Huey Johnson goes back to the days of cinder tracks and stopwatch timing.
Bloom Township’s girls track coach for the last eight seasons and a veteran of the sport for more than four decades, Johnson knows how to put a team together. This year, his last before retirement, he’s put together a good one, the best the Blazing Trojans have had in several years.
Bloom, coming off its second Southland Conference title in the last three years, has strength across all distances, the key to collecting several tickets to next week’s Class 3A state championship in today’s sectional at Homewood-Flossmoor.
But Bloom is not alone. In particular, Lincoln-Way East and the host Vikings stand out in the 15-team sectional.
“This group of young ladies is a real special group,” Johnson said.
A team that was green last year, when there were only two seniors, is now mature. Distance specialist Gina Narcisi and jumper Justice Howard are the key seniors, but the juniors to watch are 400 speedster Jazzmin Ruiz, sprinter Brittany Thomas, and sprinter-jumper Ivory Cassell. With those leaders and others, Johnson sees as many as 14 Bloom qualifiers for the 3A championship weekend, if everything goes right.
It’s Cassell who’s been at the front of the pack all season, from indoor to the frigid early portion of outdoor, to now. She’ll have a great challenge to win the 100, but the qualifying time of 12.54 seconds should be within reach. She ran 12.58 in the Southland Conference final, while Thomas finished in 12.93. Cassell also anchor’s Bloom’s 400-meter relay team, which has been flirting with the qualifying time of 49.44 seconds.
Ruiz will have to improve on her 1:01.73 in the Southland Conference 400 to meet the qualifying time of 59.44, but, like Cassell, she’ll also face a much deeper field, and that could carry her to the necessary time, or a first- or second-place finish, which means automatic advancement no matter what the time.
Narcisi, just aced out of a spot in the 3A cross country final last fall, won the 1,600 and 3,200 at the conference meet, but needs to trim nearly 30 seconds off her conference time of 5:44.50 in the 1,600, and about 1:21 in the 3,200, to grab a state spot.
Bloom hasn’t had across-the-board depth since the presence of Tara Gonzalez and the Roche twins, Janalis and Janina, four years years ago. This year, the depth has been tempered by competitive inactivity thanks to the weather. You can finally only train so much.
“It’s only our fourth outdoor meet,” Johnson said after the conference meet. “We’ve got some loose ends to tie up with the relays.
But whoever gets this group next year will have a real good group of kids.”
Homewood-Flossmoor has a trio of fleet sprinters in Shayna Nwokenkwo, Mariah Terry and Antoinette Broughton, the latter two sophomores.
Nwokenkwo and jumper Chardae Greenlee are seniors, but the Vikings are otherwise quite young, with hurdler Jayla Stewart and thrower Rachel Wilson also sophomores.
Johnson’s squad has an uphill climb to take the sectional title, which, since it qualifies no extra athletes, is more symbolic than anything. Now only is Homewood-Flossmoor loaded, Lincoln-Way East is overloaded. The Griffins have been deep enough to send a solid team to local meets and their elite spinters on a cross-country odyssey.
Texas A&M-bound senior Aaliyah Brown had led them to the Penn, Texas and Kansas relays, something impossible before recent IHSA rule changes on out-of-state participation. Brown ran the 100 in 11.63 seconds at the Texas Relays, the ninth-best time in the country this year (a 11.60 at the Kansas Relays was wind-aided), and blew away the field in the 200 with a 25.07 in the SouthWest Conference Blue meet last week.
But Brown has company, beginning with junior Alexis Hyshaw, with an 11.98 in the 100 and a 25.24 in the 200. The Griffins, with a 46.10 clocking in the 400-meter relay in the Penn Relays and depth in middle and long-distance races, plus an ace hurdles in freshman Alexis Pierre- Antoine, are a state favorite.