Johnson, Cless set pace for Class 3A track qualifiers
Kalil Johnson accomplished more than just a couple of hurdles victories Thursday at the Class 3A Glenbrook South Sectional meet.
He helped remove a curse from the 4 x 100-meter relay team, too.
Johnson claimed gold medals in both the 110-meter and 300-meter hurdle races, and anchored the previously snake-bitten relay unit to a championship as well while leading Evanston to a 4th place finish in the team standings.
High jumper Matt Cless will join the runners June 19 at the Illinois High School Association state finals at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston after clearing a state’s best 6 feet, 6.75 inches to win his specialty.
Johnson battled hamstring issues to win the 110 hurdles (14.31 seconds) and 300 hurdles (38.61), clocked in the fastest times in the state of Illinois at the sectional meet level.
But his leg --- a sizzling 9.99 split --- on the short relay brought back memories of an ETHS Hall of Famer as he rallied the Wildkits from 4th place to first with his burst down the final home stretch.
“That’s the kind of race Bob McGee used to run,” said veteran Evanston head coach Don Michelin Sr. “That anchor leg is one of the best I’ve seen so far in Illinois. You see some phenomenal stuff these days on YouTube, and this is comparable to those. We wouldn’t have qualified without Kalil.
“You’ve really got to give it to Kalil. Last week we had an opportunity to do well in that race (at the conference championship meet), and we don’t, and that’s a downer. That’s the kind of thing that’s hard to get rid of.”
Evanston was disqualified for a false start in that race, a ruling that likely cost them the team championship. Johnson didn’t even get a chance to run in that race on that day, but made up for lost time on Thursday at GBS. He teamed with Jeremiah Schwartz, Chris Tchibozo and Afandi Oraelosi for a winning effort of 42.88, a half second faster than the GBS team that won the CSL race without a challenge.
“I’m super happy and proud that we were able to pull off a win in that relay,” said Johnson. “We’ve been cursed the whole year in that race, either by a DQ or dropped batons. I think we’ve only gotten through an entire race once when I’ve run on it.
“Last week was definitely on my mind. I’m just pleased we got everything right this time. All the handoffs were great, and when I felt the baton hit my hand, I knew it was go time.”
The ETHS senior passed the anchor runners from runnerup Prospect, GBS and Loyola Academy to dash to victory. It will likely be the last time he runs in that relay, however, to preserve his chances for a state championship run in the hurdles next week on the blue oval at EIU.
His legs could use the break. He’s been undergoing therapy on a weekly basis to keep his hamstrings healthy, including workouts in a swimming pool, and required a bag of ice immediately after his final race of the day when he helped the Wildkits score a non-qualifying 4th place finish in the 1600 relay.
“This is a hard track (surface), and it’s hard on the hamstrings,” Johnson admitted. “I was really looking to get under 14 seconds today (in the 110 hurdles) with more competition, but by the 4th or 5th hurdle I felt my hamstring pull and all I could do was keep the same speed, the same pace. I don’t usually think about much when I’m in a race like that, but it (the possibility of a severe injury) was a worry the whole time today.
“In the 300 it started to hurt by the 2nd hurdle, so I switched my lead leg to take some of the pressure off, and then I switched it back. That kid from GBS (2nd place finisher Nate Shapiro) really pushed me at the end, so I knew I had to go super fast coming off the (last) curve, and I just sprinted to the end.”
“Kalil sees the doctor every week, he gets in the pool and he does all the stuff he needs to do to try to stay healthy,” added his head coach. “The individual races --- the hurdles --- will come first for him at State. We have other people for the relays. You don’t want to take a chance at this point.”
Cless continued his amazing (and quick) climb up the ranks of the state’s elite in an event he never tried until just 2 months ago when he decided to abandon his basketball career and take up track. He cleared 2.0 meters Thursday, a personal best, and is hungry to keep raising the bar even higher. Cless and Thornton’s Josh Washington were the only jumpers who topped 6-5 at the sectional competitions statewide in Class 3A.
ETHS assistant coach Kevin Caines called him “the friendliest high jumper in the state of Illinois” because of the way Cless is constantly chatting up jumpers from other schools for tips and their analysis of jumps and training. He’s also a daily consumer of any videos he can dial up of high jumpers, and during his own competitions he also checks the screen to see what he did wrong --- and right.
“He found something he’s having fun with, and that’s great. He sees the high jump now as his thing,” Caines said. “There are people who are just natural jumpers, who have a combination of the hops, the flexibility and the athleticism, because so much coordination goes into this event.
“With his height (6 feet, 5 inches) and his ability, he has a lot of upside. He is highly motivated and highly competitive, and he’s really good in the competitions. He never gets flustered. He had 2 and a half good jumps today at 2.05 meters (about 6-9), and I think anything can happen at State. There are no 7-footers in 3A, and he’s had his body over (the bar) at 6-8 and 6-9.”
“I rode the pines (sat on the bench) when I played basketball, and there were times I was afraid to even go in games because I shied away from pressure,” said Cless. “Now? I love it. It gives me a lot of adrenaline just to fly up there. It’s really surprising how things have turned out for me.
“I knew I could get state qualifying, but once you go higher, it’s more fun. I still need to work on my approach and I need to practice more at higher heights. Today was a great day for me, though. I’m really happy to win both the conference and sectional --- how about that? --- and I think I have a good chance to win at State. I can’t be satisfied. I still have work to do.”
Evanston settled for 4th place in the team standings at the sectional with 56 points. Glenbrook South earned its first sectional boys track title in school history with 101 points, followed by Loyola (74), New Trier (57) and ETHS in the 16-team field.
Top two finishers in each event automatically advanced to the Class 3A state finals, but several of the winning performances Thursday didn’t even match the IHSA qualifying standards.
Evanston’s non-qualifiers included Aaron Hutchins, 5th in the 110 hurdles in 15.48, a personal best and 7th in the 300 hurdles in 42.67; Cless, 7th in the triple jump at 12.68 meters; and Tchibozo, 7th in the 100 in 11.42.
The Wildkits added top 4 finishes in the other 3 relays but didn’t meet the time standard to keep their respective seasons alive. The team of Oraelosi, Tchibozo, Khaleil Gumbs and Jordan Crumpton ran 3rd in 1:32.62 in the 800 relay, while the 3200 unit of Essay Tolosa,Dylan Eyler, Owen Briggman and John Leibforth earned 4th in 8:25.98.
Evanston made a strong bid over the first half of the final race of the night, the 1600 relay, but fell short of qualifying and ran 4th overall (in 3:32.65) behind Johnson, Oraelosi, Crumpton and Tchibozo.