Fresh off tying for third place in Class 1A a season ago, needless to say the St. Joseph-Ogden High School girls’ track and field team had sizable expectations for the 2020 outdoor season.
Those expectations, however, are on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic that has closed schools across the state until April 30.
The Spartans had competed in a handful of indoor meets this winter and were gearing up for an indoor invitational at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston set for March 14 when the pandemic put spring sports on hold.
“Practices were great,” SJO fifth-year coach Kelly Steffen said. “We finally had all of our winter sport athletes with us, so it was time for what I would call championship indoor season. The girls team had two major indoor invites coming up over spring break where we were going to focus on qualifying as many events as possible to the Indoor Top Times meet that would have been this past weekend. Through our first three Uni High Mini-Meets, we had already had some ladies post awesome performances, so hopefully that early success keeps their motivation strong as they have to train in isolation.”
The Spartans haven’t been able to practice together as a team or compete in any events for almost two weeks after Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered statewide closures of schools in Illinois in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Steffen, who has guided SJO to four top-three finishes in state in her first four seasons, including a state championship in 2018, said the approach she has taken with her team is they are “hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.”
“What is the best?” Steffen said. “We go back to school and get to start up practicing and competition. Because of this, we as a team are focusing on doing anything and everything we can to continue to train from home.”
The outdoor season for SJO was set to begin on April 7 with a quadrangular meet at Danville between the host Vikings, SJO, Monticello and Urbana. But schools are closed through April 7 for the time being.
“I think everyone will be super excited but the adjustment back to normal may be more difficult than some expect,” Steffen said in regards to if the season does get underway. “Everyone is starting to settle in to quarantine life and a new routine. When routines are suddenly changed, we all need an acclimation period to get back in the swing of things. Therefore, getting back to school and sports is going to take more than a one-day transition. The coaches, teachers and athletes are going to have to come in focused and ready to work, yet be realistic about getting everyone’s minds and bodies caught up and back to the norm.”
SJO has a strong list of returnees who excel in multiple events for the Spartans. Junior Atleigh Hamliton is a two-time state champion in the long jump, while she also ran on the 800-meter relay team that won a state championship in 2019 and the 1,600 relay that placed second in state last season.
Seniors Danie Kelso and Hailey Birt are also strong sprinters SJO could rely on, with both returning after running on the 800 relay last season.
Senior Hannah Rajlich gives SJO an experienced runner in the 800 and 1,600, while the same sentiment holds true for fellow senior Jillian Plotner in both events as well. Senior Jenna Albrecht returns after qualifying for state last season in the triple jump, while junior Raegan Crippen added experience in the sprints and jumping events.
A strong sophomore class is also expected to contribute for the Spartans. Ashlyn Lannert ran on the 1,600 relay team at state and also the 3,200 relay that placed seventh in state last season, while Lannert could also chip in on the 300 hurdles. Kailyn Ingram is back after running on the 3,200 relay, while Grace Schmitz is a returning state qualifier in the pole vault.
Hope Rajlich and Abby Behrens could factor into the sprints, while Behrens is a threat in the high jump as well. Ava Knapp and Addie Allen could fill roles in distance running events for the Spartans and Ashley Eldridge could see time in the throwing events.
Freshmen Kaytlyn Baker (hurdles and sprints) and Emily Elsbernd (sprints, jumps) have also had strong showings during the indoor season for SJO.
“This team loves to compete,” Steffen said. “These girls get so excited when they are given the opportunity to spike up and go all out. This energy is contagious, and so I hope we get to expend it at some point this spring.”
The sentiment is especially true for the seniors Steffen is coaching this season.
“There are no words to explain how much my heart breaks for the seniors,” Steffen said. “Seeing their pure emotions when we had to tell them about the delay brought me to tears. Their passion and dedication to this program is so strong, and to see something like this step between that just is devastating. With that being said, all of these senior girls are so driven and strong-willed that they will find the lemonade from the lemons that are being thrown at them.”
Steffen is doing her best to not only lead her athletes through this turbulent time, but also to set an example as well.
“I am preparing my math classes at SJO for home-based learning to start on Monday,” Steffen said. “In addition to this, I have tried to get out and work out for at least 45 minutes a day. In my mind, if I can’t coach, yet expect my athletes to be continuing to work out, then I need to be out there doing it alongside them. Just the other day all of the girls were encouraging each other by sending pictures of them working out. Pictures and video chatting really have been sources of encouragement for the team. I’m so proud of these strong ladies for continuing to make the most out of the situation. I’m missing them tons, but so thankful for technology.”