IN THE SPOTLIGHT
By meet’s end, Annelise Van Den Akker was pretty well tuckered out.
Her body was spent, after she went all out — and then some — to complete a tough triple: 200 dash, 400 dash and 4×100 relay.
Her mind? Keen as ever.
A few minutes after missing a state-qualifying time in the 200 meters at the Class 3A girls track and field sectional at Niles West on May 10, lucid — and enlightening — words came out of her mouth.
“It’s all worth it,” said a dead-tired Van Den Akker, a junior sprinter for Highland Park High School. “And … it’s voluntary. I did sign up for this.”
Van Den Akker, who was born in Florida and then lived in the Netherlands and Hong Kong before moving to Highland Park prior to the fifth grade, will be packing her gear and traveling to the state meet Charleston, Illinois this weekend.
She didn’t quite make it out in the 200 (3rd, 26.38) and 400 (3rd, 1:00.19), but Van Den Akker did join forces with junior Taylor Edelchik, sophomore Ketura Liberius and junior Taylor Gilling to take first place in the 4×100 relay (48.76).
It was a brilliant performance by the four Giants, who had to blast by Evanston (49.79) and New Trier (50.71) to win the gold.
Van Den Akker, a field hockey player in the fall, set the tone — and the pace.
“It’s nice to have someone like Annelise in the lead leg,” said HP head coach Sarah Palmberg, who saw her team take third in the team standings with 69 points. “So solid. So steady. Super reliable. You give her instructions for the race, and she’ll say, ‘Okay, I got it.’
“She’s always there. Always ready to go,” the Giants coach added.
Triggering the 4×100 relay has its benefits — and rewards.
“I love starting the race with the baton in my hand,” said Van Den Akker. “I like that the 4×100 is over in a split second. After my handoff, it’s out of my hands and I’m able to look across the [football] field and see everyone else.”
And, she added, that there’s a security, when the baton finds its way into the hands Gilling.
“When she’s got it with 30 meters left, you can start hugging and cheering,” Van Den Akker said. “Because when she gets the baton, it’s over.”
The key to the HP’s win was the exchange between the second and third legs. It went flawlessly.
“We’ve been waiting to get that exchange down,” said Palmberg. “It has allowed us to take another second off.
“This relay is a special group,” added the HP coach. “They hold one another accountable. And they are clearly happy for each other.”
Edelchik, who also competed in the triple jump (11th, 32-5), is a good fit for the second leg. She brings a veteran presence.
And the Haiti-born Liberius has been a fast riser in HP’s program.
“This is only her second year in track,” said Palmberg. “She’s learning a lot.
“She’s very competitive,” the coach added. “And she’s fast. She’s got a great turnover rate.”
Meanwhile, Gilling was one of the stars of the Niles West Sectional. She stole the show with her runaway victories in the 100 meters (11.96) and 200 meters (24.70). Her clocking in the 100 was a school record.
Gilling, who missed last year due to an injury, also turned on the afterburners by anchoring HP’s state-qualifying 4×200 relay. She teamed up with Allison Antman, Riley Williams and Liberius to take third in 1:44.59 — well under the state cut of 1:45.52.
“She’s just so competitive,” said Palmberg.
Gilling, who also is the school-record holder in the 200, will be looking to do something special Downstate. She has the sixth best sectional time in the state in the 100 — and the fourth best in the 200.
The last time that a HP sprinter placed at state was 2014, when Nyjah Lane took eighth in the 100 (12.37). Lane, who is a senior at Eastern Illinois, also earned a state medal in the 100 in 2013 (4th, 12:09).
Meanwhile, HP’s other standout, Stephanie Kriss, also advanced to this weekend’s state meet. The sophomore went up against a loaded field in the 800 meters and took runner-up honors in a personal-best time of 2:12.67.
Kriss also took fourth in the 1600 (5:12.05), while HP senior Ellie Sullivan placed fourth in the shot put (33-0 ¾) and fifth in the discus (99-2). Teammate Nateciya Gidron-Noutai ended up sixth in the discus (98-5).
Notable: It’s been a stellar season for the Giants. On May 3, they claimed first-place honors in the CSL North Meet at Wolters Field. They beat Deerfield by 30 points, 143-113. The individual champs included Taylor Gilling in the 100 meters (12.15) and 200 (24.89); Annelise Van Den Akker in the 400 (58.75); Stephanie Kriss in the 800 (2:15.56) and 1600 (5:26.13); and the 4×100 and 4×200 relays. … HP also took first in the Lake County Invite at Grayslake Central on April 26. The Giants tallied 75 points to edge Grant (71), Libertyville (67) and Warren (62). HP’s top efforts were turned in by Gilling (1st, 100, 12.24; 2nd, 200, 22.17); Van Den Akker (4th, 400, 59.97); Kriss (2nd, 1600, 5:07,78); Riley Williams (4th, long jump, 16-1); Taylor Edelchik (5th, triple jump, 32-3 ½); Kaitlyn Twadell (6th, 3200, 12:12.93); Maddie Sands (6th, shot put, 33-1); and the 4×200 relay (1st, 1:48.69).