When Henry-Midland junior Nakeita Kessling takes the handoff to run the anchor leg of a relay, she’s very familiar with her teammate handing her the baton.
In fact, she knows all three of her relay teammates quite well.
Nakeita Kessling runs with her sisters – senior Nadia, and freshman Daphaney – as well as her cousin, freshman Jersey Johnson.
“It keeps it interesting,” Nakeita said with a laugh.
When asked to elaborate on that, she just laughed and said, “It’s just interesting, that’s all.”
“It’s just different when you have sisters in it.”
In the Mallards’ case, it may be interesting and different, but it’s also been very successful.
The three Kessling sisters and Johnson teamed up to run a 4:25.72 in the 4x400-meter relay to win the event at the Class 1A Tremont Sectional and qualify for the IHSA state meet, which is Thursday at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.
“I don’t know how many times that’s happened in the past for any school, but it’s pretty unique, that’s for sure,” H-M coach Ruark Crawley said. “I told them before [the sectional] they’ll never have this chance again, so just run for each other.”
The family foursome hoped to run together this season, but it played out differently than they anticipated.
“[We hoped to be] working together, yes, but a [4x400]? No, that was never the plan,” Nadia said. “We were thinking probably a [4x100] or a [4x200] because most of us don’t like to run 400s.”
But it turned out that the 1,600 relay was the foursome’s best chance at state as it entered the sectional with the top seed.
“All of our times really collaborate with the 400, so we just took it to the [4x400],” Daphaney said.
The sisters said running with each other provides motivation.
“We have to be better than the other sisters,” Daphaney said.
“Oh, I see,” Nakeita responded with a laugh.
Nadia said she draws motivation from Nakeita’s drive to win.
“Nakeita pushes me,” Nadia said. “She has this weird motivation thing that I can’t relate to that when someone is ahead of you, you must absolutely beat them even if you have no energy left. You must pass them. So then I must beat her time.”
Along with motivation, being family allows the four to offer criticism that they maybe couldn’t with other teammates.
“I feel like it helps us because you can’t really be mean to your teammates, but to your siblings you can be like, ‘Hey, that was a horrible handoff. Come on,’” Nadia said. “It’s very constructive criticism. It’s OK because we’re all family, so nobody takes it personally. They’re like, ‘Yeah, you’re right, that was bad.’”
Because Daphaney had no relay experience, the open communication helped her work on handoffs.
“It was different doing my first [4x100],” Daphaney said. “I didn’t know how to hand off or anything. They came to me afterward and helped me out with it.”
At the sectional, Daphaney ran the opening leg followed by Johnson then Nadia before Nakeita took it home for the title, culminating in a “big hug and dead legs,” Nadia joked.
“We kind of realized we were going to state when Nakeita was coming down the final 100,” Nadia said. “Then us three (Daphaney, Jersey and me) were celebrating, giving hugs and screaming at Nakeita to finish strong and that they were right behind her. They weren’t, but that’s motivation for her. She crossed the finish line and was dying, and we gave her a hug and said, ‘Yeah, buddy, we’re going to state.’”
The Mallards’ relay is seeded 22nd among 29 entries for state, but the four hope to trim some time.
Regardless of what happens, it’s a special experience for the Kesslings and Johnson.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” Nadia said. “It’s my senior year, and I get to go to state with my family.
“My parents love it. They’re excited, especially because [Daphaney] is going to state. They’re excited all their kids got to go to state. My mom is probably most excited that it’s a straight family relay. It means her whole family made it.”