4×400=State Championship for Lady Vandal relay team

Four x 400.

Prior to last weekend’s IHSA girls state track and field meet, those figures equated to many tremendous accomplishments for Kris Stunkel, Ashley Durbin, Kayla Houston and Paige Dodson during the 2008 season.

Countless school records, a conference championship and a sectional title – just to name a few.

But on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon at Eastern Illinois University’s O’Brien Stadium in Charleston, 4 x 400 equated to something Stunkel, Durbin, Houston and Dodson could have never dreamed coming into the team’s first state appearance.

For that VCHS junior contingent, 4 x 400 = state championship.

‘It feels sooo great,’ said a deliriously excited Houston moments after Durbin capped the last leg of the 1,600m relay finals by crossing the finish line nearly 1 1/2 seconds in front of Carthage’s Amy Byers.

‘I’m so ecstatic,’ said Houston. ‘Oh my gosh… it’s so surreal what just happened.’

For a number of reasons.

In claiming the first girls state title in VCHS history, the Lady Vandals shattered their own school record for the second day in a row.

After clocking in with the third-best preliminary time Friday – a then eye-popping 4 minutes, 6.10 seconds – the Lady Vandals shocked themselves again by shaving more than two seconds off that time in the finals.

‘We got a 4:03?’ asked a stunned Durbin when informed of the time. ‘Oh my God.’

‘I didn’t feel like I ran as fast as I did yesterday, because my calves are hurting and stuff,’ Dodson said. ‘But apparently I did, if we got a 4:03.’

The Lady Vandals’ disbelief is understandable considering their career best entering the season was a then school-record time 4:22.42 set at last year’s Robinson Sectional.

Flash forward a little more than a year, and the team shaved nearly a third of a minute off that time on the biggest stage of them all, thanks to career-best splits from each runner.

‘Everybody did such a good job,’ Houston said. ‘This is very exciting.’

And it truly was a team effort.

First, Dodson had to overcome the psychological disadvantage of starting off the race in the second outer-most lane on the nine-lane track.

‘The eighth lane is pretty crappy,’ Dodson said. ‘It feels like you’re winning the whole way, but you’re really not – you’re just starting out ahead.’

But, with a little assistance from volunteer coach Derek DeBarr, Dodson was able to avoid a false sense of security and set the tone for the race.

‘Coach DeBarr was like, ‘Run like world is catching you,” Dodson said. ‘So I was running, and I was like, ‘They are not going to catch me.”

Dodson’s estimated 1-minute split had the Lady Vandals in second place when she handed off to Stunkel, who proceeded to give VCHS a lead it would not relinquish midway through her leg of the race.

Stunkel’s performance put Houston in a bit of an uncomfortable position, however.

‘I like to catch people,’ Houston said. ‘That’s the way I like to race. But when I (started in first), I was like, ‘Oh my God.”

Houston dealt with the pressure admirably, though, extending Vandalia’s lead with a sub-minute split. Still, a shaky handoff to Durbin nearly spelled doom for the Lady Vandals.

‘I almost blew it,’ Houston said. ‘I got tired and almost dropped it.’

Fortunately, Durbin held on to the baton – and the Lady Vandals lead, despite some moments of doubt during the final 400 meters.

Longtime Lady Vandals coach Mike Travelstead was worried that Eureka’s Olivia Klaus – the 1,600m state champion – might be able to catch Durbin down the stretch.

But Durbin saved her best for the final 100 meters of the race, actually pulling away from the competition.

‘I didn’t know if Ashley could hold her off or not,’ Travelstead said, ‘but she really dug in there and held her off (down the stretch) and got it home for us.’

Forced to watch the proceedings from the stands due to IHSA rules, Travelstead assumed the role of team cameraman for the day. And it was all he could do to keep his camcorder steady as Durbin approached the finish line.

‘About 20 feet from the finish line, I knew we had it,’ said Travelstead, who had never had more than one girl advance to state prior to this season, much less win a state title. ‘It’s all I could do to keep from jumping up and down.’

