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As the 2007-2008 high school competition year draws to a close, we asked five staff members who spend a great deal of their time at meets to look back over the last twelve months and select their five favorite events, moments, match-ups, interactions, observations, confrontations or celebrations. The things that stood out, stayed with them, stuck to memory long after the coverage was over and the headlines had faded. The only catch was that they had to actually have been there. Floored by Fernandez’ California double, but you were in Michigan at the time? Doesn’t count. Blown away when Chanelle Price led the Pre Classic women’s 800 with 150 to go, but you were watching on TV in New Jersey? Not good enough. Five favorites you saw with your own eyes.

So, without further ado… a week’s worth of moments we were “in the house” to see.

Wednesday | Dave Devine

Luke Puskedra’s 4:30 opening mile at the Bob Firman Invite – The first time I met Luke Puskedra, he was a thin, quiet junior who’d just finished second to future Foot Locker finalist Taylor Farnsworth at the 2006 Bob Firman XC Invitational in Boise, Idaho. Farnsworth, a Highland ID senior, had dusted Puskedra in the final mile en route to an impressive course record of 15:16.6.

When I saw Luke a year later on the same course, things had changed dramatically.

Word coming out of Utah in early September 2007 was that Puskedra was in “sick shape,” as they say. This meet would be an opportunity to judge the veracity of those assertions. Against a field that included eventual Foot Locker finalists Miles Unterreiner WA and Stephen Clark UT, he didn’t simply win, he absolutely decimated the competition.

Puskedra (right, photo by John Dye) covered a rolling first mile pocked with footing that might politely be described as “tricky” in four minutes and thirty seconds. 4:30. When he crossed the stretch of sandy, lakeside beach where the mile marker was planted, the rest of the field was nowhere in sight. Jaws were literally dropping around the course as he blitzed the looping 5k layout in 14:49, slashing 27 seconds from Farnsworth’s year-old record. That race confirmed the suspicion that Puskedra would be one of the top harriers in the nation—a suspicion later validated by a top-five Foot Locker placing and a sizzling track season marked by an indoor national title and two outdoor national runner-ups. It remains the most scintillating cross country performance I witnessed this year.

Jackie Coward’s 60m Hurdles HSR at the Simplot Games – Want to see sheer, unadulterated joy? Watch someone set a national record or run a previously unthinkable time. You’ll see a face caught between amazement and disbelief. A goofy, irrepressible smile cemented below a pair of glazed-over eyes. I saw it when German Fernandez set his high school 2 Mile record at NON. It was there when Chris Derrick soloed 13:55 for 5k at Arcadia, then spun with incredulity through the finish area. Both were amazing performances, ones I’ll probably be telling my son about when he’s a little older. But for my money, it’s hard to match the joy Jackie Coward emitted as she burst across the finish line at the 2008 Simplot Games with a new national record in the 60 meter hurdles.

Despite an imperfect start which saw main rival Vashti Thomas of Mt. Pleasant CA grabbing the early lead, Coward (right, photo by John Dye) pulled away over the final thirty meters to plow home in 8.16, one-hundredth of a second up on her year-old high school record of 8.17.

Up to that point in the weekend, the ’08 version of Simplot had lacked a defining moment (or even an event that brought the crowd to their feet), but Coward’s run electrified the grandstand and provided the lift the weekend needed. After crossing the line she bounced into the open area at the end of the track where a large screen flashed her winning time. She clapped her hands together, pumped her fists at the rafters, and then doubled over and covered her mouth, overcome with the enormity of the moment. In a sport that can grow cynical with its calculated celebrations, this was a show of genuine exhilaration for a genuinely great accomplishment.

Karen Shump/Becky O'Brien Shotput Showdown at Nike Indoor Nationals – After a long winter of see-sawing back and forth in the girls shot put, Becky O’Brien and Karen Shump finally had a chance to meet face-to-face at the 2008 Nike Indoor Nationals. The two seniors had traded the US#1 throughout the season, one of them holding the top national mark for a few days, and then losing it by inches to the other. But with O’Brien (below right, Vic Sailer photo) installed at US#1 after a 50-11 at the USATF Indoor Championships, and Shump (below left, Vic Sailer photo) at #2 after a 50-07.50 toss at the PTFCA Track Carnival, they stepped into the same ring for the first time all winter at NIN.

Unlike a number of hyped matchups during the year, this one didn’t disappoint. And due to a combination of fortuitous scheduling, a lapse in the action on the track, and an infield ring with good sightlines, the fans were able to focus their attention on the compelling battle between the nets.

