TACOMA — Most high school athletes never make it to state finals in their sports. Those who do will remember it forever.
On Saturday at Tacoma’s Mount Tahoma High School, the Falcon 800-meter girls relay team cruised to a first place Kodak moment. Hope Richards, McKenzie Walker, Gwen Bakke and Lauren Sandri turned in a blistering performance for first place among all 40 schools in the 2A classification, running the distance in 1 minute, 45.63 seconds.
For the foursome, everything clicked at state. But it also took overcoming a few challenges along the way for the team to take the state crown in the 800 relay.
Richards was suffering a mild groin pull while Sandri had the flu. The Falcons’ running wounded took over the first and last legs of the race.
On Friday, even before preliminaries, Richards had a premonition they would be standing at the top of the medalist stand.
“We have some great people this year and we’re going for first place,” she said. “That’s a great way to finish my senior year.”
They almost didn’t make the cut.
Ranked close to first all year, Falcons coach Doug Fulton asked alternate Erica Johnson to substitute for the injured Richards in the prelims. Five-hundredths of a second separated the girls from elimination.
“We were so excited and nervous,” Richards said. “We did a little dance to keep warmed up; it may look kind of strange, but it works.”
The girls relay team also placed second in the 400 relay with 50.12. Their preliminary time on Friday, 49.78, would have given them the win over first-place Burlington-Edison.
On the sidelines after the race, Sandri said she fought the flu all weekend.
“I didn’t eat very much; I was a bit nauseous so I stuck to water.
I just felt we were going to win; even getting a second place in the 400 is an achievement.”
For Walker, a freshman, it was her first state track tournament.
“It is very cool here, maybe a little intimidating, but all these great athletes will push us to do our best.”
Fellow Falcon Bakke echoed a thought felt by the entire South Whidbey contingent.
“Most athletes don’t make it this far. It’s an honor to be here,” she said.
Falcons stay focused
It was a very busy two days for the whole Falcon team.
In other events, Sandri placed fifth in the 100-meter dash at 12.90, and sixth in the 200 at 26.89.
Katy Gordon placed ninth in the 3200-meter distance run with 11:30.27.
Cayla Calderwood high jumped 5 feet for a personal best and 11th place; she took seventh in the triple jump with 33 feet,
And Emma Ruggiero threw her discus 126-05 to place sixth. “Emma has had a great year; her throw would have won at the 3A level and placed third at
4A meet, but the 2A throwers were especially tough this year,” Fulton said.
The South Whidbey boys relay team — Chandler Thompson, Jon Poolman, Eric Stallman and Jason Fitz — took fifth in the 100-meter relay with a time of 44.47.
In his final appearance as a Falcon, Fitz was fourth in the 110-meter hurdles with 15.56 and sixth in the 300-meter at 40.33. All the boys medalled.
Overall, the girls team placed ninth for all events with 30 points total while the boys tied for 21st with Washougal High School with 11.50.
The big winner this year was Sehome, which took top team honors for girls (54 points) and boys (79) teams on the strength of their long-distance runners and jumpers.
This year was the most productive for the Falcons track team since 2004, when South Whidbey won state titles in jumping, long-distance, javelin and discus events. The boys won the state team title as well that year.
Coaches help out
Falcon Head Coach Doug Fulton and his staff — Dean Hatt, Craig Stelling, Mark Eager, Jeff Greene, Carl Westling and volunteer Jim Thompson — were on hand to give much-appreciated encouragement, guidance and support.
During home meets, Fulton is usually involved in a whirlwind of activity keeping everything on pace. But not this weekend.
“I just sit back and watch the kids perform; they know what to do,” he said.
Still, there were a few moments when the coaching staff stepped in.
Cayla Calderwood started Thursday with a personal best 5 feet in the high jumps before moving to the triple. Coach Eager advised her to stay focused.
“Transcend your environment, do your drills and jump as you’ve done all year,” he told her.
Calderwood wasn’t happy with her performance, but was upbeat.
“I have three more chances in the years ahead,” she said. “This whole trip was super fun for me, being supportive of my teammates and having them return the favor. And the set-up is similar because this is a high school — a really big high school.”
Track fans started arriving early Friday morning for the state meet. The 56-acre campus includes a 3,100-seat stadium and a fast state-of-the-art track made of environmentally-friendly composite materials. The stadium overlooked an inner field that was a riot of color, energy and motion as athletes prepared for their events by jogging, stretching, jumping and sprinting.
Ringing the track to the west were the high jumps, on the east the pole vault; triple jumps were on the southern edge. Throwing events were held at an auxiliary field nearby.
The first day was devoted to preliminary races and events to see which team or individual would make the final cut. On Saturday, the real battles began as the best of the best took center stage.
Surrounding the field were tents filled with athletes seeking rest, even if for just a few minutes. Athletes lounged on their gym bags, with ubiquitous iPod earplugs dangling almost everywhere.
Despite some tension and game-day nerves, there were scattered moments of mirth. When Erica Johnson needed to make a quick wardrobe change, for example, Ruggiero and Richards held up a blanket to shield her from passers-by, accompanied by lots of laughter, of course.
“It’s a little overwhelming being here,” Thompson said just after his prelim race in the boys
400-meter relay. “I just want to do my part and get to finals.”
Thompson’s dad was happy to see his son’s shot at a state title.
“Watching your own kid perform well takes the day to a higher level,” he said. “Both boys and girls teams are really tight and that makes a big difference.”
For the girls relay team, the meet meant edging the top athletes from high schools across the state.
The four girls are a familiar part of the school’s sports program. Richards played soccer last fall and Sandri was a key defensive player for the Falcon basketball team. Bakke is a cross country runner, while Walker was a track star in the middle school.
Since the only seniors on the relay teams are Richards and Fitz, South Whidbey can look forward to more victories down the road; their replacements haven’t been determined yet.
“It all depends on who enters the program next year,” Richards said.
Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or email@example.com.