CHARLESTON — Considering everything the University High School girls track team did during the Class 2A finals of the 47th state meet on Saturday, missing a team trophy by one place caused Coach John Neisler to say “you don’t get to walk away from that and be disappointed at all.”
The Pioneers certainly had a lot to celebrate after scoring 41.5 points to finish fourth behind East St. Louis (72), Springfield Southeast (65) and Monticello (48).
Leading the charge was U High’s winning 3,200-meter relay which clocked a season best of 9 minutes, 41.81 seconds thanks to Kendy Ummel (2:25.8), Emmy Mussey (2:26.4), Mackie Madix (2:30.4) and Ella Bittner (2:19.2).
The Pantagraph area’s only other 2A champion was Clinton junior Payne Turney in the 800 at 2:17.54.
U High’s top scorer with 21 points was Illinois recruit Jessica McDowell, who sped a Pantagraph area record of 24.53 while placing second in the 200. She also motored 56.58 for second in the 400 and posted a lifetime best of 12.22 for fifth in the 100.
While McDowell ran wild, Bittner supplied drama. Earlier, Neisler asked if she wanted to skip the relay to focus on the 1,600 in which she placed third (5:12.68).
“I said helping this team is so much more important than me doing well individually,” Bittner said. “Helping this team get where I know we should be is so much more rewarding to me.”
Bittner got the baton in third, 20 meters behind the leader, and with 100 left, took the lead for good.
“I didn’t know what was possible,” she said. “I knew I was going to try. We’ve all worked for the same goal. (Neisler) believes in us, probably the most of anyone. He knows what we can do, and he assures us that we can.”
Teammates praised Bittner.
“Once Ella got the baton and she started closing, all of our hearts just kind of lifted,” Ummel said. “We were just screaming so hard.”
Mussey applauded Bittner’s contagious confidence.
“She just has so much confidence,” Mussey said. “She knows what she can do and that’s so great for all of us because we know we can trust her. She trusts herself.”
A window into Turney’s competitive spirit would reveal a fearless conqueror. At least that’s how it seemed as she became Clinton’s first state champion in girls track. She never trailed, reaching halfway with a 10-meter lead in 66.2.
Turney told herself “I’m going to do this. No matter what it takes, I’m going to cross that line with everything I have.”
Afterward, she felt “pure joy. This is what I’ve been training for. It finally happened. The plan from the start was to go out and see who was going to stick with me.”
Nobody did as she topped the runner-up by 3.58 seconds. However, that effort took a toll as Turney later struggled to 11th in the 1,600 in 5:23.00.
“My mind was saying, ‘Okay, let’s go. Stay with them,’” Turney said. “My body was going, ‘You just ran the 800. I don’t think you can do this.’”
McDowell would’ve won if not for Southeast’s Serena Bolden in the 200 (24.53) and Rich Central’s Jayla Campbell in the 400 (56.36). McDowell’s 12.22 in the 100 ranks eighth in Pantagraph area history.
“I’m tired, but also happy with how this meet has gone,” said McDowell, whose 24.53 broke the area record of 24.60 set by Bloomington’s Jezel Martin in 2015.
“This was definitely a great meet for our team overall. I really loved seeing the team work together.”
Bittner was happy with third in the 1,600.
“My legs were feeling a little shaky before, but I thought maybe mental toughness would bring me through and it did,” she said.
Giving U High 3.5 points was pole vaulter Lindsey Shouse, who tied for sixth by matching her personal best of 11-0.
“A lot of girls got 11-0, but I made everything on my first attempt so that helped me,” she said.
Prairie Central freshman pole vaulter Lillianna Ifft took third by clearing a personal best of 12-3, the same height as the runner-up, as a tailwind pushed her to the pit.
“It really helped me with running down the runway,” she said. “It gave me more speed.”
Eureka’s 3,200 relay led U High most of the way, but faded to third in 9:48.41. Exchanging the baton were Courtney Heffren (2:28.0), Alexi Fogo (2:22.8), Tessa Wiegand (2:28.3) and Emma Argo (2:29.1).
“The race wasn’t exactly what we were looking for, but we got the opportunity to run and we’re grateful for that,” said Argo, an Illinois State recruit.
“Being with these girls, I don’t care what place it is,” she said. “It’s an honor to be with them. They’ve grown my love for track.”
Heffren (60.1) also ran on the sixth-place 1,600 relay (4:04.08), which included Amy Pineda (61.2), Lexi Grober (62.2) and Katelyn Knapp (60.7).
“I’m really happy with how we did,” Knapp said. “I’ve never experienced this before and it was definitely something to remember.”