O’Brien opened with a stunner, reaching a six-inch PR of 51-05 which instantly became the new US#1 and seemed capable of ending the match before it had even begun. Shump responded with a strong series in the preliminary round, including a 50-4 toss announcing that she too was ready to compete in the rarified air of 50 feet, but the advantage lay with O’Brien heading into the final. That’s where Shump made this event one to remember, launching a bomb out to 52-04. Amazingly, she showed zero emotion after the toss, knowing the competition was far from over.

O’Brien couldn’t match Shump’s monster, however, and one of the best head-to-head events of the year ended instead with an acknowledgement of mutual respect and a sense that we might not see two throwers at the apex of their game like this again anytime soon.

Zack Hevner’s 4x400 anchor at the Oregon 1A-2A-3A State Meet – With only the 4x400 remaining in the 2008 Oregon 3A State Championship, Vale HS needed a top-two finish in the relay to secure the boys’ state team title. They had plenty of reason to take heart, however, as their sprint superstar, Zack Hevner, was waiting to snatch the baton for the anchor leg. Hevner had already won three golds on the day, taking the 100 (11.38), 200 (22.31) and 400 (49.83) in turn, each time favoring a gamey hamstring and trying to leave enough in reserve for the relay at the end of the day. Things were looking good as Vale third leg Cam Anthony barreled toward the final exchange just behind front-running Cascade Christian, but that was before Anthony stepped on the heel of Hevner’s spike in the exchange zone and left the shoe flapping precariously as the senior anchor took off.

As Hevner (right, photo by Dave Devine) rounded the first turn in hot pursuit, the loose shoe dislodged into Lane 1 and Hevner pressed on without it. He blew past Cascade Christian anchor Connor Kirkpatrick on the backstretch and powered home with one foot in a sock and one in a racing spike.

When he crossed the line in 3:26.87 his right foot was bloodied and the sock was threadbare, but Hevner had secured his fourth gold of the meet and he'd sewed up the 3A boys’ title for his small Oregon high school. Even more impressively, when asked if he planned to compete in any post-season events, given his dominating performance at the state meet, the senior modestly shook his head and said he had to start his summer job almost right away. That job?

Fighting forest fires for the Bureau of Land Management in Eastern Oregon.

Talk about heroics.

Two coaches, one love – This last one is kind of cheating. It combines two moments, at two different points in the year, involving two different people. But since those moments are perfect bookends to the 2007-08 year, and because they speak so much to the truth of this sport, I have to include them here.

In late summer 2007, just as the cross country season was revving up, I traveled to Spokane WA to write a story about why so many great runners come from this relatively small city. The highlight of the trip was an evening I spent with Tracy Walters, the 77 year-old former coach of Gerry Lindgren. While Walters (below right, Dave Devine photo) is capable of telling a story with the best of them -- and did so for hours that night -- there was one thing he said which sticks with me to this day:

“Kids need to have a love for their coaches, and the coaches have to love the kids. Anybody can give a workout, but for kids to respond to coaching there has to be love. Some kind of chemistry that’s part of the arduousness of what you do.”

His eyes turned watery behind his glasses as he said this, clearly thinking of Gerry. It was the type of thing someone says when they are past the age of embarrassment or self-consciousness.

Fast forward through an entire year’s worth of races and meets and invitationals, to the final event of the 2008 Nike Outdoor Nationals. Mike Shaw of Waggoner’s Raiders (Trotwood-Madison OH) has just anchored his team to a riveting 4x400 win in the pouring rain. He’s sprawled on the infield, exhausted from his 46.4 anchor and talking about how he wanted to do this—had to do this— for his coach. That coach, venerable Trotwood-Madison assistant Randy Waggoner (above left, Vic Sailer photo), looks every bit the old school mentor with his weathered ballcap and white socks hiked to his calves. Shuffling onto the infield to congratulate his young charge, he can’t help but choke back tears as he talks about his gutsy, reliable anchor. I immediately think of that back porch conversation with Tracy Walters. Because the type of race Shaw ran, the way he drove his body past failure into another realm of pain and slipped by the Dominguez CA anchor for the last-second win…you don’t do that out of obligation or respect or appreciation for a coach. Those sentiments aren’t enough when the hurt truly sets in.

There’s only one thing that will bring you home at that point in the race, and it’s what Walters was trying to capture all those months ago in Spokane. The chemistry mixed in with the arduousness. The same thing that drove Gerry Lindgren to beat the Russians and run 8:40 indoors. The thing that leaves Shaw grinning through his gasps and Waggoner weeping though his joy.


My Favorite 5 Index