Despite entering the race as the overwhelming favorite, Hawken School sophomore Ella Gilson had her hands full from start to finish during the 1,600-meter run at the Division II state championship Saturday in Columbus.
The Lady Hawk entered the meet with a lifetime-best 4:57.24, nearly nine seconds faster than the next-best seed in the race, but she was going to have to go even faster if she wanted to improve upon her state runner-up performance from a year ago.
While there was a pack of 13 runners who were still in contact with Gilson at the 800 mark, it was Dayton Oakwood freshman Grace Hartman who was pushing the pace the entire way. Hartman entered the bell lap with a 0.13-second lead on Hawken’s Gilson.
Not much changed during the final 400 meters, as the pair kicked into the final straightaway going stride for stride with each other. Gilson finally managed to get a half step in the final 15 meters to clock a lifetime-best 4:53.34, securing state gold by a mere 0.09 second against Hartman.
That was the closest one-two finish in a girls 1,600 run at a state meet – regardless of division – since Beaumont’s Katie Radkewich edged out Sandusky Perkins’ Jessica LaFene by 0.04 second during the 1994 Division II state championship.
Perhaps adding to the already electrifying outcome between Hawken’s Gilson and Oakwood’s Hartman, that same duo went one-two during the Division II state cross-country meet in the fall, when Gilson won the 5-kilometer title in 18:37.4 and Hartman took runner-up in 18:55.9.
“Both state titles were amazing, but this one was a lot more thrilling because it was a race to the very last second,” Gilson said. “So, it was definitely way more mentally hard, and I think it was more rewarding because we both worked so hard for that time and that place, and we both were giving it our all.
“We literally raced down to the last 0.09, or whatever we were apart by. But it was amazing. I’m really happy I had Grace to race, and she was an amazing competitor for me. When it came down to it, I just had to convince my mind that my body could do it. If I worked this hard the whole mile, I’m not going to let it go in the last 100. I just pushed as hard as I could the whole time and I’m just so happy with the way that it turned out.”
After clocking a 4:59.72 to finish state runner-up to Chagrin Falls 2018 graduate Annie Zimmer last year, Gilson’s 4:53.34 was the fastest Division II time at a state meet since Lexington’s Dominique Clairmon won the 2015 title in 4:53.08.
And with her victory, Gilson became the second Lady Hawk to win state gold in that event. Hawken 2013 graduate Ally Markovich won the Division III title in 4:57.88 her senior year.
Although Gilson said her 1,600 run on Saturday was the hardest she’s ever competed on the track, she toed the line for the 800 run less than an hour later and finished eighth in 2:17.70 to secure another all-Ohio podium spot.
“It definitely isn’t an easy double, but I was just like, ‘There’s nothing to lose, and I’m just going to try as hard as I can, sprint the last 200 and give it my all,’” Gilson said. “And the other girls took it out faster than I expected.”
Forty-five minutes after that, Gilson was up again for the Lady Hawks’ four-by-400 relay that had one of the more noteworthy stories of the meet.
Entering the finals with the seventh seed, after clocking a 4:03.95 during the previous day’s prelims, Hawken senior Zaria Johnson, freshman McKenzie McNitt, senior Laura Bucchieri and Gilson finish third in a season-best 3:59.49 to receive bronze on the podium.
“This is my first 400 ever in life,” Johnson said, who is specifically a 100, 200 and long jump specialist. But Johnson was forced to step up on the Lady Hawks’ leadoff leg after sophomore Danijela Doncevic went down with an injury during the four-by-100 relay earlier in the meet.
“I was just stressed, because I wanted to put my teammates in a decent position, and I’ve never ran 400 before, like ever, except in practice,” Johnson said. “I was just pushing as hard as I could, and, yeah, I did alright. I’m pretty proud of myself.”
Not only did the Lady Hawks have to persevere from a teammate going down with an injury, but they had a rollercoaster of emotions after their four-by-400 relay finished fifth in regional competition the previous week.
In just the second season of at-large bids for state track, they earned one of two outside spots to secure their ticket to states – two years ago, they wouldn’t have even been there.
“It was kind of stressful for us, because we worked so hard and that region time was a PR for us,” NcNitt said. “And not being in the top four (for an automatic bid), that was a tough day for us. But we were refreshing like every five seconds to see if we got in. It was crazy to actually be here, and we knew we had to prove ourselves.”
The last time the Lady Hawks sent a four-by-400 relay to the big dance was in 2004, when they won their fourth straight Division III state title in that event in 3:57.36.
“I’m just so proud of everybody this year, because we have some new runners who brought in a lot of talent, and then our existing runners cut down a lot of time,” Bucchieri said. “So, it’s just been a very exciting season all across the board.
“And I think we all pushed it as hard as we possibly could to get it in as good as a spot as we could for Ella (Gilson) and then let her do as much as she could possibly do.”
While Cincinnati Indian Hill broke the Division II state record in 3:49.30 and Akron Buchtel took runner-up in 3:56.67, Hawken’s Gilson held onto third by edging out Tuslaw by 0.37 second.
“I was very excited to run the four-by-400 this year, because it’s a relay and a team effort,” Gilson said. “And it’s the last race of the meet, so we’re all hyped up and everyone is having a lot of fun and I’m doing it for my teammates.
“I knew my teammates gave it their heart and soul to get me the baton in a good place, and so I could not let it go and had to give it my all. We all gave it our all, and I’m ecstatic with the way it turned out.”