Trying to qualify to the state meet in the 1,600 and 800-meter runs is a hard double to pull off. Especially given the recovery time between races is about 40 minutes.
But Eaton senior Michelle McKinney was able to pull off the feat with a pair of 4th place finishes Saturday, May 31, at the Division II regional at a balmy Welcome Stadium, where temperatures reached into the mid-80s.
McKinney, the defending Division II state champ in the 800, wasn’t the only county track and field athlete to qualify to this week’s state meet.
She will be joined by Eaton sophomore Seth Reynolds, as well as Preble Shawnee senior Josh Willoughby and Arrow freshman Elise Walker.
The top four in each event from the regional advance to Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium to compete on Friday and Saturday, June 6-7.
McKinney’s plan from the start was to qualify in both races, not necessarily win both.
“I knew after doing the mile, I probably wouldn’t have my best 800. I didn’t care what place I got, just top four and make it out,” she said.
McKinney will be competing at the state meet in the 800 for the fourth time in her career, and although she advanced in the 1,600 (for the first time) she said she does not plan on running the race.
“That was my goal this year,” she said of qualifying in both races. “At state, I’m going for the state championship again and trying to get as close to the state record as I can.”
McKinney finished in the 1,600 in 5 minutes, 07.79 seconds. Her time in the 800 was 2:16.37, which was her second fastest time of the season.
“I’m happy. I’ve stepped it up this year,” she said. “Now I just need to prove it again at the state meet.”
Her coach, and uncle, Randy McKinney called the D-II regional probably the toughest middle distance races in the state.
“It’s a tough double,” he said. “It’s like I told her when she finished, ‘I had to let you do what you wanted to do because I didn’t want you to look at me 20 years from now and say why didn’t you let me run that 16 and see what I could do there?’”
Randy McKinney said the mile took a ‘”little zip” out of her legs.
“Her experience and strength and determination allowed her to do something that many kids don’t get a chance to do in the distance races,” the coach said. “And that’s to qualify in two (events). This was a tough region for the 16 and the 8 today.
The 800 featured the top three finishers from last year’s state meet.
“I’m very happy for her,” he said.
Willoughby had the best finish of the meet for a county athlete.
He tied for second in the high jump, clearing 6 feet, 3 inches. He cleared each of the previous heights on his first attempt, but failed three times at 6-4.
Even though he qualified for state, Willoughby was disappointed his unbeaten streak came to an end.
“I’ve jumped a lot better this year,” he said. “I got 6-7 the first meet of the year and today just 6-3. It just wasn’t a good day. I wanted to win. It was just a bad jump.”
Willoughby opened the season clearing a school-record 6-7 and 6-6 in the first two meets, but suffered an ankle injury which slowed him down somewhat, but he continued to win meets all season.
“From then on it’s been a little rough,” Preble Shawnee coach Stephanie Hurley said. “He’s always won. Once, he was happy with that. To make it to state, his senior year, it’s really exciting and I think he will do well next year and he’ll take it pretty serious.”
Willoughby reached the regional as a sophomore and a junior.
“That’s pretty remarkable to be a three-time regional qualifier,” Hurley said. “He enjoys the high jump and you can tell. He’s done well.”
Hurley said she believes Willoughby is happy to move on, even though his body language said differently.
“Josh did well today,” Hurley said. “He jumped 6-3, which he hasn’t cleared in a couple of weeks. He’s pretty excited, I think, to be at state. You can’t tell from looking at him. Much improved from last year.”
Willoughby said he has one goal for next week – to leave Columbus as the state champion.
Reynolds, who had never competed in track until this season, placed 4th in the 110-meter high hurdles.
Until this season, Reynolds had always played baseball. He also qualified to the regional in the long jump but opted not to jump to rest a sore heel because he felt he had a better chance to move on in the hurdles.
Reynolds wasn’t sure immediately after the final if he advanced or not. He crossed the finish line in 15.15 seconds, just ahead of Logan McDermit of Ottawa-Glandorf, who was clocked in 15.23, and Urbana’s Kris Hamilton who finished in 15.26.
“I thought that I have him a little bit,” a smiling Reynolds said moments after receiving his award. “I gave a little first pump. I was really excited. It’s really good for my first year. This is my first year of ever doing track.”
Reynolds said baseball was starting to become boring to him.
“And I thought I could be good at track,” he said.
Reynolds said he is looking forward to the state experience.
“I don’t know what it’s like, but I think it’s going to be really fun though,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
“To be a rookie and learn and catch on, and improve at the rate he has improved, and pick up the things he has picked up in a two- and-a-half month time span that some kids never pick up on in four years, maybe six years if they’re junior athletes, it’s just been outstanding,” coach McKinney said.
“I don’t think he quite realizes what he has accomplished. I know he realizes he’s going to state. But I don’t think he realizes just how special that is. I can’t be happier for him.”
Walker is advancing to the state meet to compete in the high jump as well.
Walker began jumping in seventh grade. Her mother and sister also competed in the high jump.
“I like how individual it is,” Walker said. “Because, you know, you’re not really jumping against the other girls, you’re kind of jumping against yourself so it’s easier to push yourself.”
Walker said she plans to continue jumping and hopes to break the school record of 5 feet, 8 inches. Her highest jump so far is 5 feet, 4 inches.
“I just feel grateful to have gotten this far,” Walker said.
“She is amazing. The athletic ability she has is God-given. She relies on that a lot, but she’s also a hard-worker. She jumps on the weekends and she jumps whenever she has time. She takes it really serious,” Hurley said. “I’m very, very excited I have her three more years. She has had a great season.”
Hurley said she attempted to tell both Walker and Willoughby they needed to finish in the top four and they did not have to win to advance.
“Of course, it would be great if you did. But the top four will move you on. It doesn’t get you any more advantages to be number one or to be number four. All we need today is four.”
Eaton’s Seth Wright was 6th in the pole vault, clearing 13-6. Taylor Broermann placed 8th in the 1,600 with time of 5:22.46. Madison Bowman was 13 in the discus with a throw of 95-2.
Walker will compete Friday at 9:30 a.m.
Reynolds will compete in the preliminaries of the 110 hurdles Friday at 2:10 p.m. The top two in each heat, plus the next five fastest times advance to the final on Saturday at 1:05 p.m.
Willoughby will compete on Saturday morning at 9 a.m.
McKinney will look to defend her title at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.