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Girls track & field eye state podium return

After a historic 2023 season, the Iron look for better results in 2024
Abigail Ziemer is looking for a fourth trip to state in the 1600-meter relay, winning the event in 2021 and 2023, and finishing third in 2022. Photo Courtesy: Mr. Jeff Christopherson

The girls’ track and field team is looking to replicate last season’s success as it enters the final stretch of the season. 

That will be no easy feat, as the 2023 season was historic for the Iron–the program had a top-ten team finish at the IHSA 3A State Track & Field meet, won a first-ever sectional title and claimed Big 12 Conference and Intercity championships.

At last season’s sectional, the Iron qualified 11 athletes for Eastern Illinois’ state competition, breaking three school records along the way.

Last season’s success is something second-year head coach Mr. Kendall Keller believes the team is capable of building on this year.

“We won Intercity and conference,” Keller said. We “placed sixth at state,” qualifying all four relay teams for the state meet for the first time in program history. 

This season, Keller said, the team is “eager” for a higher spot on the state podium.

In 2023, the Iron brought home four medals: Ali Ince won the 400-meter race for the second-straight season and the 800-meter; Community took first in the 1600-meter relay and seventh in the 3200-meter relay. 

Improving on last season’s sixth-place finish is more than achievable as the team returns all but two of last year’s state competitors. Shotputter Ruth Oliveros-Gallardo and Megan Metz, a member of the 3200-meter relay, graduated last year.   

“We know that we have the talent,” the coach said, “we just need to put it all together.”

The team’s veteran leadership will be instrumental in accomplishing that, as the roster boasts a leader in “every area” and event, Keller said.

Team captains Ince, Abigail Ziemer, Jazmin West, Alena Smith and Queen-Patricia Lubala are among those leaders, as the seniors are primed to lead Community back to the IHSA 3A State meet–and back to the podium.


Ali Ince and the distance relays

The Ironmen roster is headlined by Ince, whose accolades are almost too long to list. While the Oregon commit boasts seven first-place medals in the IHSA State Meet, the senior’s most recent honors have come at the national level.

At the New Balance Nationals in March, Ince posted the nation’s best indoor 800-meter time with a 2:03.85 finish. Ince followed that performance by posting the nation’s second-best outdoor time earlier this month, clinching a second-straight Arcadia Invitational 800 win (2:05.26).

Ince, Kellar said, is “hitting times” that put the senior on track to “race on the big stage.” 

The Olympic-caliber athlete, Kellar said, is more than “a great athlete.” She is a “fantastic leader.”

Ince is coming off her best IHSA state performance last season, medaling in four events. 

In addition to winning the 400 and 800, she anchored the first-place 1600-meter relay and the seventh-place 3200-meter team. 

In the 1600-meter relay, Ince, Ziemer, Lubala and freshman Lily Cavanaugh posted a time of 3:53.84, more than 2.5 seconds faster than the state runners-up. 

Ziemer and Ince are eyeing a fourth-consecutive trip to the podium in the 4×4. The duo were part of 2021’s first-place team and helped take home a third-place medal in 2022. 

Community’s seventh-place finish in the 3200-meter relay was a program best, marking the first time the Iron had medaled in the event at state. Ince, Ziemer, Cavanaugh and Megan Metz clocked in at 9:27.07. 

Metz’s graduation leaves a void the Iron will have to fill if they hope to return to Charleston to race in the 4×800. 

Community’s roster isn’t without options as freshman Emma Pollitt has bested Metz’s state split already this season. 

Strategy will play a factor in if the Iron attempt to qualify for State in the event. The 4×800 is the first track event to race which could hamper the atheletes’ performances in later events.


Lubala’s middle-distance prowess 

Lubala’s middle-distance speed translated to success in the 300 hurdles last season. As a junior, she missed qualifying for the 300 finals by .05 of a second, finishing 11th in the prelims at 46.07.

A lifetime best performance in last season’s sectionals earned Lubala the chance to race at state. This year, she’s been putting in the work to see her times drop again.   

Lubala clocked in at 45.87 on April 13 at the Kankakee Kays Invite, .02 faster than her previous personal record. 

Lubala, Keller said, is “a very strong athlete” and has the opportunity to make state in the triple jump as one of the top jumpers in the state. 

Beyond her athletic skills, Keller sees the senior as “a second coach.”


A new coach

But the team shouldn’t need Lubala as a coach with the off-season addition of assistant coach Michelle Crawford. 

Crawford, a former Bloomington High School runner, is a “sprint specialist,” Keller said.

Adding her to the roster is “a huge change,” the head coach said, that is “really advancing our program.”

Crawford inherited last season’s state qualifying short sprint squads–as the 400-meter relay and 800 relay teams remain intact with West, Smith, Jahariah Williams and Kendall Luke all returning this season.   


West and the sprint relats

The 400-meter relay finish was a heartbreaker as the Iron were edged out of finals by .02 of a second. The finished in 10th, one spot away from racing in the state finale. 

The team posted a 49.83 finish in the 4×100 in the Kankakee Kays Invite, just shy of the 49.34-second state qualifying standard.

At state last season, the quartet took 14th in prelims with a 1:44.20 finish.  With a month to go in the 2024 campaign, the sprint team is just over a second off that pace, finishing April’s Kays Invite at 1:45.38.

West, anchor of the short sprint relays, Keller said, is “the team’s fastest athlete,” and was instrumental in the team breaking the school’s 4×100 record last season. 

West showcased her sprint speed at state last year in the 100, but her time of 12.29 wasn’t enough to make finals. As a junior, West took 17th, .18 off of finals qualifying pace.

The school’s 100 record, Keller said, could be West’s by the end of her high school career. 

That record has stood for a quarter century, with Cheasa Gibson running 12.0 in 1999. 

On April 13, West clocked in 12.35 in the race, an early-season accomplishment. 


Reynolds ‘shot’ at state

As a sophomore, Marco Reynolds finished 24th in the state shot put competition, throwing for 10.74 meters.

Reynolds looks poised for a better finish this season, after winning the Illinois Top Times indoor meet with a throw of 12.68 meters, tying the junior’s personal record. That throw would have earned Reynolds a trip to the medal stand at state last season. 


The Iron won’t be without opposition, as “Illinois is a loaded state,” Keller said.

“I don’t think people talk about the Midwest that much but … there are a lot of schools that are talented.”

That talent, though, Keller thinks will benefit Community

“The strong competition,” Keller said, is “only going to only help our girls get to places that they never knew they were able to get to.”

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About the Contributors
Lyra Townsend
Lyra Townsend, Staff Writer
Lyra Townsend is a sophomore at NCHS and this is her first year working with the Inkspot.  Her current role is a staff writer.  My favorite movie is Jaws. On the weekends I like to fly planes. The slogan I live by is "Dream as if you'll live forever, fly as if it's your last flight."
Aki Griffin
Aki Griffin, Staff Writer
Aki Griffin is a senior at Normal Community High School. This is his first year working with the Inkspot and he is the staff writer.  My favorite film of all time is Scarface. In my lifetime I'd really like to meet LeBron James. If I won a million dollars I'd buy a 2022 AMG SL63 Mercedes.    
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