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As the 2008-2009 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. Stunned by Anna Jelmini's throws double at her California sectional, but heard about it on the internet like almost everyone else? Doesn’t count. Head spinning when you got word of Albemarle's 4x800 battle against Morris Hills, but you were covering a meet elsewhere in the country? 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.
Dave Devine | senior editor

Trevor Dunbar at the Adidas Classic OR – Not too long ago, it may have been possible for someone like Alaskan Trevor Dunbar to train and compete in relative obscurity in his home state, and then venture to the Lower 48 and stun fans of high school distance running who thought they’d gotten a handle on the best young runners the nation had to offer.  In our Internet age, that sort of Out-of-Nowhere storyline is less likely, but an awareness of Dunbar’s accomplishments in Alaska did little to dampen the surprise among informed fans assembled at Portland, Oregon’s Fernhill Park for the 2008 Adidas Classic.  Undefeated in his senior Alaska cross country campaign, Dunbar came south for his first out-of-state race of the fall and obliterated a field which included many of the challengers for Oregon 6A, 5A and 4A state titles.

So profound was his lead after the opening mile, I overheard a spectator on the course turn to his friend and say, “It’s like that scene in Without Limits, when Pre comes up over the hill and it looks like he’s running by himself, and then the rest of the field comes into view…waaaay behind.”

I’d spoken with Dunbar the day before in a lengthy interview during a campus visit he was taking at the University of Portland (where he eventually signed a letter of intent); he projected a mix of confidence and humility which seemed firmly grounded in the miles he’d accumulated up on Kodiak Island.  He said in that interview that he thought he could break 15-minutes for 5k, but even with that knowledge in my back pocket, I still wasn’t prepared for the race he’d drop the next day.

When he emerged from a cluster of trees with less than a half mile to go, spectators who understood the rarity of what they were witnessing began consulting their watches. “Oh my god,” one kid said, “he’s gonna crush fifteen.”

And he did.

Dunbar made the sharp turn onto the track where the race concluded with the finishline clock still clicking through the 14:30s.  He crossed in 14:47.7, the fastest full 5k in the nation last fall, letting the whole country in on something Alaskan fans already knew: Dunbar was ready to contend on the national stage.

Chelsey Sveinsson’s Foot Locker moxie – Sometimes it’s the small, barely noticeable moments that stay with you.  Texas sophomore Chelsey Sveinsson certainly had her big moments in the 2008-2009 school year, including a cross country triumph at the 2008 NXN Finals with a course record 17:26 and a devastating distance double with a pair of US#1’s at the 2009 Nike Outdoor Nationals.  She has been interviewed and documented in stories and photos all year, but it was a flash of action just prior to the start of the 2008 Foot Locker Nationals that caught my eye and perhaps gave a glimpse into the spirit of this star on the rise.

The athlete introductions at Foot Locker Nationals are a fairly choreographed affair, with Foot Locker staffers organizing the runners according to regional finish and holding them in chute below an entrance arch until their names are called.  As the runners stand beneath the scaffolded arch, a brief bio is read and then they jog a short distance to the starting line.  Some give a quick, shy wave.   Some fix their gaze on the starting line, completely dialed-in to the task at hand.  Others stare self-consciously at the ground and nick the turf with their spikes.  A few look around, attempting to soak it all in, but still appearing somewhat overwhelmed at the attention.

Not Chelsey Sveinsson.

Hot off her NXN Finals victory the week before, Sveinsson flashed her megawatt smile when her name was announced and threw a flurry of jabs at the air, like a boxer stepping up for her weigh-in.  It was a refreshing display of confidence and moxie in a sport that occasionally lacks both.  As a journalist with a deadline, I was already telegraphing the headline in my mind: Sveinsson Deals Knockout Blow at Foot Locker Finals.  In the end, of course, she finished fourth behind a great homestretch run by Jordan Hasay, and the headline was unusable, but somehow that didn’t matter.  I had the distinct impression in the fleeting improvisation of that rapid-fire left-right-left combo, that a star had been born.  The remainder of her sophomore year only served to bear out that impression.

North Central WA NXN victory – As a writer, no matter how hard you attempt to keep your subject at a distance, some stories simply become personal.  You follow a narrative long enough, revisit it from enough angles, and it batters away at your supposed objectivity.  That’s what happened when I found myself in the swirling crowd near the awards podium at the 2008 NXN Finals in Portland, Oregon, awaiting the announcement of the boys’ titlists from a group of squads designated as the top four teams.  Among that final quartet of teams were seven anxious harriers from North Central WA, a group I’d come to know over the course of two-plus years as they transformed from scrappy underdogs to improbable national favorites.

I'd first met the majority of North Central’s varsity in late summer of 2007, when I traveled to Spokane WA to write a story about why so many great runners come from this relatively small city.  They’d just returned from a 14-mile trail run and were relaxing on the front porch of coach Jon Knight’s house.  Mostly juniors and sophomores back then, they progressed from a group that was simply happy to qualify for NXN in 2007 (where they placed 6th) to national favorites in 2008.  In that Spokane story, this is what I wrote about that rag-tag collection of skinny, shirtless kids on Coach Knight’s porch: They are both hungry and young, a devastating combination if cultivated correctly.

The anxious wait in the paddock next to the Portland Meadows awards stand was the culmination of that cultivation.  After The Woodlands XC Club of Texas was named as the fourth place team, and Naperville XC IL was announced third, only Elmhurst XC (York IL) and North Central hung on for the final verdict.

“In second place,” announcer Toni Reavis said, after some lingering confusion about the outcome, “Elmurst XC.”

