Close-knit Tigers thinking state track and field title

Close-knit Tigers thinking state track and field title

URBANA — A year ago, Ayanna Kelley-Weatherspoon didn't like running. In fact, she told The News-Gazette she hated it after last year's Honor Roll Meet despite being a state qualifier in the 100-meter dash, the 400 relay and the 800 relay.

The team aspect of track was always what kept her participating rather than the running segment.

After anchoring the winning 400 and 800 relay teams at Monday's News-Gazette Honor Roll Meet, and flashing a smile that has become regular after winning races this season, it's clear that Kelley-Weatherspoon's tune has changed.

"I actually love running now," she said. "It shows you when you think you can't do it anymore, you can. When you think you've got nothing left, you've got just a little bit more.

"I've been sick all week, so that last 100, I thought I was going to die. But I knew I had them depending on me. I had to keep going."

As it turned out, the team's unity made her enjoy the actual sport. And on this year's Urbana girls' track and field team, it's not difficult to have fun.

The distance group, which went to Schnucks to celebrate over some chocolate milk after breaking the school record in the 3,200 relay at the 36th Honor Roll Meet, is close after going through a state-qualifying cross-country campaign. The sprint crew, Kelley-Weatherspoon said, is like her "second family."

Two years ago, distance runner Libby Cultra and high jumper Shaniya Howard were the only two Tigers to qualify for the state track and field meet. This year, the Urbana qualified six individuals for seven events along with two relays for this weekend's Class 2A state meet.

Preliminaries in 1A start Thursday at O'Brien Stadium on the campus of Eastern Illinois University, with 2A and 3A prelims set to begin Friday.

"It's crazy," Cultra said. "The bus rides are so fun. There's so much more excitement now that a lot of people are good and a lot of people want to try. It's great. It's so nice to be able to go on a bus and not like a van with one person."

This weekend, Urbana coach Leslie Edmondson thinks her team has a shot to win a trophy, or even a state title, after her staff went through the numbers. Four teams, they figure, have a shot to win.

Plenty would have to go right for Urbana to pull off a state title. Kelley-Weatherspoon, who is ranked No. 11 in the 100, will need to have the race of her life, Edmondson said, as will No. 14 Jyana Anderson in the 200.

Diamonasia Taylor will likely have to do the expected and win a state title in the high jump, with Shaniya Howard scoring. Sophomore Lanaeja Carter, ranked No. 3 in the discus, will have to score big points, while Cultra (3,200) and Olivia Rosenstein (800 and 1,600) may have to out-do their seeds to give the Tigers some much-needed medals.

For a team that two years ago finished dead last out of 15 teams in its sectional, simply contending is a victory in itself.

"We're definitely moving in the right direction," Edmondson said. "I'm really hoping to bring home something. First place is obviously the main goal. I'm not going to complain with anything else, but I am going with a gameplan to win."

None of Urbana's individual state qualifiers will graduate this year, and only three are juniors, meaning a bright future lies ahead for the Tigers. But they're not looking ahead that far. Because on Saturday, they feel like they can bring home hardware.

"We've been there before," Kelley-Weatherspoon said. "Now we know what we're up against. Last year, we were a little unorganized. This year is going to be a whole lot better. I can already tell. Oh, I'm so excited for it."

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