The following article was co-written by juniors Grace Bentley and Erika Marchant.
“It’s a snowball effect.” It was the Friday before the North Suburban Conference Meet and head coach Nathan Sweet, standing in front of the Girls Track and Field Team, delivered a speech that would set the tone for their next few weeks. “When good things start happening,” he continued, “more good things will follow.”
The girls knew exactly what he was talking about. Track meets always began with the 4×800 relay, and Lake Forest had a good one. The rest of the team knew the reliably-consistent relay was a guaranteed catalyst for a successful meet. On top of the strong relay, the team was advantaged in that it was, as Coach Sweet described, “fuller”; with a more well-rounded group of athletes, the team scored points in sprints, distance, and field events, as opposed to relying mainly on distance (which had been the trend over the past few years).
Going into the Conference meet, they all knew there was going to be tough competition, but were confident in their training. They knew they wanted to win, and they knew that a chain reaction of successes—what Coach Sweet had compared to a snowballing effect—was possible.
Everything went according to plan, if not better.
The team walked into the North Suburban Conference Meet with high hopes, but were still uncertain as to what the outcome would be. They walked out as Conference champions. With a strong start from the 4×800 relay, who took first place, Coach Sweet’s prediction rang true—good things did follow. The Scouts were pulling points from wherever they could, and the end result was a Conference Champion title and a total of 121 points for the Varsity girls, nearly twenty points ahead of second-place Warren. Amidst the excitement and the hugging, and after the team had taken their victory lap, Coach Sweet told the girls, “Be proud of yourselves. This is something you will never forget.”
The team was ecstatic. Riding off the high of the Conference win, they eagerly anticipated the Sectional meet the following week at Loyola Academy. Each team in the Sectional sent two individuals, or one relay, per event; with such a selective pool of girls, the best of every school was there to fight to the bone for the much-sought over state qualification. One could qualify either by running below an extremely fast predetermined time, or placing first or second in their event (both tasks no small feat in themselves).
The Thursday afternoon was sunny and warm—a blessing after months of relentless forty-degree, rainy meets—and the competition was fierce. Similar to the Conference meet, many of the team’s athletes were seeded third or fourth, or tantalizingly close to the qualifying time. The ever-elusive dream of State was in their grasp.
And much like at Conference, things just started to go right.
The 4×800 (Emma Milburn, Grace Bentley, Courtney Schmidt, Sydney Barber) dropped more than 14 seconds off of their season best to qualify for state by .2 seconds—a result that remained undetermined for a nail-biting five minutes before confirmation. The 4×100 (Haley Click, Sydney Leonardi, Kamila Obrzut, Anafran Curry) relay broke the 4×1 school record a fourth time to win the event. “I was crying!” Kamila recalled. Yvonne Lovelady, the team’s sprints coach, would later describe the Sectionals 4×100 as the best race she had seen in her life. “I wish I could replay it again and again in my head.”
Olivia Vallone clinched second place in the 100 meter hurdles, Emma Milburn qualified easily after running under the qualifying time of 2:19 in the 800m dash, and Haley Click, a University of Michigan recruit, dominated the 300 meter hurdles.
By the time the 4×400 (Click, Bentley, Barber, Milburn) ran, five events had qualified for State; the relay’s state qualification and school record were the icing on the cake.
“We ran for times and we ran for ourselves,” junior Anafran Curry noted on Sectionals. “We wanted to give our team a reason to cheer.”
By the meet’s end, nine girls qualified for the IHSA State Championship meet. The Girls Track team had given spectators many reasons—having qualified in six separate events—to cheer.
At last, the girls had made it to State.
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The Lake Forest’s Girls Track and Field team’s road to State was one characterized by two four-hour-long bus rides, three broken bluetooth speakers, and twelve high school girls belting Miley Cyrus favorites. The long trip to Charleston, Illinois consisted of ceaseless laughs and screams, the inception of what the girls dubbed their “varsity eating team,” and the numerous thuds of girls hitting the bus floor after tight turns around street corners.
For most of the athletes on the mini white bus, the trip to State was a novelty. While Click, Milburn, Bentley, Schmidt and alternate Anna Bazell had traveled down the year before, Vallone, Barber, Curry, Obrzut, Leonardi, 4×800 alternate Erika Marchant, and 4×100 alternate Claire Gilmore were traveling to the illustrious bright-blue track of Eastern Illinois University for the first time.
“Promise me one thing,” Coach Sweet asked of the amassed runners the night before the preliminary races began. “When you walk out of that bullpen, onto the blue track, that you’re going to soak it all in. Forget about the nerves. The stands are all packed, and all those eyes are going to be on you. Soak it in—you’re going to remember this for the rest of your life.”
As East Illinois University’s O’Brien Stadium held thousands of spectators and hundreds of teams across three divisions, there certainly were lots of eyes on the athletes. The girls witnessed a level of organization and intensity unmatched by past dual meets and invitationals. Especial strength was required of those competing as individuals.
