It was perfect timing for the girls’ 4×800-meter relay team as they broke a Sabetha High School record and claimed the gold medal at the State Track and Field Championships.
A look of determination was replaced by a radiant smile as Skylar McAfee confidently crossed the finish line as a state champion in the girls’ 4×800-meter relay at the State Track and Field Championships on Saturday, May 26. As McAfee completed her leg of the race, she was met with tears and screams of excitement from her fellow champion teammates — Hattie Lukert, Hunter Lowdermilk and Nikole Kuenzi.
Surreal. Excitement. Amazing. Joy. Those are just a few words that the 4×800 team used to describe winning a state championship. The team earned a gold medal after finishing in the 3A 4×800-meter relay with a time of 9:56.03.
“The four girls who ran that relay are highly competitive, and I believe their mindset was that every one of them was going to run their best time of the year and then see what happened,” said Head Coach Dave Remmers. “They all compete to win, which was shown by Hattie getting the lead from the start, Hunter and Nikki keeping the lead on their two legs, and then Skylar fighting back to regain the lead and the championship after losing [the lead] for a short period of time.”
Not only did the 4×800 team achieve the state champion title, they also broke a 1998 Sabetha High School record set by Leann Lehman, Kelly Flentie, Catherine Saylor and Rachel Prestwood. The 1998 team had a time of 9:56.90.
Along with breaking the school record, each of them also improved their split times in the relay by at least three seconds. As a team, they improved their overall time by 18 seconds.
“What a stellar performance!” said Coach Christa Schuette. “I have set goals all season long, meet by meet for this team. Every meet they haven’t disappointed me. This group works hard every day in practice and I can’t be more excited for their state title and school record. These girls definitely deserve it.”
Lukert, a freshman, ran the first leg of the race, taking the lead. She had a time of 1:07.568 on the first lap and 1:16.416 on the second. Lowdermilk, a junior, continued the lead in the second leg with split times of 1:10.552 and 1:23.253. Kuenzi, a sophomore, also continued the lead in the third leg and had split times of 1:10.648 and 1:19.898. At the start of the fourth leg, three girls advanced ahead of McAfee, a junior, but she was able to pull back ahead in the last 200 meters of the race to take the gold. She finished with split times of 1:12.895 and 1:14.803.
During the race, the girls said they were striving to win and were not really thinking about their time.
“We just knew we were going to do everything we could to finish in first,” Lukert said. “Our previous PR (personal record) for the season was 10:14. We were roughly shooting for 10:05, which required each of us to shave a couple of seconds off our personal split times.”
McAfee said she felt a little nervous with the pack of three girls ahead of her. Down the home stretch though, McAfee said she was determined to give it everything she had.
“I knew I still had some kick left in me and I had confidence that I was going to be able to catch them,” McAfee said.
And catch them, she did — finishing 15 seconds before Clara Bartlett of Cimarron, and well before Jill Stephens of Colby and Makaela Stevens of Scott Community. Knowing the team was close to winning, McAfee was beaming from ear to ear well before she hit the finish line.
“As soon as I crossed the finished line, I felt immediate relief that I was able to finish the race for my girls. My teammates had worked really hard while running their legs and they deserved nothing but my best,” McAfee said. “Pure joy overflowed my heart as my teammates sprinted over to celebrate with a group hug!”
Her teammates — in shock, disbelief and excitement — waited about two seconds before running onto the track for an embrace.
“I believe my exact thoughts were, ‘Wow, she gave her leg every fiber in her body. If I was in her shoes, I might have given up and settled for second,’” Kuenzi said of McAfee’s come-from-behind finish. “It was truly amazing that Sky was able to pull through for us, and I’m incredibly proud of her.”
Kuenzi said it was like she was in a dream.
“The fact that we managed to win the race being the sixth-ranked team and PR by 18 seconds to set a new school record was truly amazing,” she said.
There was a point where Lukert said she thought winning was a little bit questionable.
“But that thought lasted maybe five seconds,” Lukert said. “When we saw her [Skylar] making her move in the last 200, we had a lot of confidence in her. We just cheered her on to finish strong and she did.”
Lukert said several times this season, the team has been behind just by a short distance, as they were at state.
“But she [McAfee] never gives up, she digs down deep and she never settles for less than her best,” Lukert said. “Skylar was not about to let those other girls get the best of her. I had complete faith in her finish.”
Lowdermilk said she too had a little doubt at the start of the fourth leg when the team was sitting in fourth place.
“Hattie was standing by me saying, ‘She’s got this! She’ll get back up there!’” Lowdermilk said. “And I just kept nodding my head, knowing Skylar had the mentality to finish it strong. As she was rounding the last curve, we were getting closer to the front and I said a quick prayer to help us finish.”
Kuenzi said that even though McAfee was behind at one point, she never doubted for one second that they wouldn’t win.
“She is the toughest person I know, and I learned from running with her all year that she wouldn’t give up and would leave it all on the track,” Kuenzi said. “Even if we wouldn’t have won, I still wouldn’t have counted that as a loss because we had accomplished so much this year as a team and that loss would have been taken away as a learning experience for next year.”
Breaking the record
Because they had achieved so much success throughout the season, the 4×800 team could not imagine adding a state title to their list of achievements — let alone the icing on the cake —breaking a school record, which they had not come close to all season.
