CHARLESTON – After receiving the ninth-place medal for her showing in the 100-meter dash, Nakeita Kessling stepped over, unfolded her arms from around herself and reached down for a her Henry-Senachwine sweatshirt to replace them as her source of warmth and shelter from the chilly rain falling on Eastern Illinois University’s O’Brien Stadium.
It would be nice to think that the shiver she was feeling was not from just the unrelenting raindrops and dropping temperatures, but from also her own sense of amazement for doing something no other person from her school had ever done before.
In the last of her three events at the IHSA Girls State Track and Field Meet finals on Saturday, Kessling set aside the rain, the cold and a two-hour rain/lightning delay to put together the most clutch 400-meter run of her life, her clocking of 58.46 seconds earning her the Class 1A state championship in that event and the first title ever for a Mallards athlete in any sport.
And there were other treats on the day for her team aside from those 400 and 100 efforts.
Kessling also finished second in the 1A long jump fractions behind the winner, Megan Williams of Newark. Add in a fifth-place in the discus by her teammate Laney Lester and the H-S squad came away from state with solid 24 team points, tying them for 11th place in the standings with downstate power Teutopolis.
“I think it’s going to take at least a day for that all to sink in,” Kessling said with a laugh. “I came into this year running a minute flat, but thought maybe I could get under 59 and once I did that, I thought maybe I could place, but I wasn’t thinking about first.
“This was a great way to finish off a season. I didn’t even know if I was going to get top 9 in the 100, but I was glad just to make finals. I didn’t jump the best in long jump, so to get second place, that’s crazy.”
The Mallards senior started strong in the 400, taking the lead after the first 100 yards and stayed a stride ahead of hard-charging runner-up Avery, Demo of Rockford Christian (59.02), and third-place Grace Alongi, of DuQuoin (59.61), to cruise in with her winning time.
“It was good to have the 100 not long before the 400 to warm me up,” Kessling said. “I knew where I had to be, having the No. 2 and 3 runners (Teutopolis’ Kaitlyn Vahling and Demo) right next to me. I knew how to pace myself to be right there with them. It’s windy, it’s rainy so I figured I wouldn’t PR, but I’m pretty happy being under 59. That’s what I was shooting for and that’s what I got.
“To celebrate, tonight I’m going to treat myself to a good dinner … definitely with ice cream. I’ve been craving it and that sounds so good.”
Lester overcame her disappointment of not qualifying for the discus finals a year ago as a sophomore by taking a new, more relaxed approach to her throws. The results were exactly the same, replicating her prelim toss of 37-37 in the finals to give her the medal.
“Coming into today, I definitely wanted to medal and redeem myself,” she said. “Last year in the discus, I didn’t make finals. I was so excited and ready to go, I must have seemed so young, but this year, I came in with more experience and was more calm, more level-headed … To do that this year is pretty awesome. I’m really happy.”
St. Bede’s Anna Lopez captured seventh place in the 1A triple jump, an event also won by Williams. The Bruins junior recorded a leap of 10.45 meters in the prelim to put her the seventh seed, and though she couldn’t find a better one in the finals, she remained in that spot.
“I’m really proud of how my jumps progressed and how the hard work paid off,” Lopez said. “Last year, I was injured and didn’t make it to state in the triple jump, so my main goal this year was to get here, but to get here and be a top finisher and medal winner, it’s amazing … I tried my hardest and I’m pretty proud of it.”
Amboy’s Elly Jones also had a fine day in her two events. The Clippers ace earned a seventh-place medal in the 100 hurdles with a time of 15.8, a time fractionally better than the 15.87 she posted in Thursday’s prelims.
In the triple jump, she placed ninth with an effort of 10.35 meters, again just a hair better than her prelim distance of 10.33.
“Ninth was not what I was hoping to get in the triple jump, but I still have two more years, so I’m OK with it,” Jones said. “I ran a better (hurdles) race today. I was really excited about today.”
Also for the Clippers, Lauren Althaus grabbed a seventh-place medal in the 400 behind Kessling, turning in a clocking of 1:00.66. That’s a slight improvement over her 100.83 turned in on Thursday.
The only 2A participant from the area was La Salle-Peru’s Emily Strehl, who in Friday’s prelim posted a distance of 10.62 to earn a No. 9 seed, but she was unable to improve on that number and placed 11th in that event.