Longtime VCHS girls track and field coach Mike Travelstead is beyond elated at the moment.
In fact, it might be safe to say Travelstead is five times happier than he’s ever been this time of year during his previous 18 seasons as the Lady Vandals’ mentor.
‘I’m about ready to burst inside,’ said Travelstead, who saw five VCHS student-athletes qualify for this weekend’s state meet in five events at Friday’s Robinson Sectional. ‘I’ve never had more than one (advance).’
For the past two seasons, that one person has been Lady Vandals junior Kayla Houston.
Houston will be headed back to Charleston again this year – but she’ll have some welcome red-clad company coming along with her this time.
Junior classmates Tori Hagy, Paige Dodson, Kris Stunkel and Ashley Durbin will make their state debuts after breakthrough performances at Robinson.
‘It isn’t going to just be me (at state) for the first time in two years,’ Houston said. ‘It’s exciting to have more girls come up.’
The five representatives make up more than half of VCHS’ numerically-challenged – albeit supremely talented – roster.
‘It shows how strong our team is, even though we only have 11 people,’ Hagy said.
Hagy equaled her own school record (27.1) Friday in taking the 200-meter dash, in addition to teaming up with Houston, Dodson and Durbin on a state-qualifying 400m-relay team that clocked in with a second-place and school-record time of 52.1 seconds.
Houston will be making her third straight state appearance in the 400m, in addition to making her state debut in the high jump and joining Stunkel, Dodson and Durbin on a 4x400m relay team that is peaking at the right time.
The only downside? Though Houston will have a lot more company, she’ll have little time to visit.
‘I’m not really sure what I’m going to do,’ said Houston. ‘…That’s what I’m nervous about, really, having four events.’
Anything approaching Friday’s performance should help calm Houston’s nerves.
She started off a stellar day by breaking through to the state ranks in the high jump for the first time in her high school career with a second-place leap of 5 feet, 1 inch.
She then added another second-place finish in the 400m, breaking her own school record – and the elusive one-minute barrier – by clocking in at 59.4 seconds.
The latter has been a longtime goal of Houston’s, who finished just three-fourths a second behind Newton’s Leann Michl, last year’s fourth-place finisher at state.
‘When she found out she had a sub-60, she was really happy she’d done that,’ Travelstead said. ‘We knew she could do it; we just didn’t know when it was going to happen. It happened at a good time.’
But Houston was even more excited about being a part of the Lady Vandals sectional-champion 4x400m relay team. And for good reason.
The Lady Vandals time in the event, a blistering 4:10.8, was more than six seconds better than that group’s previous school record and has the Lady Vandals seeded sixth in the event heading into state.
‘We knew we could run that fast,’ Durbin said. ‘But when we heard the time, our jaws just dropped.’
‘Last year, we ended with our best time of 4:25 – and we were so excited about that,’ she said. ‘Then, when we got 4:16 (this year) at conference, we were amazed, because that’s such a big difference. But to get 4:10 at the sectional was really amazing, because we figured it’d be 4:14 or something. But we just blew them away.’
Making the accomplishment even more gratifying was the fact that each of the team’s four members logged season-best splits.
‘All of our times dropped,’ Durbin said. ‘We all had faster splits, so we all did it together.’
Houston did so despite being understandably winded after competing in three prior events.
‘She was like, ‘You guys need to get a lead, because I’m scared I’m not going to be able to catch up with anybody,” Dodson said. ‘We did our best, but she pulled her own also. It’s not like we had to carry her.’
That is one reason Dodson is confident Houston can be competitive in all four of her events at state.
‘It’s like any other track meet,’ Dodson said. ‘She can do four events easily.’
Still, there is no question that Houston will be facing a hectic Friday.
The high jump is scheduled to kick off at 9 a.m., with 4x100m prelims kicking off a 9:45 a.m. Fortunately, if Houston’s jumps and the start of the 4×100 coincide, she will be allowed race and resume jumping afterward.
Houston will then look to advance to the finals in the 400m at 11:25 a.m. after placing 16th last year. Her sectional time has her seeded sixth, the same seed as the Lady Vandals’ 4x400m relay. That event’s preliminaries are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m, and Dodson not only expects the Lady Vandals to make finals – but to bring home some hardware.
‘I’m personally planning on medaling,’ Dodson said. ‘I really think we can pull it off, because we’re all so close and we just want it really badly.’
Hagy pulled out her sectional title in the 200m by edging Newton’s Sierra Smith by a tenth of a second.
‘It’s pretty exciting,’ Hagy said. ‘It was pretty close between all of us. We were pretty much neck and neck.’
Friday’s 200m prelims will begin at 12:40 p.m.
Newton got some revenge in the 4x100m relay, but the competition helped the Lady Vandals achieve their state breakthrough in the event.
‘We knew we were seeded second behind Newton, and that they’d be good to run against, because they’d push us to a good time,’ Hagy said. ‘It was kind of a letdown last year, not being able to go and getting close. It’s good to finally go this year and, hopefully, I’m sure we’ll go next year, too.’
With just one senior on this year’s team, the Lady Vandals can, indeed, look forward to some return trips to state next year.
But the present is also quite sunny, thanks to a dedicated junior contingent that has officially arrived at the high school level.
‘We’re a very competitive class,’ said Hagy of a group that was part of an undefeated conference-championship team in eighth grade. ‘We like to work together, but we also like to beat each other and get better.’
‘It’s an excellent group,’ Travelstead said.
Despite their lack of depth, the Lady Vandals finished third out of 15 teams at the sectional. Newton (157) rolled to the title, followed by Neoga (69) and the Lady Vandals (59).
Hagy added points for Vandalia by placing third in the triple jump with a new school record leap of 32-2, in addition to placing fifth in the long jump (14-11 1/2).
Nikki Stine chipped in a fifth-place finish in the shot (32-8 1/2) and a sixth-place discus throw of 86-4 1/2. Durbin finished fourth in the 800m (2:32).