NORMAL — We’ve seen cases like Jessica McDowell’s before.
A young track athlete gravitates to an event she enjoys, until — sometimes by accident — a different event likes her more than anyone could have guessed.
A University High School junior, McDowell has been the Pantagraph area’s top 200-meter dasher all spring, currently owning a season best of 25.61 seconds.
Prior to last week’s Class 2A Macomb Sectional, McDowell had dabbled as a member of the Pioneers’ four-by-400 relay on three occasions, producing two splits of 60.0 and one 58.0.
As respectable as those efforts were, few observers were prepared for her jaw-dropping 56.6 leadoff leg in the sectional to set up a 4:01.14 final time that shattered the 1994 school record of 4:04.83 set by Mandy Tucker, Erin Mapel, Sarah Stuckey and Chela Kapanga. to
That 4:01.14 makes U High the No. 4 seed in Friday’s Class 2A state meet preliminaries at Charleston. Friday’s top nine times advance to Saturday’s finals. The Class 1A prelims are Thursday while the 3A prelims follow 2A on Friday.
“I was very surprised (by 56.6),” admits McDowell. “I knew I had to try to run my best to do well for the team.”
Making McDowell’s split especially noteworthy was the fact she handed off first after having no one to chase because eventual winner Dunlap started in an inside lane.
“Fifty-six – I’m not sure I was ready for that yet, but I knew she was going to be good,” said Coach John Neisler.
“She’s a strong, strong runner. I think her first 200 was roughly low-to-mid 26. I was more worried she was going to implode coming down the homestretch.”
But McDowell didn’t implode, producing a time only four girls in area history have bettered in the open 400. U High’s 2015 school record in that event is 58.18 by Chante Stonewall, a two-time state champion in the 300 hurdles.
When asked if he’s ready to declare the 400 as McDowell’s best event, Neisler quipped, “I’m not going to say that out loud until I’ve got Jessica convinced of that.
“I think she described it the other day as a love-hate relationship (with the 400). I think she still wants to be able to call herself a 200 runner.”
McDowell, however, admits the 400 has been on her mind lately.
“Next year, I will likely focus on that more,” she said. “I’ve seen how much potential I have in that race.”
As part of his sales pitch to promote the 400, Neisler showed McDowell this year’s Missouri Valley Conference indoor 400 results in which her 56.6 would have placed fourth.
“She’s run it four times and I think she’s still got a lot to learn,” he said. “I think she’s got a little bit more to give.”
McDowell’s relay partners were senior Brooklyn Mosley (61.5), sophomore Rachel Kullman (63.5) and senior Carrington Walker (59.6). The splits of Mosley and Walker were season bests while Kullman tied her best.
“I love them like they’re my family,” said McDowell of her unofficial relay relatives.
The Pioneers’ fastest foursome didn’t race together until the Central State Eight Conference Meet. That 4:07.49 effort made Neisler reluctantly accept that McDowell should skip the sectional 200 to help the 1,600 relay.
Her disappointment of missing her specialty has been eased by the school record and the fact she made it possible for U High to take 22 girls (including alternates) to the state meet.
“She’s very selfless,” Neisler said. “I’m blessed with a lot of selfless girls.”
As for the school record, it “feels amazing,” McDowell said. “I know my team and I have been working hard towards that goal all year. To have it finally pay off is the greatest feeling ever.”
A key player for U High’s 29-11 third-place Class 3A state volleyball team, McDowell also ran on the state-qualifying 400 relay and 800 relay, which produced area-leading times of 49.64 and 1:45.85, respectively.
McDowell’s 400 relay partners were Mosley, Walker and sophomore Courtney Kowalski. The 800 relay included Mosley, Walker and Kullman. McDowell also came within one place and .12 of advancing in the 100 with a third-place 12.86.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her straining,” Neisler said. “The form that she has at the start of the race is what you’re going to see at the finish.”
When a sprinter can do that for 400 meters, her best event is confirmed.
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