The gathered Spokane loyalists exploded in celebration, knowing their team had won.  Suddenly I was part of the mayhem, hugging and high-fiving parents, coaches and JV runners I’d come to know over the course of two years following this group, watching them grow and mature until they were ready for this moment.  It felt like the appropriate end to a journey—a story begun on a front porch that arrived at an almost-Hollywood ending—and despite my best attempts at remaining objective, I was both thrilled and appreciative to be standing there as part of it.

Anna Jelmini at Simplot - Anna Jelmini, the Shafter, California senior who established herself this year as arguably the best female prep thrower in history, has competed in exactly one indoor track meet in her short career.  When she took to the shot put ring at the 2009 Simplot Games in Pocatello, Idaho, I was on hand to watch. 

Primarily known at that point as the nation’s leading discus thrower after her #3 all-time performance the previous spring, Jelmini had never competed undercover because she’d always played basketball in the winter.  She was a pretty good baller too— 18.9 points per game and 2.7 rebounds per game as a junior—but she decided to hang up the hightops her senior year to focus exclusively on throwing.  As a result, Jelmini entered Holt Arena at Idaho State University with an outdoor PR of 50-04 in the shot, and no indoor marks.  She left with a new PR of 51-05.00, the #1 put in the country, and the distinction of being the only girl over 50 feet last winter, much less 51 feet.  Her national leader was three-and-a-half feet further than any other girl at that point in the season.

However, it was what she said afterwards, as the arena emptied and the cavernous space echoed with fans buzzing about other events, which stuck with me. 

“I have big goals in throwing,” Jelmini said matter-of-factly. “Even though I miss basketball, I’m shooting for the national records in the shot and discus outdoors this year.”

The discus record seemed a reasonable goal at that point in the year, but did anyone realistically think Jelmini would approach the shot record?  Her 51-5 at Simplot was great, but no other girl in US prep history was even in the top 10 for both shot and discus outdoors.  I walked away thinking, If she even gets close to the national record in the shot put, she’ll be considered the best female thrower we’ve ever seen at the high school level.  A few months later, at her CIF Central Section meet, she shattered the discus record (which she’d tied earlier in the season) with a 190-03 toss, and added a US#1, #2 all-time 54-04.75 shot put mark.  She was only six inches short of Michelle Carter’s 2003 national shot record.  When I heard the news, my mind immediately returned to that conversation in Idaho. 

Jelmini will have one more opportunity to take down Carter’s record at the Pan Am Games in Trinidad and Tobago this week.  Is there anyone who seriously thinks she doesn’t have a chance?

Albemarle 4x800 at NIN – One interesting aspect of covering this sport on the national level is the opportunity to project developing rivalries before they materialize.  Early in the 2009 indoor track season, it was obvious that this might be a special year in the boys 4x800 relay.  Morris Hills NJ and Albemarle VA were trading US#1 marks back and forth from a distance in the opening months of the season, leaving fans to salivate over a possible matchup between the two loaded squads.  That hoped-for confrontation happened at the 2009 Millrose Games, but the expected fireworks fizzled as Albemarle took over on the first leg and rolled to an easy victory in 7:54.59 to Morris Hills NJ 8:03.31.  While that first meeting—which I followed from afar on TV—might have been somewhat disappointing, the rematch at Nike Indoor Nationals in Boston was anything but.

The two squads warmed up for Sunday's 4x800 with a scintillating Distance Medley Relay on Saturday which saw Albemarle anchor Anthony Kostelac overtake West Windsor Plainsboro North NJ’s Jim Rosa to move into the lead with three laps to go.  Kostelac closed in a blazing 4:09.2 to seal the 10:02.13 win, #2 all-time, with none other than Morris Hills in second at 10:06.06 (#5 all-time).  The next day, Albemarle returned sporting freshly-sheared mohawks and lined up against their Jersey rivals for the 4x8.  Again, the outcome wasn’t especially close, but the times were far more historic.

After opening splits of 1:53.1 (Zach Vrhovac), 1:54.9 (Luke Noble), and 1:57.3 (Garrett Bradley), all that stood between Kostelac and an Albemarle national record was a 1:56.9 carry.  Kostelnac, however, didn’t run like a man chasing a record; he ran like a man trying to obliterate it.  Hammering every step of the way, ratcheting the pace with each lap, Kostelnac blazed a 1:51.4 closer to carve 5.23 seconds off Syosset NY’s 7:42.22 from 2005. The jaw-dropping final time of 7:36.99 (with, yes, Morris Hills second in 7:43.91 for #5 all-time and a NJ record) instantly had fans speculating about a high school team actually approaching 7:30-flat by the end of the outdoor season.  Of course, Kostelnac and company didn’t wait that long, running their astonishing 7:30.67 at the Penn Relays less than a month and a half later, but it was at NIN in March that Albemarle gave the first indication of their all-timer status as a relay unit. 

I walked out of the Reggie Lewis Center that day telling anyone who would listen that I had just seen one of the most devastating relay anchor talents in my twenty-five years of following the sport.  That if Kostelnac had to go under 1:50 to win that race, I thought he could have.  He was the smoothest, toughest, most promising and most underrated mid-distance runner I’d seen this year, and he was only a junior.  Unfortunately, a stress fracture ended Kostelnac’s season prematurely, and with it, hopes of a June attempt at sub-7:30 for his Albemarle relaymates, all of whom graduated this year.  But after witnessing his baton heroics in 2009, Kostelnac is at the very top of my list of runners-to-watch for 2009-10. 

 Photos by Robert Rosenberg (Dunbar, North Central, Jelmini); Vic Sailer (Sveinsson, Albemarle VA)

My Favorite 5 Index