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ST. PAUL — Three days before the MSHSL State Track and Field Championships, the Winona girls 4x100-meter relay team lost a key member.

Junior Emily Cierzan broke her foot on Tuesday, forcing the Winhawks to call upon eighth-grader Gwen Buswell to fill out the lineup for the state meet on Friday at Hamline University in St. Paul. The young sprinter knocked it out of the park and the rest of the relay team — junior Kaelah Simmons, sophomore Marquetta Berlin-Burns and sophomore Anissa Lee — stepped up to send the Winhawks to Saturday’s finals, posting the fifth-fastest preliminary time at 48.70 seconds.

And Cierzan couldn’t be happier for her teammates — though she admits not being able to compete is bittersweet.

“I’m so excited because I know that they can keep moving up the rankings and I am really excited to see them PR again,” she said.

“We were all upset, but you’ve got to keep going and they’ve got to focus on running. So we’re just trying not to think about it too much.”

On Tuesday, a stress fracture in Cierzan’s foot broke all the way through. It was discovered that she had been running with a crack in her foot for most of the season. And in the week leading up to the biggest meet of the year, it finally gave way.

“I felt it a few times throughout the season, but never too bad and it never swelled up or bruised, so I didn’t think anything of it,” she said.

The relay team entered the state meet as the 12th seed, with a seed time of 49.50 and moved up seven spots into fifth as they brought their time down by 0.8 seconds. St. Paul North posted the fastest prelim time, finishing in 48.19 seconds, while Brainerd was second, Stillwater was third and Simley was fourth.

Buswell had only competed with the varsity 4x100 team once prior to Friday and admitted the nerves were getting to her. But she tried to remember the advice Cierzan gave her during the week leading up to the state meet.

“She helped me set up my blocks and taught me how to do everything,” Buswell said. “That was really helpful because I was getting really nervous.”

“I told her to just think about running fast,” Cierzan said. “It’s only 13 seconds of your life. And then I told her to focus on all of the things that you need to remember when you’re running instead of all the things that could go wrong.”

Lee, the relay’s anchor, is running through an injury of her own that limited the team’s ability to practice in the time leading up to it. She has an injured hip flexor that has been bothering her since the Big Nine Conference meet and kept her from practicing handoffs or block starts during the week. But the whole team said their handoffs were exceptional even without being able to practice them.

“I was nervous about our handoffs because our last handoff was at sections and it was kinda shaky,” Lee siad. “So I was nervous here and before our meet we practiced and ‘Quetta (Berlin-Burns) fell over. So we were worried about that.”

Lee and Berlin-Burns both also competed as individuals in the 100-meter dash and they both echoed the sentiment that being on the big stage at the state meet made them nervous and kept them from running their best race. Berlin-Burns was 12th, finishing in 12.50 seconds and Lee was 15th in 12.55 seconds. St. Paul North’s Shaliciah Jones had the fastest prelim time, running in 11.77 seconds.

“The pressure of being by myself got to my head and I was nervous,” Berlin-Burns said. “I knew there were a ton of fast girls there and that kind of brought me down. I wish I could have focused more on running my own race because that would have helped me a lot.”

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