A fixture among the area’s top girls track teams for over a decade, the O’Fallon Lady Panthers are poised to challenge for one of the top spots in the state this spring.
Not only will the OTHS girls feature a deep and talented group of distance runners — a staple of the O’Fallon program for many years — but they will also field a group of talented and experienced sprinters and jumpers. The combined talents of the 2017 squad may well produce one of the best overall rosters veteran coach Neil James, entering his 12th season as mentor for the Lady Panthers, has unleashed on area track ovals. State prognosticators agree as evidenced by O’Fallon’s No. 4 ranking in pre-season state polls.
“Our senior class is probably the best that we have ever had in the sprints and jumps,” James said. “They are all proven varsity runners who have had a lot of success leading up to this spring season. Their strength coupled with our returnees in the distance races give us a legitimate shot at placing in the top five in the state. It’s a thrilling challenge and one that our girls have taken to heart.”
A foursome of lightning-quick seniors will return to the sprints and sprint relays after banner years as juniors. Mya Watson-Blake, Kersten Douglas, Tamya Houston and Taliah Reese combined their talents last spring to earn a state medal in the 4 x 200. The quartet was also state qualifiers in the 4 x 100 and 4 x 400. Houston and Douglas narrowly missed the state finals in the 100 and 200, respectively. With OTHS records falling nearly every time they stepped onto the track oval last spring, the Panther super sprinters should give Southwestern Conference opponents more than just a passing pause of concern in 2017.
Watson-Blake was also a state qualifier in the high jump as a junior and will join teammates Abbey Carney and Mackenzie Ryan to give O’Fallon a potent scoring threat in the field events. Carney, a senior, was a state qualifier in the high jump while Ryan returns this spring after having earned a trip to state last year in the triple jump and as a member of the 4 x 400 relay team.
While the senior sprinters will be burning up the track in their specialties, O’Fallon’s stable of younger, but no less formidable, distance runners will provide valuable points to the Lady Panthers’ team scores. Led by state qualifier in the 3,200 Brooke Witzel, O’Fallon will rely on a seasoned cast of racers who passed their baptism under fire last fall as freshmen cross country runners. Included in the group of top guns are juniors Maddie Collins and Katie Mank along with talented freshmen Emma Jordan, Kaitlyn Walker, and Sophie Wichlac.
James also expects banner seasons form returning seniors Mary Kate Porath (400 and 800), Danna Jenkins (3,200), Grace Mulhollan (pole vault), Dartrenetta Holman (100 and 200), and Rakiyah Boykin (shot put). Junior returnees who have had varsity success are Amy Wagner (shot put and discus), Kayleigh Perrier (distance) and Ally Foote (200 and 400). The Lady Panthers will get an additional boost from transfer student Chloe Lambert in the 200 and 400 and sophomore J’Annah Adkins in the 400.
“Lambert and Adkins could play very important roles for us if they live up to their pre-season times in the 400 because we would like to give our senior sprinters some additional time off to recuperate from the shorter sprints if possible,” James explained.
Even though the Lady Panthers will field a very strong team, competition will still be keen in the Southwestern Conference. While the O’Fallon girls enjoy the pre-season No. 4 ranking in the state, they were not the only SWC school to be recognized. The East St. Louis Flyerettes enter the 2017 campaign as the No. 2 ranked school in Illinois. Edwardsville will also field a top-flight team.
“East St. Louis will certainly be a team we will need to be prepared for,” James said. “They probably have an advantage on us in individual events, but I think our team is stronger overall thanks to our depth. Edwardsville always has a very competitive squad with a lot of returning athletes. It should make for a very interesting spring season — one that I think our girls can make a very special one.”
The Lady Panther thinclads will get a jump on the rest of the OTHS spring sport teams when they travel to Carbondale on Friday, March 3 to compete in the annual Southern Illinois University Carbondale Indoor.