Coming off a perfect 7-0 regular season, the VJHS seventh-grade boys track and field team somehow found a way to outdo itself Saturday at the Effingham Sectional.
By virtue of a strong late push in the final four events of the day, the Junior Vandals stormed from fourth place in a pack of 13 teams all the way to the top of the standings – taking the first sectional title by a Junior Vandals team in coach Kevin Schroeder’s 28 years at the helm in the process.
‘They had a good season, and I think this just topped everything off and showed what they’re capable of,’ Schroeder said.
The Junior Vandals got first-place finishes from Ryan Ambuel (400m, 59.0) and Wade Cowger (800m, 2:27.2), along with a state-qualifying second-place time from their 4×100 relay team (53.8), helping them pile up 64 points by meet’s end, enough to finish just ahead of Casey-Westfield (56), Teutopolis (55) and Shelbyville (53), Robinson (47) and Mattoon (46) in an ulta-competitive field.
The sectional title capped a great all-around day by the program, which will have eight representatives this weekend at the IESA Class 2A State Meet in Peoria.
Dalton Smith and Blake Swofford will join Cowger and Ambuel on the Junior Vandals’ seventh-grade boys 400m-relay team at state, while Quentin Austin will represent the eight-grade boys team after taking a sectional title in the discus (120-1).
Sierah Ruffner qualified for state in the seventh-grade girls portion of the meet with a second-place finish in the high jump, while Katie Koonce’s third-place throw in the discus surpassed the state-qualifying standard.
Jessie Bright’s second-place time in the hurdles in the eighth-grade meet will give Vandalia a state rep in each class.
‘With five boys and three girls, this is probably the most we’ve had go to state in six or seven years, at least,’ Schroeder said.
Prior to Saturday, the best sectional finish by a VJHS track team during Shroeder’s tenure was a second-place showing by last year’s seventh-grade boys’ team.
Granted, the Junior Vandals’ competed in the East St. Louis Sectional prior to last year, making team titles – and state berths – very tough to come by.
‘It was very difficult to get people out of that sectional,’ Schroeder said. ‘That’s like running in the state track meet itself.’
But Saturday’s sectional was certainly no walk in the park.
‘That was a very difficult sectional,’ Schroeder said. ‘There were some teams that are traditionally strong in track, so the boys should feel very good about what they accomplished.’
Schroeder came into the meet felling the Junior Vandals had a ‘good shot’ at claiming a title. But he knew that ‘everything would have to go right’ in order for them to break through.
Just about everything did go right for the Junior Vandals in the final four events of the meet – the 400m, 200m, 800m and 4x100m relay – as Vandalia scored 26 of its 64 points with two firsts, a second and a third.
‘Those four events really clinched it for us,’ Schroeder said.
Schroeder felt the top-seeded Ambuel would have a great shot at winning the 400m, and Ambuel delivered. But Cowger’s 800m title pleasantly surprised his coach, considering he was seeded fifth in the event coming in.
‘He pulled it out and ran a great race,’ Schroeder said. ‘Really, Wade was the one that did above and beyond what I expected.’
Swofford kept the momentum going with a solid third-place showing in the 200m (26.3). And though the Vandals’ top-seeded 4x100m relay team came up short of a sectional title in the final event of the day, its gutsy state-qualifying second-place effort impressed Schroeder.
‘They had spent themselves on their individual events,’ Schroeder said. ‘By the time the 4×4 came around, they didn’t have much left. They gave it all – to the point of throwing up, basically.’
Such toughness has become a team-wide trait for the entire team, according to Schroeder, and he credits that toughness for getting the Junior Vandals a sectional crown.
‘They were mentally ready,’ Schroeder said. ‘Giving it all like that is something you can’t really teach. That’s just something they have.’
Swofford added another third-place finish in the long jump (16-8), as did Logan Rogers in the discus (108-8).
Kabe Smith (110m hurdles, 18.8), Ambuel (long jump, 16-4 3/4) and Swofford (100m, 12.4) had fourth-place showings, while Michael Wells (discus, 87-7) and Aaron Harter (400m, 1:04.5) placed fifth.
Cowger (high jump, 4-10) and the 800m-relay team of Dakota Durr, Kabe Smith, Rogers and Harter rounded out the seventh-grader’s placers with sixth-place finishes.
Trevor Yokley had a fifth-place shot put toss of 37-4, while Blake Mills was sixth in the 110m hurdles (17.1), as the eighth-grade Junior Vandals were 11th out of 13 teams.
The seventh-grade girls 800m-relay team of Haley Cothern, Macey Dokey, Amber Bruno and Ruffner came up just short of a state berth with a third-place time, as did Megan Godoyo, despite breaking her own school record in the hurdles (17.8).
Bruno was fourth in the same event, while Shelby Foster was fifth in the discus and Koonce was sixth in the shot.
Bright added a fourth-place 400m time for the eighth-grade girls, as did Haley Boley in the 200m. Boley joined Hannah Edwards, Meresha Mitchell and Haley Wollerman on a fourth-place 400m-relay team.
Wollerman (hurdles) and Edwards (discus) chipped in fifth-place finishes, and Chelsey Stewart was sixth in the discus.
The girls state meet will begin Friday at the EastSide Centre in Peoria, with finals following the next day. The boys state meet will start Saturday at the same location.