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Schlittler's long jump title leads Unity to better state showing: 'It was amazing'

May 19—CHARLESTON — Jillian Schlittler is a state champion. The Unity sophomore stepped atop the podium on Saturday after jumping 17 feet, 10 1/2 inches in the Class 2A long jump finals, setting the tone for what turned out to be a solid day at O'Brien Field for the Rockets.

"Amazing," Schlittler said of the feeling of getting her gold medal. "It was so breathtaking. I was so excited. I almost cried a little bit, but it was amazing."

It makes sense now, as Schlittler dominated the competition throughout the outdoor track and field season, but if you rewind to the indoor season, you would have never guessed it.

Schlittler entered this spring as the Rockets' No. 2 long-jumper behind senior school record holder and Murray State commit Bri Ritchie. During the indoor season, however, Ritchie strained her hamstring, moving Schlittler up to the top spot. Unity coach Tony Reetz said he knew she had potential, but he didn't realize how much until the Illinois Top Times Indoor Championships on March 23.

Even during qualifying, she was still trying to find her footing, barely squeaking into the final. Through five jumps in the final, seemingly out of nowhere, Schlittler was the leader. She ended up taking second place, but that was the moment where the expectations changed.

"Going in, we knew it was tight, and she's as good as anybody, so we said, 'Let's just get a medal,'" Reetz said. "We knew she was a great athlete, but that was the day we knew 'Hey, she can be special.'"

It sparked a fire under the sophomore, who also finished 25th in the 100-meter dash prelims on Saturday. Schlittler went into the state meet with the top qualifying jump at 18 feet, 0 1/4 inches, which was nearly half a foot better than the rest of the field. Knowing she had that potential advantage over everyone else made her believe in herself that much more.

"It definitely made me more confident," Schlittler said. "I just remember the very first girl who jumped went farther, and I was like, 'I just have to get up and go. I'm going to do this. We're going to finish this together and do great.'"

The other half of the "we" she referenced was Unity freshman Ava Jones, who finished fourth at state with a jump of 17 feet even. So, there Jones stood on the podium, just a couple steps beside Schlittler with a big smile on her face.

"I'm overwhelmed with excitement. I'm just so happy and proud of both of us," Jones said afterwards. "I absolutely loved having Jillian as my partner. It was the best. She always pushed me to be a better jumper and better person overall."

Seeing his two young jumpers experience so much success on the state's biggest stage made him wonder what could have been. The IHSA only allows two entries per school for each individual postseason event, but if Ritchie could have stayed healthy, she and Schlittler could have possibly gone one-two, and the Rockets would have had three jumpers clearing at least 17 feet.

"It's pretty good when your No. 3 long-jumper ends up getting fourth in the state," Reetz said with a chuckle.

Schlittler and Jones got the Rockets on the board in the team competition on Saturday. Along with them, the 3,200-meter relay team of Camryn Reedy, Emily Decker, Josie Cler and Ashlyn Denney took third, Denney finished fifth in the 400, Lauren Shaw was seventh in the shot put and Caelyn Kleparski tied for ninth in the pole vault.

It all added up to a seventh-place team finish, a big improvement from last year when they were 15th despite bringing the most qualifiers of any school at the meet.

"Last year and this year, having such a big group going down to Charleston to represent Unity is pretty awesome," Reetz said. "Last year was unbelievable, and this year, we had high expectations. We knew it would be a challenge with how difficult our sectional was to get that many girls back down there. We found a way to do it, and it was pretty awesome."

The Rockets are hoping they can continue this trend of bringing double-digit girls to state. If all goes according to plan, they'll be bringing a defending state champion next year, and Reetz believes there could be even more in store for her.

"Jillian is a pretty special athlete," Reetz said. "If she puts her mind to it, she could be a three-time state champion. That's in her wheelhouse. We'll keep coaching her up, making her better and let the chips fall where they may. We feel pretty excited to have her for two more years."

Schlittler said she was "in awe" of all the success she and Jones saw this year. She knew they had the ability to get to the pinnacle like they eventually did, but to actually see it come to fruition was special.

"Hopefully farther," Schlittler said with a laugh of how far she believes she can take her numbers. "It's definitely going to take a lot of work and practice, and I'm so happy I get to do it with Ava for the next two years."