Irondale state champs still relishing the moment

The Irondale High School girls track and field team that qualified for state in the 4x400-meter relay in 2015 finished in the bottom half of the standings in the prelims and did not advance to the finals. Three members of that relay quartet made it back to state in the same event this season and entered the state meet with modest goals.

They definitely surpassed those goals.

Advancing to the finals was what they were aiming for and they achieved that but they also went a bit further. They went out and won the title, giving the program its first state championship in more than 10 years.

“Last year we didn’t make it to finals,” said sophomore Julia Hayes. “We took 14th out of 19 and so this year we were hoping to make it to finals.”

Hayes, senior Emily Brandt and juniors Michelle Meyer and Liz Axberg teamed up to win the event in 3:54.46. It was the first state championship for an Irondale girls relay team and the first state title of any kind for the program since Chichi Omeoga won the 200-meter dash in 2004.

Even a couple of weeks after it happened, it hadn’t completely sunk in.

“People I don’t know come up to me and say, ‘So, I heard you did really well at state,’” Meyer said. “Yeah, that did happen, didn’t it?”

Hayes agreed.

“We’ve got the video online and I watch it every day and still can’t believe it,” said Hayes.

Entering the state meet this year, Irondale had ninth-best qualifying time at 4:00.89. Their prelim time was 3:58.51, which was the third-fastest but they were seeded fifth in the finals. The top two teams in each heat automatically qualify for the finals along with the next five fastest teams. Since they weren’t top two in their heat, they dropped to fifth in the seeds.

Being fifth, they ran in lane two to start the race. Meyer was the leadoff runner and put the team in good position after the first leg.

“I just did what I could,” Meyer said. “It was more about setting the pace for the team and not only running my race but making sure everyone else could be confident in what they could do by seeing what I could do.”

Brandt said Meyer’s performance was definitely a confidence booster.

“For me and Liz, we see Michelle coming in so strong and that kind of loosens us up,” Brandt said. “It:s not like we’re starting in last and we have to make all this time up.”

Axberg ran the second leg and handed off to Brandt. When Brandt passed the baton to Hayes for the final lap, Irondale was running in second place but that didn’t last long. Hayes quickly fell behind two other runners on the back straightaway and had some work to do.

“Before the race I was worried because I had two events earlier that really drained my energy and I didn’t think I was going to be able to push it like I normally do,” said Hayes. “But the adrenaline kicked in. This is state finals.”

Hayes, who also ran in the 100 and 300-meter hurdle races at state, found that extra gear and got back to second place and then passed the lead runner from Eagan over the final 50 meters.

Being able to compete together all season was a big a key to the 4x400 team’s late-season success. In addition to the state championship, they also won the event at the Northwest Suburban Conference championships and the Section 5AA state-qualifying meet.

“This year we had more confidence in ourselves,” Brandt said. “We had this team from the beginning of the season because there were no injuries.”

Lowering their times as the spring went along also helped them believe.

“I think we had a lot more confidence because our time had gotten a lot better over the course or the season,” Hayes said.

Something that helped them at state, according to Irondale distance coach Brent McGrew, was their ability to stay relaxed and not let the enormity of the situation get them off track.

“I think the biggest thing was how calm they were before the races,” said McGrew, who is also the Irondale girls cross country head coach. “We told them to be relaxed. At the conference meet, some other events were tight and we think it affected their performances. By the time we got to the 4x400, they were nice and relaxed and they ran really well.”

There is also sometimes a bit of luck that goes into winning. Good fortune came into play during the final handoff between Brandt and Hayes.

“It’s a little chaotic and ours got a little more chaotic because I fell right after I handed off to Julia,” Brandt said. “I could feel with 10 meters left that my legs were done. I handed it to Julia and fell, which almost took her down but didn’t.”

Hayes was able to avoid being tripped up by Brandt, which had it happened probably would have ended their title hopes.

For Meyer, the championship helped erase the frustration of 2015, when she was injured and couldn’t compete with Axberg, Brandt and Hayes.

“The team we had this year was the original squad from ninth grade,” Meyer said. “I couldn’t be in it last year. I was super excited they went to state but it was also like, ‘Wow, I just missed out that one.’”

For Brandt, the only senior of the foursome, it was the final track and field event of her career. She is heading to the University of Wisconsin in Madison this fall but she is not completely done with running. She ran in a 10K road race earlier this month.

Like Meyer, Axberg and Hayes are back at Irondale next year. All three are set to compete in cross country in the fall and will be on the track team again in the spring. Axberg and Meyer are cross country veterans while Hayes is coming out for the team for the first time after usually spending her autumns playing soccer.

“It’s a good group of four girls and they’re hard workers,” McGrew said. “We’re definitely going to miss Emily next year and her leadership on and off the track. They worked hard for it and they all peaked at just the right time for that race.”

 

Brian Meyers can be reached at bmeyers@lillienews.com or 651-748-7819. Follow him on Twitter @BMeyersNews.

 

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