As Emma Milburn explained, having competed individually in the 800 meter dash, “At State, you’re more isolated—you warm up by yourself, you race by yourself, you wait in the bullpen by yourself. You have to learn how to rely on yourself. It really turns into a mental game.” Milburn—a junior with an unparalleled work ethic and talent—is one of the fastest 800 runners in the state, and looks forward to returning to State as a senior and medal in the event.
For Olivia Vallone, reasons to feel nervous for the 100 meter hurdles were ample. “I kept hearing people clip the hurdles,” she recalled, “and before I ran, I was telling myself, ‘please don’t false start!’” After crossing the finish line, Olivia turned around to find that a number of girls had fallen flat onto the track. “All the people there were so intense!” On Olivia’s characteristic pre-race friendliness, Claire Gilmore emphasized, “She was saying ‘hi’ to everyone!” It could’ve been her ability to quell her nerves before the race, or it could’ve been sheer effort. It could’ve been a combination of the two, but regardless, Olivia pulled off a personal record-setting race.
Also among those who competed at State individually, senior Haley Click landed 8th place in the 300 meter hurdles. While Haley partially attributes her success to the support of her teammates and coaches, she also believes, “If you want something, you have to work hard. You can get help from others, but in the end, it has to come from yourself.” Although her teammates share a universal excitement for Haley’s future track career at the University of Michigan, where her passion for and dedication to the sport will continue to grow, the fact that her absence will leave significant void in the team is indisputable. “It’s going to be so hard to fill her place,” teammate Kamila expressed.
The 4×800, after a two hour rain delay that pushed back the entire meet, ran Friday afternoon with an altered lineup of Bentley, Schmidt, Marchant, and Barber. “One of the best moments was knowing that we did it together,” Courtney Schmidt smiled, “that I was a part of something special.” The whole season had culminated to this moment, as Barber detailed. “I was sitting on the track before the 4×8, looking up into the stands and seeing the team, I pointed up towards them—that was the switch for me. There was just so much adrenaline. I knew I wanted to put everything I had out there.”
Early Friday evening, the 4×400 competed in the first heat of the prelims. While they did not make it to Finals the next day, the girls were beyond grateful to run together one last time. “Emma, Haley, and I have been running together since freshman year. And Sydney’s just been this perfect, dynamic fit; we’ve all really clicked this year,” Grace explained. “We’ve been through it all together, the wins and the losses. The 4×4 is a crazy competitive race, but it’s the best race. I love this team more than words can describe.”
The 4×100 team was one that Coach Lovelady knew would be successful since the day she put the four of them together. The trust that the girls had in one another was testified by the precision of their handoffs and, of course, their state qualification. On the relay’s bond and trust, anchor Anafran shared, “I had complete faith that every girl girl was gonna go in and give it everything, that we could push the limit.” For freshman runner Sydney Leonardi, who generally doesn’t enjoy doing things alone, the relay dynamic was a perfect fit. “Doing it as a team makes it so much more special.”
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The camaraderie between relay teams, as well as between all the girls on the State team, was ultimately indicative of the team’s bond as a whole. Although only twelve girls made the trip to the State meet, nearly seventy others contributed to the team throughout the 2016-2017 season. The girls never ceased to support and love each other, to acknowledge and highlight one another’s accomplishments. “Track has been amazing. I’m used to playing soccer, where it’s a lot of people stepping on each other to get to the top, but track was different,” Sydney Barber shared. “It was all about building one another up.”
Although the motivation and leadership of the girls and their captains (Haley Click, Mary Claire Simutis, and Annabelle Capstick) was invaluable to the team’s success, the journey to State was made possible by the coaches—Coach Lovelady, Coach Naughton, Coach Darraugh, Coach Jerina, Coach Poznanski, and Coach Sweet. The season was the last for both Coach Sweet and Coach Lovelady, and to say that girls will miss the leadership of the two would be a blatant understatement.
Coach Sweet’s passion for running was one that incited excitement and motivation in the hearts and minds of the distance girls, and his experience and understanding of the sport was demonstrated in every specialized work-out he thoughtfully planned out for his athletes; although times were often faster than what some believed they were capable of meeting, Coach Sweet recognized the girls’ potential even before they had.
Coach Lovelady’s compassionate words of wisdom, as well as her animated encouragement and unwavering faith in the girls, inspired every sprinter who had the luck to train under her. Her advice to her successor: “Keep pushing them to the next level, work them hard. But be sure to give them some encouragement, too. They need to get experience, they need to get confidence—these girls are so special.”
To future members of the track team, sophomore Courtney Schmidt advises them to “Take it in, every moment, every practice, every meet. Because, it’s never gonna be the exact same team.” Echoing the sentiments of teammates, senior Claire Gilmore offered a piece of advice to members of next year’s team: “Every day, every practice, you have to give the utmost effort. Every bead of sweat gets you closer to cutting your time. You have to give it your all. Know that you’re not just joining the sport, you’re joining the team.”
Despite whatever waits in their future, the girls track team will always be bonded in knowing what they were able to accomplish as one body—from Conference to Sectionals to State. “When we all come back together on the track,” reflected Anna Bazell, “there’s always this mutual understanding of what it means to be an athlete, what it means to be a teammate, and what it means to be a team.”