Girls' track just falls short of repeat title, takes second in divisional finals

Despite all of the work the varsity girls’ track and field team has put in during the 2015 season — meets since March, team practices since November, individual workouts since the summer — the squad could only watch from the bleachers as the CIF Southern Section Division III title went down to the last event.

Unfortunately for the Wolverines, Santa Margarita’s Merritt sisters came through.

After Harvard-Westlake was controversially forced to scratch from the 4×400 relay during May 16’s CIF Prelims due to prom-related absences, Santa Margarita took full advantage. Led by strong third and fourth legs from sisters Nikki Merritt ’18 and Kaitlyn Merritt ’15, the Eagles won the relay in a time of 3:52.15 to get 10 team points in the last event of Saturday’s meet, topping Harvard-Westlake 69-64 and preventing the Wolverines from a repeat title.

With only five female Wolverines initially slated to compete, big time scoring performances were going to be needed by all for the team to have a chance. In the CIF-SS divisional finals, events are scored on a 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis, giving a huge edge to teams with depth. Based on performances from last week’s prelims, PrepCalTrack projected Santa Margarita as the top team (with 70 points) and Harvard-Westlake (59) in second place comfortably ahead of the rest of the pack, so it looked to be a dogfight between the Trinity League and Mission League champions all day.

Ultimately, PrepCalTrack was correct, as the Wolverines put pressure on the Eagles early. In the first event of the day, Courtney Corrin ’16 came up with a huge 20’11” leap on her last attempt to comfortably win the CIF-SS Division III competition and let Harvard-Westlake take an early 10-0 lead. Corrin’s leap was only one inch off her school record from 2013, and it was the farthest leap for any high school girl in the nation during the 2015 calendar year.

Next up was the 4×100, where Santa Margarita was the second seed and Harvard-Westlake was seeded eighth entering the race — but the rankings didn’t account for the emergence of Imani Cook-Gist ’15. Cook-Gist, a member of the school record 4×100 relay team from 2014, had not run any 100 meter races in individual or relay events since injuring her hamstring at Chaminade on March 12, but Head Coach Jonas Koolsbergen and the training staff felt comfortable entering her today, and it paid off dividends for the Wolverine squad. Corrin and Cook-Gist got the Wolverines out to a huge lead, and Ariana Miles ’18 and Shea Copeland ’15 held off a hard-charging Monrovia squad led by anchor Jordyn Tucker ’16. Harvard-Westlake went 47.66 seconds (seasonal best) to edge the top-seeded Wildcats by only 0.08 seconds to get 10 huge points. Santa Margarita did come in third place, however, as the Wolverines took a 20-6 lead.

As Harvard-Westlake won the relay, defending CIF-SS Div. III high jump champion Alex Florent ’15 got to work in her primary event, and handled her business to stretch the Wolverines’ lead even further. Florent reached a height of 5’7” — her best since the Arcadia Invitational on April 11 — to  repeat as the divisional champion and get 10 more points for the Wolverines. Santa Margarita’s Liana Edgar ’17 came up with a clutch lifetime best of 5’3” in the event to take fourth place, but the Wolverines still held a 30-11 lead.

However, a huge swing event was the pole vault, where Cook-Gist was the third seed going in but Santa Margarita held both of the top two spots. Cook-Gist came up with a pair of tremendous performances, clearing a school-record at 11’0” and another school record at 11’6” — both on her first attempts. However, the Eagles also produced, as Kate Thomas ’17 joined state pole vault leader Kaitlyn Merritt as the lone competitors to clear 13 feet to take the top two spots. Santa Margarita got 18 huge points in the pole vault, combined with a sixth place finish in the mile (where the Wolverines had no entries) from Gwynn George ’18, to cut the score to 36-32 and make things interesting.

After finishing in 10th place on May 16, Nina Milligan ’16 was the first alternate for the 100m hurdles, but unfortunately each of the top nine was present on Saturday, so Milligan was unable to participate. Nikki Merritt took advantage, getting a huge third place finish in the race to put the Eagles up 38-36 halfway through the meet and put Harvard-Westlake behind for the first time all day.

