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CHARLESTON — In her early years of coaching, Tammy Davis didn't focus too much on relay teams.

She started coaching junior high track and field 1990, or maybe it was 1991, she doesn't recall the exact year, but it doesn't matter. It took about three years for her relay teams to start taking form. 

It didn't take Davis, Warrensburg-Latham's girls track and field coach, long to realize that she could get a lot of girls in meets if she took those four relays more seriously. So, she did.

On Thursday, at the Class 1A girls state track and field preliminary, the Cardinals sent three more relay teams and qualified two — the 4x100- and 4x200-meter relays — to Saturday's finals. The Cardinals have had a relay team advance to state every year since 2015 and have five top-five finishes and a championship (4x200 in 2017) to show for it. 

It's a long-standing tradition for the Cardinals to put relay teams on the podium. Both of this year's finals-qualifying relays are the same group of Makayla Leathers, Channing Johnston Brooke Oakley and Brittney Oakley. Brittney Oakley also qualified for the finals in the triple and long jumps and Brooke is also going to finals in the high jump.

Johnston, for her part, played a double overtime sectional semifinal soccer game on Wednesday night in Litchfield, got home about 9 p.m. and was on the bus to Charleston by 7 a.m. Thursday. She was tired, but she's also part of what's been a rich tradition for the Cardinals.

“I think we’ve been doing really good and I think we’re going to show everybody what we’re made of on Saturday," said Johnston, while noting she'll be promptly resting after practice on Friday. "I was tired, but I had to do good."

She's the senior of the group and has seen the relay teams blossom, especially when they had former runner Taylor George as the catalyst for state championship team.

“I knew they had Taylor George and she’s really fast," Johnston said. "I was hoping I could be part of a relay team. I didn’t realize how awesome it would be."

In fact, after George graduated in 2017, Davis was nervous about how her relay teams would fare moving forward. Leathers stepped in last season and Brittney Oakley moved to the anchor leg — she turned on the jets twice on Thursday to catapult the Cardinals to the finals. Brooke Oakley stepped in this season and the Cardinals haven't missed a beat.

The 4x1 team ran 50.69 seconds to take third in its heat and move on to Saturday. The Oakley sisters were key in the final two legs of the 4x2 to finish with a 1:42.67 and to narrowly miss out on first place.

“We had the inside lane," Brittney Oakley said of her final leg in the 4x2. "I was like, ‘Maybe I can catch them on the curve,’ because my best running is on the curve. I just had to go with all I have."

The teams are well thought-out. Davis constantly looks ahead and down at the eighth grade teams to see who she can plug into the relays the following season. The runners themselves are cognizant of who is up-and-coming and how they could blend in with the team. In the first weeks of the season, Davis times them individually in the 100- and 200-meter dashes to see where they're at with their times.

They constantly practice hand-offs — the key to any successful relay team. At practices, Davis sends them to the spots on the track that they would get the baton. She wants them to know their surroundings and their environment.

“I don’t think (there’s a secret)," Davis said. "We work on handoffs constantly."

Each runner feels the pressure. They know about the tradition at Warrensburg. They set their goals to run in the relays on the blue track at O'Brien Stadium each year.

Like Brooke Oakley, Jenna Gulyash is a freshman on the 4x400-meter relay team that didn't advance out of the preliminary rounds. But the relays still matter to her, even if she also played a double overtime soccer game the previous day.

"Coming in as a freshman I felt like I was able to adapt to these girls really well," Gulyash said.

Like most of the field that qualified for Saturday, this weekend has been in the works for months. The goals are laid out and clear for each member of each relay team. It's no secret how they want their season to end.

“It’s a goal," Davis said. "They want to come in those relays. When we start the school year, they start talking about the relays."

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Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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