Badger track state

Coaches and a hurdles teammate flank sophomore Emilee Booker before she makes her state meet debut on May 31. From left, head coach Jenn Chironis, Badger senior Hope Ayres-Schulz, Booker, and assistant coach Megan Walsh. (Contributed photo/Regional News)

When the state’s top track and field athletes took over La Crosse from May 31 to June 1 for the annual state championship, a pair of local runners were among the crowd. But both had different goals once they got there.

For Faith Christian senior Luke Thomas, this season was the second state meet in a row, and he figured to be a contender for one of the state’s top spots. Meanwhile, Badger sophomore Emilee Booker fought to run a new personal best in her first-ever state meet appearance.

In 2018, Thomas had an impressive showing at the Division 3 title races, finishing in second place in the 100-meter dash and fourth in the 200-meter dash.

However, after watching his fellow runners improve their times in both events throughout this season, he was not taking it for granted that he would be back near the top of the leaderboard this year.

“I had been following a lot of the guys’ times throughout the year, and they were really fast — a lot faster than last year — so I was a bit more nervous,” Thomas said.

Heading into the meet, Thomas had the fifth-best time out of 16 runners in the 200, and the 13th best out of 16 in the 100. With the top 10 advancing from the preliminaries to the finals, Thomas had his work cut out for him.

The 100 preliminaries was one of the first events of the day on May 31, and Thomas outperformed his seeding, finishing in ninth place, 0.05 seconds ahead of 11th, to earn himself a spot in the finals. Later in the afternoon, he notched another ninth-place finish in the 200 to advance to the finals in that event as well.

With the finals not until Saturday morning, Thomas went out of his usual pre-race routine Friday night to make sure he was in prime shape.

“The night before I took an ice bath, which I never do. I heard the announcer talking about how important it was for the athletes to rest up and get those ice baths Friday night so we’d be ready to run,” Thomas said. “So I did that, ate well, drank a lot of water and prepared myself well for the finals.”

The extra work paid off, as Thomas improved his preliminary finish in both races. In the 200, he jumped up one spot to eighth place, while in the 100 he moved up six spots to third place.

Coming into the meet, Thomas’ goal was to take one of the top three spots, so a bronze-medal finish was a great finale for the senior.

“Going in with the expectation of getting top three and getting third was incredible for me, to go out on my whole high school sports career,” Thomas said.

While Thomas may have had some state title experience under his belt, Booker was going in blind.

Thankfully, Badger coach Jenn Chironis has been sending runners to the state meet for years — and even qualified for the Badgers herself in high school — so Chironis was able to give her a detailed rundown.

“Emilee probably makes fun of me for this, but I had this whole power point of what to expect when you get to the state meet. It’s a big environment, and I’ve run into a lot of athletes in my time coaching that were taken aback by the environment. So I try to give them as much information as I can,” Chironis said.

At the sectional meet a week before, Booker had set a new personal record time in both the 110-meter hurdles and 300-meter hurdles — just missing state qualification in the 110, but making the cut in the 300.

She had to get past the disappointment of missing out on the 110 hurdles, though, and make sure the 300 had her full attention.

“You’re happy because you PR’ed, but still kind of upset because you didn’t make it. I had to not focus on it, and focus on the 300 next,” Booker said.

Coming into the state meet, Booker ranked 13th out of 24 competitors in the 300-meter hurdles. So to get up to the top 10 to make the finals would require a solid improvement on her prior best time.

She answered the challenge, running a 46.48 in the preliminaries to set a personal best for the second meet in a row. However, she finished in line with her seed to take 13th place and narrowly miss qualifying for the finals.

While making the state meet and missing the finals is still a fantastic finish to the season, now that she has gotten a taste of the state meet, Booker wants more next year.

“I’m going to make it to finals next year, you can quote me on that,” Booker said.

Besides just her own accomplishments, Booker’s other goal for next season is to have more of her Badger teammates qualify. She said she enjoyed the honor of being the school’s lone representative, but would prefer to be surrounded by everyone she competed alongside all season.

“I wish more people would’ve made it, because we were a team,” Booker said.

Booker’s state title trip makes her a member of a long line of Badger girls track state participants. The WIAA only keeps state track records dating back to 2000 on its website, but in the past 19 years, the Badgers have had at least one girl make it to state every year.

Chironis believes the streak is a testament not just to the track program’s success, but the success of Badger athletics as a whole.

“I think it says a lot about not just Badger girls track, but the behind-the-scenes stuff that happens: our weight-training program, our offseason stuff, our other sports that help these athletes get stronger and faster and prepare for their season,” Chironis said. “Being able to compete at the conference level is one thing; being able to compete at the state level is a whole different one, and that’s definitely a point of pride for our program.”