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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.

SteveU | senior editor

The Jordan Hasay Show at Mt. SAC – No one came into this school year with a tougher task of trying to top herself than Mission Prep CA sr Jordan Hasay.  Probably the enduring image for me of 2007-08 (though it wasn’t actually in My Favorite Five for that year) was of Hasay mowing down elites in the final home stretch of the Olympic Trials 1500 semifinal and setting a USR 4:14.50, making the final, posing by the finish line clock, and getting serenaded by the Hayward Field faithful (receiving an invitation to come to U of O that she would eventually accept).  Now here I was, broiling under the hot October sun at Mt. SAC (tough on a Michigan boy), getting ready to witness Hasay’s big meet debut for the fall.  As great as her junior track season had been, there was still a full senior year to go and some unfinished business here and there.  How would she launch her season?

There’s a particular way you watch races at Mt. SAC (especially if you can’t run up and down the hills), and it begins by staking out your spot at the mile mark.  You can’t really see the runners much between the start and that point, so when they come around the curve and prepare to head up the switchbacks, there’s always this anticipation for who will be leading and how fast it will be.  Well, as Hasay came around the bend, just moments before she would pass that mile mark, there was that instant where you glance quickly down at your watch – I’ll never forget it … 5:03, 5:04, it read … Oh my God, she’s going to be under 5:10!  I felt the wave of electricity that you feel when you’re witnessing something magical, and those around me must have felt it, too, judging from the roar of astonishment that followed as she zipped past at 5:09.

Jordan didn’t wind up getting Amber Trotter’s legendary course record that day, winning decisively in 16:27, but it almost didn’t matter.  She showed she could have gotten it and, most importantly, gave indication she was the same amazing runner she had been the previous spring and most of her career.  The other mind-boggling part about her day would follow a few minutes after her finish – as she was besieged by autograph seekers!  Other than maybe Alan Webb 7-8 years earlier, I can’t think of any other prep trackster getting this kind of rock-star fan love – and basically needing a body guard, as it got crazy enough that her parents had to whisk her away.  The final year of the Jordan Hasay Era had begun, and it was easy to imagine now that several weeks down the road she would accomplish her big goal of the fall, her 2nd Foot Locker title.  I was glad to be there to see the beginning of the campaign.

Lukas Verzbicas' national debut at NIN – There’s nothing quite like that rare, dawning sense of something incredible about to happen and feeling like you have something close to a corner on that realization.  That feeling was there for me during the girls 4x800 at the 2008 Penn Relays, when it became evident as early as the third leg that Eleanor Roosevelt was going to send the USR far down in the unthinkable realm of the 8:40s, and it seemed no one else around me had quite done the math.  The scene at this winter’s Nike Indoor Nationals, on the first night, was somewhat similar.  The weight throw and 5000 were the only events contested that night, but thanks to Conor McCullough’s historic, record-breaking series, the weight was getting all the attention.  As McCullough and the other throwers were going through their final efforts, the “slow” section of the boys 5000 had been completed and athletes were lining up for the fast section – including one Lukas Verzbicas.

I had never seen Verzbicas run – indeed, except for the few who witnessed his abbreviated XC season or his races at the Arkansas Invite several weeks earlier, no one else had, either.  Since he had run 4:15.43 and 8:29.16 for the mile and 3k in Fayetteville, there was the thought he could, well, at least run sub-15:00 here.  But no one really knew.  As McCullough was launching his final throw, I found my attention drifting toward Verzbicas, as the race had begun completely without fanfare.  Oh my God, he’s really going for it … 31 seconds on the first lap!?!  Resplendent in a uniform with the old Oregon Duck colors, you immediately thought of Prefontaine – but the form of the amazing Illinois freshman really looked more like Viren, if you were going old-school.

By the 800 mark of the 5000, the weight throw was done, Verzbicas had passed in 2:13 – leaving a very solid field gasping in his wake – and we were beginning to realize we were about to see something even more amazing than McCullough’s annihilation of the weight record.  The giddy mental computations began – if he keeps up the 34-35 laps he’s cranking out now, how fast will he run and can he break that national record by Solomon Haile, set just hours earlier?  The answers were soon revealed to be, “around 14:20,” and “yes, especially if he can pick it up the last couple laps.”  With a 32 closer, he stopped the clock at 14:18.42.  His momentum carried him past the finish and, apparently fearing that he’d tighten up, he kept jogging around the track.  Not an intentional “victory lap,” but that’s how it turned out as he clearly got a kick out of slapping the outstretched palms of fans coming back down the homestretch.

The prep track world had officially been introduced to Lukas Verzbicas.  He would only appear on the track in two more meets all year – both impressive, but none so magical as that first night.

A relay for the ages: The Penn 4x800 – Yes, like my comrade, John Nepolitan, I could have passed on including the Penn Relays 4x800; it’s the popular pick for everyone’s favorite race of the year.  But no, I can’t ignore it, not if I remember the roar of the crowd on those final two laps, a sound usually reserved for sprint relays between Jamaican and U.S. squads.  Not if I remember that feeling of my hair standing up on end as Albemarle VA’s Anthony Kostelac and Morris Hills NJ’s Liam Tansey strained for the line in the final 50 meters, the clock still showing 7:20s.  Not if I remember frantically reaching for my cell phone, wanting to immediately report the news to my fellow DyeStatters, who weren’t there, of the insane numbers on the scoreboard: 7:30.67 and 7:31.60.

