CHARLESTON — In eighth grade, Kenli Nettles desperately missed running hurdles.
She ran them in seventh grade, but a foot injury prompted her to focus on her bread-and-butter event, the high jump, in eighth grade.
But as a freshman, Nettles, now an Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond sophomore, saw then-teammate Megan Fifer doing the hurdles and knew she had to get back into it.
“I was like, ‘Man, I loved hurdles when I did them. I’m going to try it,'" Nettles said.
It just so happened that her coach, Michaela Ponstein, was a hurdler at Millikin and was quickly able to help Nettles get back in the groove.
As a result, Nettles advanced to state in the 100-meter high hurdles and finished sixth last season in addition to a third-place finish in the high jump.
This season, Nettles is back and badder than ever.
On Thursday, she advanced out of the preliminary round at the Class 1A girls state track and field meet at O'Brien Stadium in Charleston in all four events — the 100 and 300 hurdles, high jump and triple jump.
Her 15.08 seconds in the 100 hurdles was the top overall time across all heats. At the end of the race, she let out a ferocious fist pump into the air.
When she looked up at the scoreboard, she not only saw a win, but a new personal record of 15.09. She cupped both hands together and took in the moment.
“I was just excited," she said. "I was like, OK, I got first in my heat so I’m going to finals. When I looked at the board I was even more excited."
In the final 200 meters of her 300 hurdles, Nettles broke away from the pack, prompting PA announcer Matt Piescinski to pronounce: "All alone is Nettles."
“I don’t actually hear anything," she said. "I count my steps in my hurdles, so I count 16 strides. When I crossed I was like: They’re talking, but I don’t know what they’re saying. The crowd was yelling but I wasn’t for sure what they were saying. I have this straight mindset and I don’t listen at all."
It's that final 100 meters or so of the race that Nettles is able to find another level.
From the early stages of every race, she tries to conserve energy for that final push. Once she establishes a comfortable lead, she slows down until she needs to reach to the bottom of the reservoir to pull up her final kick.
With the last set of hurdles looming in the 300 on Thursday, she knew it was time to lock into gear.
“I got to those last three hurdles and I kind of stuttered a little," Nettles said. "It was like, ‘OK, you’ve got to get a 45. You’ve just got to do it.’ I kind of have a little kick at the end that’s always there."
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She got a 45.70.
The 300 hurdles, an event that most track runners despise, is her favorite. And in the summer, she will run in events with 400-meter hurdles. She's ecstatic.
Pinpointing exactly why she likes the gauntlet race isn't as easy as she makes it looks when she runs.
“I don’t really know," she said. "I love the push and how much it takes out of me and I know I have that strength to finish."
This time in Charleston, however, is nothing like last season.
She finished third in the high jump, behind St. Teresa's DaeLin Switzer and Kiah O'Neal of Rock Island Alleman, and sixth in 100 hurdles a year ago.
Not only has she added two more events for this Saturday, she's finally healthy.
Last year she battled a foot injury and said her foot was "not healthy at all." About a week after the meet she visited the doctor and spent the rest of the summer in a boot.
But that painful Saturday taught her an important lesson.
“When finals started I kind of got used to it and was like: OK, there’s a lot of intensity here. You’ve got to have a good race. You have to be focused and you have to have a straight mindset and you can’t mess around," she said.
She's always been a competitor.
From fourth through seventh grade she played football and her position was "wherever the team needed her."
Nettles played a little wide receiver, a little cornerback and one time even lined up as center because, "one boy was too scared to."
Nettles has no fear, even with a strong group of upperclassmen as her main competition, including Switzer, who she relishes the chance to compete against.
She's risen to the competition, and though she was in the middle of a strong season, Nettles knew at the Tuscola Open on April 20 that she could close the season with a bang.
“The end of the season is going to go real well," she recalled thinking. "I was like: Yeah, I can do it. The state championships are within my reach."