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CHARLESTON — In sports, as with all things in life, the thrill of victory can only derive its true meaning upon being countered by, at one time or another, the agony of defeat.
The Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley girls’ track and field team experienced both ends of that emotional spectrum Saturday at the Class 1A state finals on campus of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. When it was all over, a second-place team finish at state — a school record for any sport — left the Lady Falcons in jubilant frenzy made all the more meaningful by overcoming what had been a nightmarish start to the day.
In the 400-meter relay, the second running event of the day, GCMS was near the front of the pack as the third leg came to its conclusion. But as Jordyn Nettleton went to hand the baton off to anchor Angel Gaesser, the seniors mishandled the exchange, the golden ticket falling to the track as “the timing wasn’t quite right,” coach Erica Kostoff said. Suddenly, a top-three finish turned into a ninth-place showing, the GCMS foursome finishing more than six seconds behind the winning South Holland squad it’d be running with just 100 meters earlier.
Either Gaesser or Nettleton could’ve let the mishap define their day. But that would also be to let it define them, and that’s not what they’re about. Instead, after competing in two more individual events apiece — both would come home with four medals after having advanced to the finals in the maximum four events — the duo took to the track one last time in their careers, teaming with LaToya Baillie and Sydni Meunier in the 1,600 relay.
With Nettleton, the lead-off, and Baillie keeping GCMS amid the pack through 800 meters, the Lady Falcons brought home the 1,600 relay crown when Meunier and Gaesser each blistered their way to splits of less than 59 seconds. As Gaesser crossed the finish line with the event title in 3 minutes, 59.22 seconds, Baillie, Nettleton and Meunier shared an emotional embrace, then went to mob their teammate.
“To have something disappointing happen like that you’re not expecting (in the 400 relay), and to be so close to something and to be able to pick yourself back up and keep pushing through, to know and still have confidence to come through and make history … it feels really good,” Kostoff said of the day’s roller coaster of emotions. “Sometimes when you set really high goals, it’s nerve-racking. I’m proud of these girls because they worked so hard and fought all the way through to the end.”
“It’s surreal. I can’t put it into words,” Nettleton said before finding the means to explain the group’s year-long mentality. “It’s like Sydni said, ‘We laugh in the face of nervousness.’”
There was plenty more reasons for the Lady Falcons to share a laugh, starting with Meunier. The defending Class 1A state champion in the 800 and 1,600 eschewed the pressure and lived up to expectations, again taking both individual crowns. The senior won the 800 in 2:11.30, setting a school record and outpacing runner-up Gaesser (2:14.25) by running a 62-second first lap that no one else could sustain.
It was the second consecutive year the GCMS duo went one-two in the 800.
“I feel so blessed,” Gaesser said. “How can you complain when you’re second to a teammate? I’m happy to have her pace me.”
In the 1,600, her best event, Meunier conserved energy for the 1,600 relay finals and still cruised to victory in 5:07.88, almost six seconds in ahead of runner-up Chelsea Blaase of St. Joe-Ogden. Coupled with her other two wins, it gave Meunier five event state titles in her career; no one athlete associated with Gibson City had ever won more than one.
In qualifying for the finals of the mile, Meunier had run a personal-best 4:50.75 in Thursday’s preliminaries, a performance that caught the attention of most everyone in O’Brien Stadium and was the fifth-fastest mile ever recorded by a girl at state in Illinois high school history.
“There was pressure to repeat in those events,” the Notre Dame-bound Meunier admitted. “But I think it helped me just work even harder … I think it’s more satisfying coming back this year, winning again as a senior. This year’s been stressful, picking a college, trying to finish the year strong. Being able to juggle that all was a testament to my determination.”
In taking second, GCMS received points from eight of its nine finals entries. In addition to the 1,600 relay, 400 relay and 800, Gaesser also placed seventh in the triple jump (34 feet, 10 1/4 inches) to become a four-event medalist. Adding onto her roles in the two relays, Nettleton also took eighth in the 100 hurdles (16.44) and sixth in the 300 hurdles (46.54) to collect her four medals. Jaymi Nettleton, Jordyn’s twin sister, made the pole vault finals and finished 16th overall. It took a top-nine placing to record points in an event.
GCMS finished with 48 points and, in a way, was picked the wrong year to make a run. That point total would’ve won the state title two of the past three years, but Saturday it trailed winner Moweaqua Central A&M’s 59 points. GCMS’ winning finish in the 1,600 relay allowed it to slip into second, past third-place St. Joe-Ogden’s 46 points.
Asked about the legacy of her seniors, the girls whose work has put GCMS on the map in this sport, Kostoff laughed as she said, “Their school records, I think, will stand for a long time.” Meunier holds all the distance school records, while Gaesser, who is Kostoff’s younger sister, set every school sprint record through 400 meters.
More than anything, though, Kostoff is so grateful for the foundation this group laid, one she believes the program can build off of in the future — even if it is hard to see this crew move on.
“Their legacy, we’re going to see it more as these other teams come up and they look to those records, see what these girls achieved here and they want to strive to achieve those things as well,” Kostoff said. “It’s hard to know right now. It’s hard for us to appreciate what they’ve done for the program, for the community. But I think years down the road, we can look back and say, ‘Wow, thank you.’”