The funny thing was, as good as Albemarle obviously had been – just weeks removed from their almost equally astonishing 7:36.99 4xs800 from Nike Indoor – the expectations of another record were almost non-existent among we “so-called” track experts.  It’s actually not easy to come back from a peak performance at indoor nationals and hit a new high by late April – not if you also want to be great in June.  Often the prep relay and distance winners at Penn turn out to be those who didn’t top the podium indoors – such as the Tatnall (2009) and Roxbury (2008) girls DMR winners the past two years.  Furthermore, neither Albemarle (7:49.39) nor Morris Hills (7:47.13) gave any sense that something otherworldly was in the cards with their qualifying efforts.  The Albemarle crew would even say after the race that they had taken a break after indoors and only done a few hard workouts leading up to Penn.

So … if you’d asked most pundits for a prediction on the winning time, you probably would have gotten 7:34 or 7:35 – great, but not legendary.  But the predictions failed to account for a few things – the adrenaline produced by the frenzied throng of fans and the effect of the flourishing rivalry between the two favored schools.  Zack Vrhovac gave Albemarle it’s first big push in leg two, coming from way behind to hit the lead with his PR 1:50.57.  But new Morris Hills addition Sean Pohorence took it back with his 1:53.56 on the third.  Calabar and Jamaica College were competitive enough that the Jamaican fans were fully in to the race, too, so the final Kostelac-Tansey battle was accompanied by a wall of sound – not quite the wall of sound accompanying the St. Jago-Long Beach Poly 4x4 battle from two years earlier, but close enough.  It was all enough to drive the pair to 1:49 and 1:50 legs, past the Auburn WA’s 2002 USR, and into history – and to drive this overwhelmed editor to his knees in the middle of the infield as he absorbed that wall of sound, the final call of the announcer and looked goggle-eyed at the final times on the scoreboard.

Farewell to a favorite: Stephanie Morgan at Penn – The 4x800 wasn’t the only lasting memory I’ll take from Penn; there was another on a more personal level.  As a journalist, you’re usually trained to look at things with an objective eye and describe them with an objective keyboard.  You’re supposed to keep opinions and feelings out of it – unless you’re editorializing – as well as favorites.  But if you’re human, and live and breathe this sport and everyone in it, you’re bound to get to know athletes, their coaches and families, and find yourself discreetly rooting for them in their biggest races and events.

So it’s been for me with the Morgan family of Barnesville, Ohio, beginning back in the fall of 2005 when I did a big feature on the national girls XC powerhouse at Clarkston MI, where Jenny Morgan was then a senior and Stephanie Morgan a freshman.  Of the athletes and families I talked with in the story, I got to know the Morgans the best.  Jenny soon moved on to University of Michigan, but Stephanie (moving back to Barnesville with her family) had three more years, and it seemed like every time she had a big race – from her surprise NON mile win in 2007, to her Penn mile triumph in 2008, to her NXN Midwest victory last fall – I wound up being the first to congratulate and interview her.  It became almost a “tradition” we joked about.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this year’s Penn Relays 3k would be the last time I would see Stephanie race as a prep.  She had decided not to defend her mile title, but move up and race a tough field over the longer distance that included 10 Foot Locker finalists.  With her typical patient start and strong finish, she held off Emily Jones for the title in a US#1 9:31.32, which led the list until NON.  As a journalist, there’s no way you have the investment in a student-athlete as a coach or parent does … but that doesn’t stop you from feeling happy for them and proud of them when they do well, or from having that congratulatory greeting be one of your favorite moments from a year in the sport. 

Unbearable joy: Goodman hits the 22s at NON – One of the coolest things in our sport is seeing the reaction of an athlete who is overwhelmed by what they just did, who is so humbled by the victory, or time, or mark that they’ve achieved, that they don’t even know what to say.  It’s especially amazing to see that in an athlete who has raced dozens of big races over a long career, has seemingly seen and done it all, but yet is able to produce something that brings forth that disbelieving joy and amazement, like winning a multi-million dollar lottery drawing.  I had the bounty of seeing that kind of reaction from Chalonda Goodman at Nike Outdoor Nationals this spring.

Seeing a wide smile on the face of Goodman after a race is nothing new; nor is hearing her uplifting and gracious words.  I can hardly count the times I’ve talked with her after her races and it’s almost always the same; that’s who she is.  Goodman burst onto the national scene with her NON 100-200 sweep as a sophomore, and has been a consistent winner.  Some devalued her Nike victories in past years, noting the best runners were at USATF Jrs or other meets, but in 2009 there was no doubt – she had led the lists all year and she would beat nearly all of the best in her sweep of this year’s NON and USATF Junior sprints.  After starting her NON weekend with an US#1-tying 11.30 (+0.7w) 100 prelim and an 11.38 (-1.8w) final, she reacted in typical fashion.

Saturday’s 200 was a different story.  Knowing she was in great form, and sensing an opportunity to break a long-sought barrier, Goodman drove through all phases of her 200 final just a little better than ever before.  It didn’t hurt that she knew a very motivated soph star Octavious Freeman was going to push her all the way and a 3rd straight 100/200 double was within her grasp.  After Goodman crossed the line, she saw and heard her name with a number she had never heard it with before - “… a new meet record, 22.94!!!”  That “22” was all it took for Goodman – in a decidedly un-Goodman-like reaction – to jump up and down, and clap her hands (in the most humble way she could).  She doubled over, and then came back up with her hands covering her mouth – as if taking them away would cause her to explode in an unbearable ecstasy of joy.  Let there be no question, Goodman had wanted to break 23 for a long, long time.  To see one of prep track’s true humble souls make it to a new level was definitely one of my top five moments.

 Photos by (in order) Donna Dye, Jeanette Seckinger, John Nepolitan, Pat Davey, Kirby Lee

My Favorite 5 Index