melrose Park Walther Lutheran should duel for supremacy. Walther Lutheran has the top sectional and seasonal best of 48.37 compared to the Spartan’s 48.43 effort.

The 4x200 should be all Springfield Southeast. The Spartans are more than a second better than the nearest competitor.

Richton Park (Rich South) are the defending state champion; they also have the top mark of 4:00.74 heading into the 4x400 prelims.

Lake Villa (Lakes), Effingham, and Petersburg-Porta will challenge for the top spot in the 4x800 arena.