ITALY — Of the thousand of high school athletes that took flight the 2017 2A track and field season, 33 carved their names in the Texas Girls Coaches Association history books.
Two of those 33 hail from Ellis County territory.
Italy High School senior April Lusk and junior T'Keyah Pace earned selections on the TGCA All-State list when the lists were released Thursday.
"It was shocking at first and a new experience for me," said Pace, a 2015 4X800-meter relay champion, about the award. "I didn't really expect it, either. It's very exciting for something like that to happen for the first time as a junior and knowing I get to come back and try to do it next year."
Lusk and Pace, as well as former Lady Gladiators Halee Turner and Janae Robertson and sophomore Chardanae Talton helped write the city back into the University Interscholastic League’s history after placing between first and fourth place during five state championship events and earning a state meet-winning 54 points in 2016.
Without the use of a standardized track, they perfected their craft by practicing handoffs on nearly every inch of the city’s 1.815-mile diameter — from streets of Italy to the hallways of the high school.
Turner, Robertson, Pace and Lusk won the 4X800-meter relay with a record-shattering 1:44.81, the team of Lusk, Robertson, Pace and Talton captured second place in the 4X400-meter relay with a 49.85 and Robertson seized silver in the 200-meter dash with a 25.90 finish time.
Other than Kortnei Johnson, who won the UIL 2A individual title in the 100- and 200-meter dash in 2014, the city hadn't seen a team state championship since the 1997 boys basketball team beat Industrial High School 71-63.
A year later, Lusk and Pace were torching the track at Palestine High School's Region 3-2A track meet. Lusk placed third in the 100-meter dash finals with a 13.09 and Pace placed fifth in the 200-meter dash finals with a 27.57. They also placed first and second in the 4X100- and 4X200-meter relay with respective 50.85 and 1:47.33 finals times.
"It was an honor to be apart of such a prestigious award and it was really a team effort. For us not to have track and have to travel to other schools to practice and sometimes run against the same school teams really pushed us to be better," Lusk said.
"Receiving the All-State award to end my track career is is a privilege. I'm just glad I got to be a part of a great program with excellent coaches that help me not only on the track but in my life as well. They've helped me close the book on my track and field career and open a path to a new one because I went out with a bang. Serving in the Army National Guard is not something I saw in my career path but I think the discipline and work ethic I developed here will help me when I get there. It makes me glad I chose that path for my life."
"To go to state in track all four years was one of my many accomplishments that I'm proud of and hopefully, it inspires the underclassmen to do better than I did."
Lusk's time at regionals was less than second from her 200-meter District 19-2A time of 12.68 and Pace was less than a minute shy of her 100-meter time in Cayuga, Texas. Lusk will take her speed to the combat laden fields of the United States Army National Guard as a combat engineer with an eight-year contract. She said her high school career as a multi-sport athlete has also prepared her for the physical rigors of boot camp.
Perhaps more surprisingly, than the return to the national level was that the duo was the only female representation from Ellis County and the only from their district.
While one will depart to don freshly-pressed camouflage uniforms and snap picture-perfect salutes to the military's officer class, the other will take to the track one final year with an Italy legendary sprinter settling in the blocks in the back of her mind.
Pace said that woman, now a 5-foot-5 Lousiana State University sophomore and NCAA Champion and All-American, Southeastern Conference Champion and two-time All-SEC selection, may be the reason that she and her teammates make another trip to Austin and Mike A. Myers Stadium in 2018.
Johnson was crowned a NCAA Champion during her debut season while running the second leg of the Lady Tigers' 4X100-meter relay that set the Hayward Field Stadium record. She and her team finished in 42.65 seconds during the national final at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon in 2016.
"I'm focused on setting some records and breaking others but, more importantly, I've got my eyes on becoming Kortnei Johnson," Pace said. "She's a legend around here. Her dedication to track and all the hard work she put in motivated me to want to set an example for the girls on next year's team and to follow in [Kortnei's] footsteps."
Marcus S. Marion, @MarcusMarionWNI