For Durbin, the final 100 meters was as chaotic as it was exhilarating.

‘That was crazy,’ Durbin said. ‘I got to the 100 (meter mark) and I didn’t know where anybody was. My legs were sooo numb.

‘But I didn’t look back. My whole head was going crazy. I didn’t know what to think. I was just trying to get it done.’

Houston felt Durbin’s estimated 1:02 split was the X-factor in Vandalia’s historic victory.

‘Ashley’s an 800 runner,’ Houston said. ‘She’s not going to run a 58 or under, but, oh my God, she smoked ’em today.’

The victory was sweet redemption for Houston, who qualified for state in two individual events and as part of the Lady Vandals’ 400m relay, only to come up short of the finals in each time.

Houston failed to clear the opening height in the high jump, but she was particularly disappointed with coming up short in her specialty, the 400m. Houston finished third in her 400 heat with a time of 1:00.40, missing the finals by over a second.

But she now feels it was meant to be.

‘It’s nuts, because I was so upset after the 400, because that’s my thing,’ said Houston, who came in seeded sixth in the event. ‘But maybe it was a blessing that I blew my 400, so that we could win the state championship in the 4×4.’

Houston started the race fresh, as did her teammates, as their four-hour wait prior to the final event of the day proved to be another blessing in disguise.

‘We were going crazy (waiting),’ Houston said. ‘But all these other teams had girls who weren’t fresh.’

As rested as the Lady Vandals were, they were equally driven to make their mark once the race finally began. The Lady Vandals were the only team to conduct a pre-meet huddle on the track, and their collective determination showed once the starting gun sounded.

‘We get each other so pumped up,’ Stunkel said. ‘We wanted this so bad.’

Along with the junior contingent’s determination, Travelstead credits the coaching of DeBarr for driving the team to new heights. DeBarr, a former Litchfield and Greenville College track and field athlete, has meshed very well with the Lady Vandals’ 4 x 400m team, according to Travelstead.

‘This group is self-motivated, and coach DeBarr is very experienced and enthusiastic,’ Travelstead said. ‘He’s really good at the psychology part. I might not have pressed these girls as much had he not been here.’

The psychological boost provided by Friday’s preliminary performance no doubt keyed VCHS’s state title.

‘The confidence thing is the hardest thing for high school athletes,’ Travelstead said. ‘Winning state wasn’t on their radar coming in, but after making the finals and seeing what the situation was – we were only four-tenths of a second from first place yesterday – we thought, ‘This is a possibility. We could do this.”

Now, flush with the confidence only a state championship can bring, the sky appears to be the limit for the Lady Vandals.

‘We’re going for four (minutes) next year,’ Stunkel said.

And, no doubt – with everyone returning – another state title.

The Lady Vandals will also look to return to Charleston in a couple of other events after gaining valuable experience this year.

Tori Hagy, yet another junior, equaled her school record in the 200m (26.84), finishing sixth in her heat Friday.

Though the time wasn’t good enough to make the finals, Hagy managed to keep things in perspective.

‘I knew I was going to be running against girls who’ve gotten 24s and 25s, so I was trying for my record,’ Hagy said. ‘I’m just glad I got to go to state. … It’s blue and big, and there are a billion people. It’s a little more pressure.

‘Running’s something I love, so it’s a great accomplishment. Hopefully, next year I’ll do better.’

Hagy teamed up with Durbin, Dodson and Houston to help the 400m relay team place seventh out of nine teams in its heat with a time of 52.49.

‘We were surprised,’ said Hagy of the team’s solid showing. ‘We knew we didn’t have the best time, but it was pretty good to get seventh. We thought we’d be back in the back, but we got pumped up warming up and had some pretty good handoffs. I think that helped.

‘I think we represented ourselves pretty well.’

Considering what her teammates would accomplish 24 hours later in the 4×400, that turned out to be the understatement of the weekend.

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