CHARLESTON – Summerlyn Smith strolled out to her position on the O’Brien Stadium track, the spot where she would soon take the baton and run the second leg of the 4x400 relay for Mattoon. She shot a glance into the stands at the few rows of raucous folks in dark green shirts and raised her arms, pointer fingers up from clenched fists, to acknowledge and encourage their support.
She was about to begin what could have been the last race of her life after missing finals in the long jump, triple jump and 400-meter dash. A few minutes later, she helped ensure that no, she would race another day and that Mattoon would send at least one relay team to the finals of the Class 2A state track meet for the eighth straight year.
Mattoon’s 4x400 relay team of Keleila Princko, Smith, Cortnee Wilson and Mariah Ball ran a 4:04.61, which earned them third place in their heat and seventh overall in the preliminaries. Smith took the baton from Princko with Mattoon in fifth after one lap, jumbled amid a group of four runners. When she handed it to Wilson 400 meters and less than a minute later, Mattoon was in second.
“You pass anyone you can, and Summer passes everyone,” Ball said.
Smith is placed in the ideal spot to do some catching. In the second leg, runners often have built some separation, but usually no one is far enough away where they’re uncatchable. East St. Louis, the defending champion, was an exception and already on its way to beating every other team in the field by at least 11 seconds. The others, though, were right there, in range. It didn’t matter that she was in her fourth event of the day. Smith zeroed in and took aim.
“She’s put in a position to go catch girls,” Mattoon coach Troy Haacke said. “That’s where she shines. She loves the chase and she was in a perfect position to go chase people down.”
Smith raced in the same spot last year, when Mattoon took third in the 4x400. She also placed third in the 400-meter dash. Princko, Smith and Ball are all back from that team, in their same spots in the lineup. Wilson is the newcomer, replacing Anna VanHyfte.
“They have the opportunity to do something tomorrow,” Haacke said.
The foursome clocked in Friday six seconds faster than they ran at sectionals eight days prior. They entered the day with the seventh-fastest time in 2A and left it in the exact same place. Haacke flexed his team’s depth and raced his four seniors at sectionals and again at state, even though a different combination won the 4x400 in the Apollo.
“The groups change throughout the year. There are six or seven different girls, eight probably, who are capable of running that race,” Haacke said. “We’ve ran different groups all year and made the decision to stick with the four seniors.”
Smith and Ball, though, were constants unless Haacke wanted to give them a break. They’re heading to a relay final at state for the third time in their four years.
Ball, as the anchor in the 4x400 and the 4x800, sometimes finds herself all alone, not likely to catch anyone or be caught. Friday, there was no benchmark or nearby runner to pace herself against. She still delivered, though, and capped the 4x400 team’s spot in the finals. Mattoon made it by about two seconds, a tight margin in a 1,600-meter race.
Mattoon’s eight-year streak of state final relay teams began on the backs of its 4x800 teams. Now, though, it’s this group that has lifted the 4x400 in becoming a finals mainstay the last two years.
“It wasn’t until the last several years where our 4x4 showed up and could compete,” Haacke said.
Haacke trains all his runners in the 400 and the 800, even if they don’t end up running those events in meets. Doing so allows them to bump down to sprints or up to longer distances without either seeming like foreign, uncomfortable territory. And it creates a faster, deeper crop of 400 and 800 runners who can form competitive relay teams.
“We want to make sure we’re strong enough to run that race,” Haacke said of relays.
All it takes, beside the baseline talent, is essentially year-round practice at it. Smith and Ball, finally recovered, stood in the parking lot outside O’Brien Stadium and shot each other a glance and a grin when asked about their relay teams’ depth and consistency.
“We love distance practice, don’t we?” Ball said wryly to her teammate.
Smith chuckled, acknowledging the demanding yet rewarding nature of it.
“Definitely helps during the season.”