As a coach I have had the pleasure of coaching a number of All State relays. I am proud of our consistency but each year presents numerous challenges. Last year we finished a surprising 2nd in the 4×100 meter relay. Looking to repeat our all state performance looked on paper to be fairly easy as we only had to replace one leg of our 4×100 from last season. However, this relay leg was the fastest 3rd leg in the state and potentially DI walk on sprinter. As the summer months began to disappear and the new school year began I knew we were going to have a least two very capable athletes to fill in the third leg from last year. Now the question became who? As the year progressed I had these two athletes run similar events early in the year. I did this to limit my bias by allowing their performance to dictate who would be the faster of the two purely on time. As the year progressed one athlete proved to be a bit faster. Unfortunately, she would sustain a significant hamstring injury (our first as a program in five plus years) that would limit her progression. The weather wreaked havoc on our sprint performances all year as we were unable to have good conditions to run fast. Bad conditions were common if was not snowing (lots of it), it was rain or heavy wind. As a coach I spent a lot of time talking about the weather as the major contributor to slow times and not the team’s fitness. Sadly, poor fitness did played a major role with two of the three returning members of last years All State 4×100 meter relay. One athlete made it rarely to winter conditioning and the other played basketball. Each of their early season 100 meter times did not matching up with the previous two seasons. To address this issue I made the risky choice of using a larger number of races to help speed up their gains in fitness. I crossed my fingers and hoped our warm ups, drills, and other routines would fortify these athletes from increased chance of injury.
In better news our lead off leg came in with the best fitness she has ever had. Early she led a number of our workouts. This had me questioning if I should move her to a different spot to take advantage of her new found maximum velocity with a flying start. In the long run I thought better than mess with a good thing as her and our second leg almost always had perfect handoffs.
As the year progressed we tried to maximize our talent in a number of events to give us a chance to increase our number of state qualifiers and close the gap on our biggest rivals at conference/districts. My assistant coaches and I knew that even though we had good sprinters none would likely be able to make it all the way to the state finals without some serious luck. Faced with this not so distance future we started to try members of our 4×100 meter relay in some different events. Our second leg was one of the top triple jumpers in our state. As a coach, logically I believe long jump would be a great second event for her. We decided a low key would be perfect for this experiment. As luck would have it the town we had the meet in was flood nights before and the creek near the track pushed water over the jump pits. The flood waters left the sand hard as a rock toward the back of the pit for the best jumpers. In addition my young athletes chose to jump off the front board instead of choosing a board farther back and landing in softer sand. Of course my all state 4×100 leg and all state triple jumper severely injuring her back on a couple of hard landings. This all but ended any hope for improving her fitness back to last year’s levels on the track. She was not able to compete for the next couple of weeks and had to go into serious rehab mode to even get back to a level she could compete at Districts. Even at districts she was holding back tears with each jump and step.
My third leg that hurt her hamstring earlier in the season began to get healthy and I had to make sure she was ready with gradual increased intensity in practice and then eventually back into meets. Right after the injury we had her lightly bike riding, then jogging, then drills, eventually the doing sprints at low intensity, then using Mach acceleration progression, and finally fully intensity intervals. In meets we started her off on running in JV and just in the 400. We eventually moved back to the relays before attempting individual sprints. At districts we decided the 200 dash would be the better choice than running the 100 meter dash. All things seemed to go well until she injured her leg again on the same leg of the 4×100 meter relay. Wise beyond her years she figured out a way to get the baton to our anchor leg and somehow we still won the district title in the 4×100 with our 3rd leg limping 50meters. One of the gutsiest things I have ever seen in all my years coaching.
Now I had to make a choice. My next best 100 meter dash athlete was already in four events at the sectional meet as she qualified in the Long Jump, Triple Jump, 4×200, and 4×400 relay (In Missouri High School Athletes are only allowed to participate in four events a meet). I decided the 4×100 out of all our relays had the best chance to still become All State. I removed her from the 4×400 and put her on the 4×100 relay team. At sectionals this would give us the best chance to still qualify.
Toward the end of the season all the various competitions began to payoff for our anchor leg. Her times were getting faster, her hurdling began to get smoother, and her jumps were getting very consistent. This improvement did come with a price. Her shins were super tender and she had a phobia for taking any type of pain killer. We had to limit some of her workouts and she made a smart choices about getting on soft surfaces when and where should could to supplement our warm ups. She would survive and end of hitting a PR on her last long jump at the sectional meet earning a spot in the state championship for the third straight season.
As the gun was being raised at the sectional meet I realized the task ahead of us. We had yet to run a fast time all year and the other district had four teams that ran a full second faster than we had achieved at districts. Standing near me was my second leg of the 4×100 who injured her back earlier and was visibly still fatigued from the 4×200 runner over a half an hour earlier. I thought to myself “I must be crazy to think this is going to work out the way I want.” Then the gun went off and in 49.54 seconds we had accomplished a return to the state championships. Our time was a full second and half faster than the week before.
As excited as I was to get to state again I knew we still had work to do to peak correctly and clean up our hand offs simultaneously. Like last season I used a modified version of Charlie Francis’s peaking protocol. As we went through the week of practice the kids were actually fairly focused (this group had a hard time with being focused) and I began to think we could actually return to our all state status. Coming into the state championship we were ranked with the 10th fastest time. We would need to be 8th in the prelim to get a chance at becoming all state again. As we were finishing our last practice and hand off the day before the state championship our anchor leg sustained what I believe was a muscle strain in her quadriceps muscle. Needless to say I was very nervous. As we were cooling down she said the pain had subsided. She lightly stretched and took an ice bath back in the hotel that evening. She had the long jump before she ran the 4×100 and I figured I would know if she could run depending on how she handled the long jump. The jumpers were terrible by all the athletes. However, she did better than she was seeded and got the 9th spot in the final.
The girls looked amazing in the prelim of the state championship and we achieved the third fastest time in our school history with a 48.64. Almost a full second faster the week before and we had the third fastest time heading into the final. At that point I figured we could win the whole thing! That day the girls seemed very focused and believed they could win. As the gun went up I realized my heart was in my throat with excitement and nervousness that only coaches can understand. As the gun went off our lead off leg looked like a rocket breaking the stagger on the two outside lanes and spreading the stagger on the inside lanes lead off runner. Her hand off with our second leg was near perfect. Our second leg had clearly pushed us ahead of everyone and we were clearly in first. Her hand off to our third leg was perfect and she was doing everything should could to maintain our lead but the inside lanes were chipping away. At the final exchange our anchor got nervous and took off a little too soon. At that moment we went from tied with first to fourth. But our anchor leg is our anchor for a reason. She began to close down on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. We finished with another great time of 48.77 for fourth place. After the race was done my anchor leg was very sore in her upper leg and looked as if we finished her season just at the right time.
Obviously, the girls were disappointed. I was sad for them too. They had gone through a lot to get the point of almost winning the state title from what weeks earlier looked like an impossibility. But who can really be sad with what turned out to be a pretty awesome result.