Nine Central Oregon athletes are qualified for this month’s national championships
Five months ago, Bend’s Alicia Welker was a track and field novice who came to a Pilot Butte Middle School track practice mostly because she had always shown a lot of speed on the soccer pitch. Now, the 12-year-old is a week away from the National Junior Olympic Track & Field Championships in Sacramento, California, where she will be competing in the 80-meter hurdles, the 100-meter dash and the long jump.
If Welker is taken aback by her immediate success on the track, she does not show it. (When asked about her family’s reaction to her accomplishments, she replied, “I don’t think they were really shocked that I got this far in track.”) But Mac McCormick, who coaches Welker at Pilot Butte Middle and with the Central Oregon Track Club, said he has seen a huge shift in her approach to training.
“She’s kind of gotten hooked on it,” McCormick said. “I can see her leading the group in warm-ups. Before, I couldn’t even get her to warm up. She was just hanging out.
“But her whole personality is changing, she’s realizing that she’s got some talent. I could see right away that she had some, but I think she’s starting to believe it.”
Welker is one of nine Central Oregon athletes who qualified for the national championships by finishing in the top five in their events at the junior regionals meet in Seattle earlier this month. Six of those athletes are members of the Central Oregon Track Club, which was resurrected by McCormick and his co-director Lisa Zimmerman in 2013, when both were coaching at Summit High School.
“One of the things that we realized as we were coaching at Summit was that when summertime came around, track stopped,” McCormick said after this past Thursday’s morning practice at the Bend High School’s Punk Hunnell Stadium. “It just disappeared, while soccer and other sports continued. The best time for track in Central Oregon is summer, so we don’t have to stop track in May. We can take this to August, at least. That’s what we’re trying to do, and we’re trying to make sure that the younger kids have got some skills and know how to run, jump and understand the sport.”
McCormick said 67 kids signed up for the COTC summer program this year, most of elementary and middle school age, who are just learning the fundamentals of the sport.
During Thursday’s practice, nearly a dozen of those pint-sized sprinters took instruction from McCormick while Raymond Blasquez, 16, and James King, 14, practiced the high jump on the infield. Blasquez won his age group at the regional meet, jumping 6 feet, ¾ inches, while King finished third with a jump of 5-10¾ inches. Both will be competing in Sacramento.
“At first I did (high jump) as more of a social thing,” admitted Blasquez, who took up high jump in the seventh grade. “Then it ended up being fun and I like it, so I continued on and ended up being pretty good at it.”
King, who will be a freshman at Mountain View High this fall, qualified for the national championships last summer but did not attend because the meet was held across the country in Jacksonville, Florida. He said he expects the competition in California to be a notch above what he saw in Seattle.
“It’s going to be really intimidating, because there’s lots of other good athletes,” he said.
The remaining three COTC nationals qualifiers are all pole vaulters. Taylor Petz placed second and Elizabeth Verheyden was third in the girls 13-14 age group with clearances of 9-2¼ inches and 8-8¼ inches, respectively, and Emily Showers was fourth in the 17-18 age group with a clearance of 10-11¾ inches.
“It’s funny: I think that events like (the pole vault), they feed off each other,” Zimmerman said. “When there’s a lot of competition in a district, it makes them all better, and that’s what’s going on with those events right now, at least with our club. Pole vault coaches are kind of hard to come by, and so having Matt (Petz) coach them at this age for those girls has been tremendous.”
Matt Petz, who is Taylor’s father and Showers’ coach at Bend High, said he often has more kids interested in pole vaulting than can be effectively coached at one track.
“When I went over to the junior high a couple of years ago, I had maybe 30 kids say ‘I want to pole vault,’ it was crazy,” Petz said. “It’s really hard to coach more than 10 kids. Ten kids is a lot, because they’re waiting in line, there’s one pit, you can’t just give them quick instructions.
“You kind of have to tell kids, maybe it’s better to find a different event. It takes a fearless kid, and that kind of weeds out a lot of kids right there. They’ll try it and be like, oh, this is kind of scary.”
R.J. Gorman, 14, regularly practices for the hurdle events with COTC, although he is officially a member of the Central Oregon Running Klub, which is more focused on cross-country and distance running. Gorman ran the 100-meter hurdles in 16.30 seconds at the regional meet to finish fifth in the 13-14 boys age group and qualify for nationals. He also finished fifth in the 200-meter hurdles in 29.24 and came in ninth in the 1,500. And if anyone thinks the hurdles and 1,500 are an unusual combination, Gorman respectfully disagrees.
“Well, it can be (typical),” he said. “I’ve seen other people do it.”
With a week to go before the national meet begins, Gorman said he is most nervous about the three stages of races, unsure if he will make it through the preliminary and semifinal races to the final.
“It’s pretty friendly for the most part,” he said of Junior Olympic meets. “I have a lot of friends I’ve met at the start line and in the bib tent, and they’re quite nice. I can get nervous a lot since they are really fast, especially at nationals, but other than that it’s really friendly and well-organized and all that. It’s actually really fun.”
Tatum Holliday, a 7-year-old from Prineville who competes unattached, also said that she enjoys meeting new friends at meets. Holliday, who threw the turbo javelin 42 feet, 1 inch to finish third at the regional meet, will celebrate her eighth birthday during her trip to nationals.
“I like the 800 because people cheer me on a lot,” Tatum said at Ward Rhoden Stadium in Prineville on Friday. “I like throwing he javelin because I throw far. It challenges my arm.”
Michelle Holliday, Tatum’s mother, coaches track at Crook County Middle School and cross-country at Crook County High. This is Tatum’s first year competing in Junior Olympics, and Holliday said she and her husband are trying to keep their daughter’s formal training to a minimum.
“This is the age where you need to really enjoy it and not worry so much about the competition aspect, because that will come with time,” Michelle Holliday said. “She is so passionate about it and she enjoys it, and I want her to continue enjoying it. When we travel (to a meet), we try to make it like a family vacation. She meets new people and has fun with her friends, and that’s the most important thing. We really focus on PRs (personal records), and if she does great, awesome.”
While Tatum Holliday is competing in her first year of Junior Olympics, Merle Nye, an 18-year-old who just graduated from Bend High, is in the midst of his first and last season. His decision to compete in Junior Olympics is, in part, an attempt to make up for lost time on the track.
“I will be going to Ecuador for the year, on a program designed for graduating seniors that want to get some world experience before going into college,” Nye explained. “There’s probably not the same opportunities for running down there that I had in high school. I’m hopeful that I’ll find a club or a group of people who enjoy running, but as far as the competition aspect it’s pretty uncertain.”
Nye, who still considers himself a “pretty green” runner, won the 1,500 for the 17-18 age group in 4:11.30, and he hopes to set a new PR in Sacramento.
“My fastest time this season was in April or March, so it’s been a while,” said Nye, who finished eight in the 1,500 at the OSAA Class 5A state meet in May. “I injured my leg in the last half of track season, so I didn’t quite get the training (during the school year). I would like to go a good deal faster than I have this season and hopefully qualify for the finals.”