By Marty Farmer
To borrow the motto of Oak Park and River Forest High School wrestling assistant coach Mike Powell and the reigning state champion Huskies, "In Relentless Pursuit," could also apply to the OPRF girls track and field team of late. The program appears on a serious collision course with elite status. In fact, if the Huskies' rise continues, the transition from "hunter" to "hunted" might take about as long as a two-mile run by prized freshman Mary Blankemeier.
OPRF won the St. Ignatius Sectional last week at Concordia University in River Forest and qualified three relay teams and three individuals for the girls track and field state meet, which will be held Thursday through Saturday at O'Brien Stadium on the Eastern Illinois University campus in Charleston. Opposing teams would be wise to catch the Huskies now because head coach Tom Tarrant's roster is stockpiled with fast, strong and versatile athletes.
At the St. Ignatius Sectional, Blankemeier recorded a time of 11 minutes, 2.58 seconds to easily win the 3,200-meter run. Fellow freshman, Maggie Scholle of Lane, finished second at 11:36.89. Previously, Blankemeier (5:01.59) defeated Hinsdale Central's Anne Zaher (5:02.68) and Glenbard West's Madeline Perez (5:04.19) in the 1,600 at the West Suburban Conference Silver Division meet. Blankemeier (who also placed fifth in the cross-country state finals during the fall) is a contender to win the 3,200 state title this weekend, a prospect the precocious freshman views with perspective.
"It's my first time going to state for track so I'm just going to enjoy and don't let any nerves get to me," Blankemeier said. "During the race, I think, I'll stay behind a little bit and then give it all I got toward the end."
Ella Rossa, another talented OPRF freshman, won the long jump sectional title with a score of 16-10 to qualify for state. Freshman Hallie Voss along with sophomores Shaina Harris, Chisom Nwoko and Norma Abdur-Rafia are other up-and-coming stars for the Huskies.
Like most promising teams, the Huskies possess a nice mix of youth and experience. Seniors Jenn Smith and Amari Wilkerson have provided invaluable leadership and advice for the Huskies' cadre of burgeoning contenders.
"We have grown together as a team so much, especially toward the end of the season," said Smith, who will attend the University of Michigan next year and run on a club team. "It's definitely an exciting time to be around the program because we're doing so well but there's still room for growth. I'm going to state for the first time this year and I can't wait."
Smith will join Blankemeier, Voss, and freshman Mahal Schroeder on the Huskies' 3,200 relay team, which qualified for state by taking third in sectional competition (9:38.23). In other relay races at the sectional, OPRF won the 800 (1:44.98) and took second in the 400 (49.60) to send two more teams to Charleston.
"We did very well but our handoffs could have been better," said Nwoko, a member of both the 400 and 800 squads. "It's really impressive. We're bringing a lot of freshmen and sophomores to state, but we also have some seniors who have played a big part in our success."
Wilkerson, who will attend Howard University and hopes to walk on, makes her fourth trip downstate this weekend. Wilkerson (15.55) edged Whitney Young's Joelle Ataessien (15.67) in the 100 hurdles to claim the sectional title.
"[Ataessien] is very competitive and so am I. I knew it would be a fight till the end," Wilkerson said. "Although this is my fourth time to state, I haven't had much success so I hope both the team and I do well this time."
OPRF has racked up excellent results all season. The Huskies won the Hinsdale Invite for the first time in 16 years, placed third (out of 19 teams) at the loaded WW South Tiger Invite, and have won the majority of its dual meets. A testament to the program's outstanding depth, OPRF also finished third at the Hinsdale South Invite, racing its JV squad in most events. The turnaround at OPRF has been nothing short of amazing.
"Last year, we would finish last in most of our meets," sophomore Chena Underhill said. "It's pretty crazy this season to see us having so much success. We have so much young talent and other athletes on our team are peaking at just the right time."
Underhill, arguably the most versatile athlete on the roster, competes in the hurdles pole vault, long jump and triple jump.
"When I first joined the team, I tried all kinds of events," she said. "I took up triple jump this year. I like the variety because if I don't do well in one event, I have three other opportunities to make up for it."
Regardless of the Huskies' results at state, Tarrant and a full complement of coaches have the program on a serious upswing.
"The most pertinent item that will never show up on a stat sheet is that myself and the coaching staff are not worried about winning," Tarrant said. "We are building a team that has character. If you have athletes of good character, the winning will come. I feel the character of this team has been the foundation and building blocks of success."
The coaching staff includes Ty Williams (sprints/hurdles), Chris Baldwin (distance/high jump), Tom Gamble (pole vault), Fawn Donatucci (long jump) and Nick Michalek (throws).
"We have a lot of specialists," Nwoko said about the OPRF coaches. "Coach Tarrant communicates well with all of them and they are in tune if there are any team issues."
The Midtown Athletic Club Athlete Feature, The Midtown Athletic Club Athlete of the Week and weekly sports calendar/scoreboard are sponsored by Midtown Athletic Club in Oak Park.