Commitment, hard work pay off for hurdles king

Ryan Jilka could be the poster child for the adage that good things come to those who work for them.

The Hillsboro senior capped an outstanding season and high school career Saturday by winning the 110-meter high hurdles and the 300-meter intermediate hurdles at the state track and field championships in Wichita.

Jilka broke the tape in the highs in a time of 14.93 seconds and the intermediates in 39.07 seconds.

“I thought I had a real good chance (of winning) with my season times,” he said. “I had the best times going in.”

But having the best times in the state also put extra pressure on Jilka to succeed. He said nerves contributed to a second-best qualify time in the 110-meter preliminaries. It was only the second time all season he had not placed first in any hurdles race-preliminaries or finals.

“I didn’t run my good race,” he said. “I may have been a little scared going in because of the pressure. By the 300s, I had loosened up, and it carried on over into Saturday.”

Jilka said he put pressure on himself to do well for his teammates. He knew the boys’ squad had a good chance for the state team title.

“I knew I needed to score points to help us win,” he said.

Now that it’s over, Jilka said winning the team title means more to him than his individual accomplishments.

“Since the beginning of the season I knew we had a great team,” Jilka said. “We won all our track meets throughout the season, sometimes doubling up on second place.

“I liked everyone on the team, they’re just awesome guys,” he added. “It’s been fun to run with them. At the beginning of the season I could tell we had a great chemistry, and if we all performed we could win state.”

Confident in his abilities but humble about his accomplishments, Jilka won’t say what the statistics clearly do: he walks away from track as the greatest hurdler in Hillsboro High School history.

Earlier this season he set the school standard in both hurdle events: 14.5 in the highs and 38.6 in the intermediates. He also was a member of the 4×100 school record team.

“I was really pleased,” Jilka said about the hurdle records. “Both athletes who had them before, Brian Kroeker and Craig Duerksen, were great athletes. Getting them was just great-to compete at the levels they were at. I never saw either of them run because they came before me, but I had heard they were real good.”

Coming into the season, Jilka set his sights on excelling in the intermediates. A slight misstep in last year’s state finals cost him the gold medal by a half step.

“I worked as hard as I could during the season and lifted (weights) during the summer-and I ran,” he said. “I felt kind of determined to win.”

As the season started, he excelled in the intermediates, to no one’s surprise. But his early performances in the highs was an unexpected bonus.

“I really wanted to break the record in the 300s-that was one of my goals at the beginning of the season,” he said. “Then the highs came around and I broke that one, too. I really wasn’t counting on them at the beginning of the season.”

The intermediates remain his favorite race-but also the most challenging one.

“The 300 is just a gut race,” Jilka said. “You really don’t have to have much hurdling ability. You just have to get over the hurdles and you make up your time going between hurdles. It’s just really a gut race, probably one of the toughest races.”

Jilka had family close by to help him along the way. His father, Mike, a former state high-hurdles champ at Hill City, was an assistant coach for the Trojans this season.

“I really enjoyed (having him as coach),” Ryan said. “After I won the highs, he walked over with me to get my medal. He was telling me 27 years ago he was up there getting first place in the highs. It was kind of like he was reliving that experience through me.”

Also helping was the presence of his twin brother, Adam, on this year’s team. Adam excelled at the 800 meters and 400 meters, and contributed to a new school record in the 4×800.

Adam also ran a 15.0 in the high hurdles earlier this season-one of the fastest times in the state. He may have qualified for state in that event, too, if he had not run the 4×800 right before the hurdles at the regional meet.

“We’re both competitive and supportive,” Ryan said of their relationship. “But maybe more supportive.”

Both brothers have signed track scholarships with Emporia State next year. Ryan plans to focus on the intermediate hurdles there.

“The highs are three inches higher,” he said. “I’ll try them and see if they work out.”

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