It was back and forth from there between the L.A. and O.C. powers, with both squads refusing to fall far behind. Cook-Gist took fifth in the 400m at 58.54 seconds, but SM’s Lauren Drysch ’17 went 58.32 to take third place and put the Eagles up 44-40. Copeland responded with a fine time of 12.02 seconds in the 100 meters to take second place, but Kaitlyn Merritt was there at 12.16 to take fourth place and keep the Eagles up 49-48. 800 meter alternate London Alexander ’18 was chosen to compete at the last minute for Harvard-Westlake, but was short on warm-up time, and finished in 9th place at 2:26.42 to keep the Wolverines behind by one. Corrin set a school record by dominating the 300 meter hurdles in 42.81 seconds, but Nikki Merritt was there at 44.26 to take third and limit Harvard-Westlake’s lead to 58-55.

Copeland, running in her final race as a high school student, shook off some severe shin pain to go lifetime-best in the 200 meters, with a wind-aided time of 24.47 seconds to take third place in what would’ve been a new school record if wind-legal. However, Drysch got four key points for the Eagles by coming in fifth place at 24.62, bringing Santa Margarita’s deficit to 64-59 with one event remaining and putting the result out of Harvard-Westlake’s destiny.

When at full strength, Harvard-Westlake’s 4×400 team likely would have been one of the top teams in the state. A team of Cook-Gist, Copeland, Corrin and Milligan ran 3:54.15 at the 2014 CIF-SS Div. III finals to take second place, and Miles’ lifetime best of 60.74 seconds is actually faster than Milligan’s (64.05). However, Copeland, Cook-Gist and alternate Annik Irving ’16 all attended the school’s prom on May 16, and Koolsbergen did not feel that the squad had enough left to form a competitive relay team, so the Wolverines scratched from the event, which forbid them from competing in the finals on Saturday.

With Harvard-Westlake not allowed to compete in the race at all, Santa Margarita only needed six points (equivalent to a top-three finish) to win the meet. Seeing the opportunity, the Eagles made Harvard-Westlake pay.

After trailing to Notre Dame — whom the Wolverines were ironically cheering for despite their status as regular season chief rivals —through two laps of the race, the Merritt sisters took control for Santa Margarita, and sealed the meet with a pair of strong legs. Nikki took the lead for the Eagles, and Kaitlyn finished it off on the anchor, as the squad won the race to get 10 points and best the Wolverines. If Harvard-Westlake had been in the race, the team would have only needed a fourth place finish (which ended up being Bishop Amat in 3:56.62) to win the meet, so the inconvenience of last week’s scratch was obvious to all in attendance.

Still, the Wolverines will be moving a strong contingent to the “Southern Section Masters” meet on May 29, which consists of the top nine individuals in each event throughout the Southern Section competing regardless of enrollment division. Florent made it with her high jump performance, Corrin qualified for the long jump and 300m hurdles, and Cook-Gist made the cut for pole vault. Any of them who finish in the top five in their events on Friday will head to the California State Meet, which takes place the following weekend.

For the boys’ team, Alex Barnum ’16 was the only competitor, since Mission League long jump champion Adam Knapp-Wachsner ’15 was unable to compete due to a hip injury. Barnum ran in the Div. III 200 meter race, where he squared off against a group of familiar foes including league rivals TJ Brock ’16 (Chaminade), Dominic ’15 and Diab Davis ’16 (Alemany) and Trevor Reid ’16 (Notre Dame). Barnum ran a time of 21.85 seconds, 0.10 seconds off his lifetime best, taking eighth place in the division and scoring one point for Harvard-Westlake.

On the boys’ side, the Wolverines finished in 48th place due to Barnum’s efforts, but he did not make the cut for the Masters meet, so the season is complete for the boys’ team. Undefeated Mission League champion Notre Dame won the boys’ Div. III meet with 71 points. Chaminade (third place) and Alemany (sixth place) also placed highly, despite losing to Harvard-Westlake during the regular season.

Competition footage and interviews from throughout the day can be accessed at the @TCiniglio Twitter feed.

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