The top Class 3A team in the Southwestern Conference, the O'Fallon Panthers are ready to turn their best individuals loose on the rest of the state.
Seniors Aleasha Jones and Samantha Lapp will lead a strong group of O'Fallon athletes into competition with many of the best in the state today at the Class 3A Rock Island girls track and field sectional at Rock Island High School.
The SWC champion in the 400 meters, Jones will be one of the favorites in that event while Lapp figures to be pushed by East St. Louis freshman Jada Marshall and Edwardsville senior Allie Sweatt in the 1,600, among others, when competition begins at 3:30 p.m.
The finals are set for 6:30 p.m.
O'Fallon also has top teams competing in the four relays, along with junior Tami Cardenas in the 800.
In all 16 teams will compete at Rock Island. The top two individuals in each event and any others equaling state qualifying times and distances will advance to the IHSA girls state track meet, May 22-24 at O'Brien Stadium in Charleston.
O'Fallon coach Neil James has high hopes for his squad, but knows advancing will be a tough task for any athlete.
"It will be difficult, because this has to be one of the toughest sectional meets in the state this weekend,'' James said. "Edwardsville, Belleville West, East St. Louis, Rock Island ... each team has just some outstanding individual athletes.
"We have high hopes of advancing in several events. But we'll have to be at our best to do that.''
Edwardsville will be led by two of the best individuals in the state in seniors Kristin Dowell and Aaliyah Covington.
A University of Nebraska recruit, Dowell will compete in four open events -- the 100 and 300 hurdles, long jump and triple jump, while Covington is one of the favorites in the shot put and discus.
A St. Louis University basketball recruit, Covington has earned medals at the state finals in each events the past two seasons.
The Belleville city champion, the East Lancers are strong in the relays and has the premier athlete in the SWC in the 200 in Sidne' Williamson, while rival West will be led by seniors Jasmine Berry and Kelsey Shannon.
Third at state in the high jump in 2013 and a three-time state medal winner, Shannon is the favorite in that event, while Berry will compete against Dowell in the 100 and 300 hurdles.
Berry, a University of Illinois recruit, sat out the SWC meet a week ago to rest her aching hips. If healthy, there is little doubt Berry should contend for state titles in both hurdle events.
"We entered her in the 400 meters as well, in case she decides to do just one of the hurdle races. We got the all clear this week that she's ready to go,'' West coach Paul James said. "Realistically, we're hoping to qualify in the three-open events and then the 400-, 800- and 1,600-meter relays."
SWC long jump and triple jump champion Kayla Marshall is Collinsville's top hope.
Two-time state medal winner Savannah Ames of Althoff and Red Bud sophomore Keri Burmester headline a strong group of local athletes who will compete at the Chester Sectional today.
Ames, who has placed fifth and sixth in the 1,600 at the state finals the past two seasons, will compete against Burmester in what should be one of the meet's premier races
Burmester also will compete in the 3,200 and senior teammate Kalli Hentis are the Musketeers two top hopes.
Hentis won Cahokia Conference championships in the 100, 200 and 400 last week.
A total of 18 teams will compete at Chester, beginning at 3:30 p.m. with the field events.
Local teams in the field include Althoff Dupo, Metro East Lutheran, Lebanon, Madison, Nashville, New Athens, Okawville, Sparta, Red Bud, Wesclin and Gibault.
Among the other top local hopes are Cara Brooks of Althoff and Central senior Ciara Lohman in the triple jump.