SJ-O's Hamilton 'proud' after debut season, 'excited' for more

SJ-O's Hamilton 'proud' after debut season, 'excited' for more

ST. JOSEPH — Atleigh Hamilton's first high school state track and field championships could have played out far differently than it did.

The St. Joseph-Ogden freshman went into the Class 1A preliminaries not only as a long-jump competitor, but also the anchor for three Spartan relays.

"I was really nervous about it because (my relay partners are) upperclassmen," Hamilton said, "and I was like, 'I don't want to let them down.' I prayed before every race and just leaned on that and my ability."

Hamilton's talent could do plenty to aid SJ-O in the 400-, 800- and 1,600-meter relays. But there are some moments in which experience is an athlete's best friend.

Just before the 800 relay kicked off at Eastern Illinois' O'Brien Stadium, Hamilton was in an unenviable position.

Literally.

"Kind of a typical freshman move, she lined up at the very end of the exchange zone," Spartans coach Kelly Steffen said. "So if she would've taken one step, we would've been disqualified and not even made it into the final. Luckily, I was screaming at her from the bleachers. She looked up and ... instantaneously went back and marked off her steps just in time for the exchange to go off."

Hamilton defeated all of her foes in that 800-relay preliminary. She did the same thing in Saturday's title race. That result accounted for 10 of SJ-O's points at the state meet.

That's a good haul for a freshman. Not that Hamilton was satisfied — she was directly involved in 36 of the Spartans' state-winning 43 points by the time 1A action wrapped up.

Hamilton hauled in the state long jump title and anchored SJ-O's 400 and 1,600 relays to runner-up displays, earning News-Gazette Athlete of the Year honors in the process.

"It's crazy. I'm so glad I've been able to be a part of it," Hamilton said. "And it's just a great feeling to be a part of a team that has done something this big."

* * * 

Hamilton has no grand explanation for how she wound up invested in long jumping.

It likely wasn't the main worry for her competitors at the IESA state track and field meet in both 2016 and 2017, when Hamilton captured the Class AA seventh- and eighth-grade long jump crowns, respectively.

"In fifth grade, I was interested in it," Hamilton said. "I told my mom, 'I'm going to do long jump.' And she was like, 'OK, you do that.' So I did it and I loved it, and I've just stuck with it since."

Not only has Hamilton stuck with the event — she's made herself tough to overcome within it.

Hamilton entered this year's state meet with the fourth-best leap in 1A. Steffen hoped to gain some points from Hamilton in this venture as a way to build toward a possible team title.

What happened during Saturday's finals left Steffen more than pleased.

"She competed and just kind of blanked everyone else out," Steffen said, "which is hard for her to do, because she's always wanting to know, what did this person jump? And I always say, 'You can't control that. You can only control what you can do.' So I think she embraced that."

Hamilton put forth a leap of 18 feet, 2 inches to outlast St. Thomas More senior Lucy Lux-Rulon and Schlarman sophomore Capria Brown for the event's top spot.

That was another 10 points in the bank for SJ-O.

"I won in seventh and eighth grade, and in sixth grade, I placed second or fifth or something," Hamilton said. "So I really wanted to do better. I was really driven to do that."

* * * 

How does a freshman earn a coach's trust to the extent she anchors three state-qualifying relays?

"I don't know," Hamilton said. "I feel like they knew that I was capable, and I don't like to lose. I also have that drive at the end to keep going."

That actually factored into Steffen's lineup choices more than one might think. The third-year SJ-O coach held a basic understanding of Hamilton's track and field features when the youngster reached high school — Hamilton was a quality jumper and a fast runner.

But Hamilton's passion to win became readily apparent to Steffen as the former went through her first prep workouts. As Steffen shuffled through relay combinations, she figured Hamilton would make for a strong final leg in various events.

"Only focusing on one handoff instead of two makes it a lot easier," Steffen said. "And then just her intensity and her hate for losing kind of made it a no-brainer."

Even if a freshman has the backing of her coach and teammates in handling the anchor position of three relays, nervous energy still has to come into play. But Hamilton has an answer for that, too.

Hamilton's involvement in the local Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter has allowed her to "keep my cool on the track."

"I'm just thinking who I'm representing and what I'm here for and who I'm here for," Hamilton said, "that I just need to show that."

Hamilton put forth a strong effort in the name of both faith and school spirit during her two days in Charleston last month. She was running behind just two opposing relays over the course of three events by the time the state finals were finished.

"I think it's slowly sinking in, but I think she sees all of this success as just being a part of the team," Steffen said, "which is just phenomenal to see that in someone that's 14 or 15 years old. She put a lot of pressure on herself not for the individual success, but for the success of the team."

* * * 

There's a very important aspect of Hamilton's stellar freshman campaign that's not as well known as her results in the state meet. She was on shaky ground, from a competitive standpoint, due to injury.

During the Illini Prairie Conference meet, roughly a week and a half out from SJ-O's 1A sectional event, Hamilton "tweaked her foot a little bit," according to Steffen.

The Spartans coaching staff responded by resting Hamilton until the postseason. That paid major dividends down the road.

"We don't want to get ahead of ourselves and get her overworked and get her injured," Steffen said. "That was constantly in our minds. We want to do these big workouts, we want to do all this training with her. But at the end of the day, she is a freshman still, so we can't treat her body like she's been through the program for three years."

A fun item Steffen gets to consider now, though, is Hamilton will be involved with her track and field program for the next three seasons. Seniors such as Zea Maroon, Abbey Mizer and Sam Mabry may be on the way out, but Hamilton is ready and waiting to be a young leader for the Spartans.

"I'm extremely proud, and I'm really excited to see how the rest of high school goes," Hamilton said. "(Leadership will) take a little bit to get used to and to get into, but I'm excited."

Honor Roll: News-Gazette Girls' Track Athletes of the Year

YEAR ATHLETE SCHOOL

2018 Atleigh Hamilton St. Joseph-Ogden

2017 Arielle Summitt Uni High

2016 Jenny Kimbro Salt Fork

2015 Jenny Kimbro Salt Fork

2014 Jenny Kimbro Salt Fork

2013 Alexus Jimson-Miller Danville

2012 Sydni Meunier GCMS

2011 Sydni Meunier GCMS

2010 Destiny Carter Danville

2009 Dani Bunch Mahomet-Seymour

2008 Dani Bunch Mahomet-Seymour

2007 Laura Morris Mahomet-Seymour

2006 Johanna Wienke Tuscola

2005 Mary Pat Choules Mahomet-Seymour