Patterson sets sights on multiple state titles

May 17—CHARLESTON — Lia Patterson was already one hurdle ahead of everyone else after the opening 100 meters.

It was clear the Tuscola junior was going to win the final heat of the 300-meter hurdles at the Class 1A girls' state track and field prelims Thursday afternoon, so it became a race against the clock.

The reigning state champion in the event came into the meet with a goal of running a time under 44 seconds in the prelims and following it with a sub-43-second time in Saturday's final. Somehow, she underestimated herself, and the public-address announcer had the perfect reaction.

"Oh my goodness," he said as Patterson cleared the last hurdle, just passing 40 seconds with a couple strides to go.

The O'Brien Field crowd on Eastern Illinois University's campus gasped as she crossed the finish line, and the girls waiting just off to the side to run the first heat of the 1,600 started applauding.

Patterson didn't know it at the time, but she had just run a 42.81, just 25-hundredths of a second away from breaking former Salt Fork standout Jenny Kimbro's 2016 state meet record and the 44th fastest time in the nation.

"It didn't really occur to me what was really happening," Patterson said. "My new goal for Saturday is to win and get her record. I'm just so baffled and so proud of myself for all the hard work and what people have put into me, with my coaches and parents being my No. 1 supporters and pushing me to be the best athlete I can be. I feel like it really showed in how I performed."

Patterson's competitors, who all finished at least three full seconds behind her, embraced her with even bigger smiles on their faces and helped her off the track after she collapsed from exhaustion.

"I'm just so very honored, and I feel so loved when people I just met or have known forever cheer me on," Patterson said. "We all want to do the best we can, but they cheer with me. I think that's a nice mentality to have is cheering on someone who's faster than you while also wanting to do good yourself. I'm just very fortunate that I have people who want me to do the best and make me a better person."

Patterson owns six Tuscola event records and is the reigning 1A state champion in the 300 hurdles and 100 hurdles, which she also ran the best time in Thursday at 14.50 seconds. She's already accomplished so much in a Warrior uniform, but she constantly strives to improve. Tuscola coach Drew Sterkel said he'll never have an athlete like Patterson again, and that's a big reason why.

"It amazes me that a 16-17-year old kid can continue to do that," Sterkel said. "She knows, no matter what happens, people will always love her. When you've got the comfort of your school, your community and the people who truly matter to you, you're able to just go out and compete."

The living Tuscola legend also advanced to the finals in the 200- and 100-meter dashes with respective placements of third and sixth, both just 25-hundredths of a second behind first.

After her final race of the day, the 200, Patterson finally felt the exhaustion of running four high-effort sprints in a couple-hour span really set in. She was in the middle of answering a question, and she passed out, falling to the ground. She immediately woke up and started wincing and throwing up. It was a scary moment, but she was back to her usual smiley, joyous self just a few minutes later.

"I was just really exhausted," Patterson said.

She said she'll be good to go for Saturday's finals, still with lofty goals in mind. Of course, the hope is to win all four events, and she doesn't plan to lose either of the hurdles. But if she doesn't win the 100 or 200, she wants to finish in the top three.

Even more than her own races, Patterson is focused on Tuscola's team placement. Last week, Sterkel told The News-Gazette he was "really excited" to qualify six girls to the state meet, covering 10 of the 17 events. The Warriors won their first team state title in 2022 and took third in 2023, and they believed they had a good chance to get back on top this year.

"When you've got a Lia Patterson on your team, the rest might sit in the shadows a little bit," Sterkel said, "but they're ready to show who they are. We're finally at a point where we compete apples to apples."

While Patterson did make the finals in each of her events, fellow junior Rylie Vanausdoll and senior Natalie Hasting weree the only other Warriors to move on. Vanausdoll placed sixth in the triple jump with a leap of 35 feet, 6 inches and Hasting was 12th in the discus with a toss of 109-11.

But, as always, the expectations remain high.

"We came in wanting to win state," Patterson said. "Things didn't quite go our way (Thursday). Some girls didn't qualify, and that's perfectly OK. Our new mentality is we want to get top three, and I definitely think that's possible with the girls we still have with us. I'm really excited to see what we do on Saturday."