JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Jena Hahlbeck took the baton and almost immediately fell from first to third place.
That wouldn’t do for the Park Hill junior, not if the Trojans’ 4x400-meter relay team of “superstars” wanted to achieve the ultimate goal. Hahlbeck fought back to post a sub-60-second split, handing the baton to junior anchor Taiya Shelby with a substantial lead in the final Saturday, May 27 at Adkins Stadium.
Shelby held the spot and delivered Park Hill’s first relay state championship since the 1998 4x400 team.
“I don’t really know,” Hahlbeck said of her leg, passing runners from Rock Bridge and Lee’s Summit West. “All the sudden these girls went past me, so I was like, ‘OK, I can’t let that happen.’ Then I had to go. I was in such a bad mood before the race, I had to let it out.”
Park Hill’s 4x400 team of Hahlbeck, Shelby, sophomore Manuela Ngo Tonye Nyemeck and freshman Teresa Thomas became just the fourth relay in program history to win a state title. The Trojans’ 4x200 teams in 1988 and 1989 were the other two.
This year’s 4x400 quartet already took the school record from the 1998 squad, and Hahlbeck, Shelby, Nyemeck and Thomas lowered their mark again in Saturday night’s final. Park Hill qualified out of preliminaries with the top time, but Lee’s Summit West still held the state’s best mark of the season entering the final.
Thomas out of the blocks and Nyemeck on the second leg put Park Hill in first place, but Hahlbeck’s comeback effort on the third leg provided the needed cushion. Shelby, who entered the race off of a disappointing fifth-place finish about two hours earlier in the open 400, put up the second-best final lap split to easily hold off Lee’s Summit West, which won the team title with 109 points.
Lee’s Summit West senior Erin Sermons won the 400 final but couldn’t catch Shelby and Park Hill, which posted a 3:53.72 to break 3:54 for the first time.
“I’m OK with the 400, but I’m not all the way OK with it,” Shelby said, “so I had to redeem myself.”
Thomas, Shelby, Hahlbeck and junior Sephora Koudou also medaled in the 4x200, making Park Hill 2-for-3 in putting state qualifying relays in the top eight.
All five of the members of the two place-winning relays plus sophomore Jordan Birmingham, junior Iyanla Roberts and Koudou on the qualifying 4x100 return next year. The teamwork of the groups continued to shine through the final race Saturday night with each member of the 4x400 affirming status as a superstar while talking into the American flag-themed baton in a post-race ritual.
“Next year, we’re coming back for more,” said Nyemeck, who also qualified for state in the 400 but finished 10th in preliminaries to just miss the final. “We all wanted this so we had to fight for it.”
Park Hill accrued 17 points from the two relays and Shelby’s 400 finish, placing the Trojans 16th in the team standings.
In addition to Shelby, Koudou qualified for state in four events, including individual berths in the 100 and 200, and senior Ariet King’s career ended with participation in the preliminaries for the triple jump and 300 hurdles. Shelby ended up as the only individual medal winner after qualifying fourth in the 400 preliminaries at 56.31 before running 56.93 in the finals to place fifth.
Shelby ended up in the middle of a bang-bang-bang finish for fourth, fifth and sixth with Nerinx Hall freshman Courtney Williams .01 of a second in front of her and Rock Bridge senior Elexandria Brown .01 of a second behind. Shelby set her personal-best in the 400 at 55.87 with a runner-up showing at Sectional 4 a week earlier.
Park Hill South ended up with four individual medals and a top-eight relay to accrue 22 points, tying for 14th — five points ahead of Park Hill.
The majority of the accumulation came during one two-lap stretch. Emma Roth, a sophomore for Park Hill South, held the lead after one lap of the 800 final Saturday night, but senior teammate Jasmine Crawford charged ahead in the final 300 meters to make a push at the title.
Crawford ended up destroying her personal-best time in the event, going 2:15.62 to finish a little more than a second behind race winner Jana Shawver of Lee’s Summit West. Previously, Crawford’s top time came at 2:17.65 a week earlier while winning the Sectional 4 title.
Entering the final race of her career, Crawford vowed to end on a positive note, whether that meant a school record or a medal.
“I think honestly my biggest thing was confidence,” said Crawford, who broke 2:20 for the first time a month earlier in what ended up a breakout senior season. “I always went into races thinking there’s one person faster than me. The past couple of weeks, I thought, ‘Maybe I’m the person to beat.’ In my head, I’m the person who was beating myself every week. It was really beating myself and finishing for myself that helped me get through the year.”
While Crawford ran to second on the outside, Roth held strong to her position and finished fifth in a personal-best 2:17.26 — about 2 seconds better than her performance earlier this season at the Kansas Relays. She entered the postseason having set a school record in the 1,600 three times but opted for the half mile in an effort to earn a state medal.
The move worked, and Roth had a big smile on her face as she crossed the finish line seconds behind her teammate.
“I was so happy for her,” Roth said. “I didn’t know she got second until they were lining us up over there, but I just saw her kicking and I thought, ‘I don’t know what’s happening, but she’s going to do really well.’ Obviously, I was really happy for myself, but just seeing her finish like that, I had a smile on my face the last 50 (meters) because of it.”
Roth, Crawford, senior Lexi Maddox and junior Justine Aiello also delivered a long-awaited medal in the 4x800 relay.
With two senior members of a record-breaking long distance team, Park Hill South qualified for state for a second straight year but this time earned its way onto the podium. Crawford opened with a first place lap, and the Panthers ended up in fifth at 9:34.56 — nearly 32 full seconds better than last year’s 13th-place time.
Park Hill South sophomores Jasmine Case (100 hurdles) and Alecia Westbrook (high jump) earned their first medals in their state debuts.
In what looks like the final race of her career at Park Hill South, Case made good on her finals spot with a personal best time in Saturday’s finals. She was eighth out of Friday’s preliminaries and sneaked into the field before running 15.04 to place fifth.
Case, who said she will be moving to the Dominican Republic in the offseason, shaved 0.21 of a second off her previous personal best.
“I wasn’t expecting my season to be like this at all,” said Case, who also qualified for state in the 300 hurdles. “I felt like this could’ve happened. I felt like this would happen, but the fact that it actually did is amazing.”
Westbrook cleared 4 feet, 10 inches, 5-0 and 5-1 on her first try before missing at 5-2 on all three attempts. She ended up seventh on top of a tiebreaker for three competitors tied at 5-1.