As a team, the girls placed first at every meet except one, where they placed second. They achieved their best time of 10:15.05 at the Big 7 meet in Sabetha on May 10.
Lowdermilk said the team had looked at the record a few times before the race and joked about breaking it at state.
“We all thought it was too far off our best time for the year,” she said. “After the race when we all went to hug each other, I had looked at the time [on the screen] and it said 10:01. I looked at the girls and said, ‘Guys, we ran faster than a 10:00,’ but none of us caught the official time.”
Not until they were on the medal stand did they realize that they had broken the school record. The moment the announcer said their time, more tears of joy flowed as they realized that they were state champions and had broken the record.
“Words can’t explain the feeling of getting first and then breaking the school record that we had all joked about before,” Lowdermilk said.
“After Sky finished, we never even looked at the big screen to see what our time was. We were just so happy!” Lukert said. “I was so shocked and broke down when the announcer announced our time and names on the podium. It was amazing.”
Kuenzi agreed, adding that it was insane to think about shaving almost 20 seconds off of your time to break a record.
“Our mindset going into the state race was to run our hardest and run for place,” McAfee said. “When the announcer called out our time, it came as a complete surprise and was really icing on the cake!”
On the morning of the race, the girls ate breakfast together and talked strategy, while mentally preparing themselves for the race.
“We were all talking, and I told Sky how glad I was that she was our anchor leg,” Lukert said. “She has this amazing, competitive quality about her that comes out when she races.”
Lukert said their team mentality was pretty simple.
“If we all gave our best effort, we knew we were going to be in this race,” she said. “We wanted to win it more than anything and we were determined to keep our minds clear, positive and tough. I think our mindsets and mental toughness won us that race.”
“Throughout the season, our mentality has always started with a positive attitude,” McAfee said. “While competing, we strive to run loose, keep a free mind and always have confidence in each other. There is no doubt that our mentality played a big part in our success this season.”
Giving the Glory
But the girls don’t take all the credit for their success. All four credit God for their success. Before each race, an important part of the team’s preparation has been to gather with the boys’ 4×800-meter relay team for a group prayer.
“This time we were also able to gather together after, in thanksgiving, for the opportunity to be part of something truly special,” McAfee said.
“We choose to give all the glory to God after this accomplishment because He gave us the natural talent to be able to run for Him,” Lukert said. “Spending time in prayer before and after our races has been such a blessing.”
“I feel incredibly blessed to have been able to share something so special as this with my team,” Kuenzi said. “I just want to give all the credit to God, because it was His will that allowed us to run the way we did.”
Previous State Trips
The last girls’ 4×800-meter relay team to place in the top three at the State Track and Field Championships was in 2016, and that team finished second. McAfee ran that relay as a freshman with her older sister Alexis McAfee, as well as Hannah Enneking and Taryn Schuette.
This year, McAfee qualified in the 4×800-meter and 4×400-meter relays and the 800-meter run.
McAfee said her freshman trip was the most memorable as she ran the race with her sister and the team placed second.
In 2017, McAfee and Lowdermilk qualified in the 4×400-meter relay. McAfee also qualified in the 800-meter last year.
This trip to state was the first for both Lukert and Kuenzi. As a freshman last year, Kuenzi did not qualify for state due to injury.
Lukert qualified as a freshman this year in four events, including the 4×800-meter relay, the 4×400-meter relay, the 400-meter dash and the 800-meter run.
For those veteran state qualifiers McAfee and Lowdermilk, they felt their main job was staying positive and encouraging their first-time teammates.
“I wanted them to know that I believed in them, never to give up and I had complete and total confidence in them,” McAfee said.
Lowdermilk agreed, and told her underclassmen teammates not to get nervous about how many people were there and to stay focused on what they came to do.
“Your first year here is definitely the most nerve-racking, but the experience is so much fun,” Lowdermilk said. “You see all the people and you automatically think they’re all watching you, but really they’re not.”
Lukert and Kuenzi said it really helped having upperclassmen with state experience.
“Skylar and Hunter always reminded us to be relaxed, confident, smooth and to just have fun,” Lukert said. “There was never any negative pressure or tension put on us and I think that was the key to our team success.”
Kuenzi said Lowdermilk shared many relaxation tips that really helped.
Since none of the team members graduated this year, they have hopes to defend their state title next year as a team.
“I think all four of us had a wonderful experience this year setting goals, working hard and becoming more than just teammates,” Lukert said. “That special moment we had on Saturday will motivate us even more for next year, and I can’t wait to see what we can do!”
“The fact that we get the opportunity to win another title brings me nothing but joy and it would be a shame not to use our God-given talents to do so,” Kuenzi said.
Lowdermilk and McAfee agreed that they hoped the team would continue together and compete next year to defend their state title.
“Winning the state title was an amazing feeling, knowing that all our hard work has paid off,” McAfee said. “What we experienced together was truly special.”
“Our hard work paid off and we did it together, which meant the world to me,” Lukert said. “Everyone did their part. We believed we could do it and we did.”
Krista Wasinger90 Posts
Krista Wasinger is Co-Editor of The Sabetha Herald, where she has been on staff since 2011. She specializes in city reporting and feature stories, as well as photography and page and advertising design. Krista is a 2004 Fort Hays State University graduate with a degree in communications studies with an emphasis in journalism. She lives in Sabetha with her husband and four children.