BY DEAN HOCKNEY
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – If one was to sum up Howard County’s success at the IHSAA boys and girls track and field championships last weekend, the word “unbelievable” might come to mind. After two days and 32 events, Howard County chalked up nine podium finishes and four state champions. Yes, it was quite a weekend for Eastern, Kokomo and Western as all three schools had student-athletes return with a medal around their neck. But it was the Green and Gold clad Comets who stole the show with six podium finishes and four state champions.
“First of all, for a school corporation of our size, this is incredible,” said Eastern-Howard Schools Superintendent Dr. Tracy Caddell. “It brings such spirit and good will to the community. It shows such community support and the loudest cheers seem to be for Eastern. I have been an educator for 25 years, and this is the best class of seniors I have ever been associated with.”
The stars of the show were the Neeley twins – Bethany and Brittany. Already well-known for their running heroics, the duo each won an individual state title and teamed with fellow senior Sarah Wagner and freshman Jessica Sprinkles to not only win the 4×800 meter relay, but shatter the previous record by more than 10 seconds. The foursome’s time of 8:53.74 also set a new 2013 American high school standard in the event.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the time is the eighth fastest 4×800 girls relay ever run in a United States high school event – a slim 5.45 seconds off the national record set by Grosse Pointe South High School (Mich.) last year. And like any championship caliber athlete, this foursome downplayed the significance of its accomplishment.
“I really didn’t think I was running a good time,” said Sprinkles. “But I guess I set a good pace.”
“It hurt,” said Wagner. “I don’t know if I ran out to fast in the beginning and I didn’t (get a personal best), I just wish I could have done better.”
“I was running conservative a little, and I made a dumb move to try and go on the inside and got tripped up a little bit,” said Brittany. “I wasn’t planning on toasting them, but then I just dropped them right there. We had more left.”
“It is very gratifying,” said Bethany of breaking the previous state mark by 10 seconds. “I just feel blessed. At the beginning of the year, this was not an event we were going to run at state. We had talked about it, but we talked about how it is before the individual events and we didn’t want to get tired for those. But after Zionsville, we knew we had something special and we set a goal to win state and break the state record and go under nine minutes.”
Eastern head coach Michael Goodspeed was obviously thrilled with the days events. Along with the three state championship performances, the Lady Comets garnered two other medals and a fourth place finish in the team competition.
“It is a great day to be a Comet,” proclaimed Goodspeed. “We have some of the finest kids around and they are elite athletes. That 3,200 meter relay was the fastest in the nation! Seriously? And they beat the state record by 10 seconds! Seriously? That just doesn’t happen, and it was little Eastern in Greentown, Indiana. That was a great foursome.
“And it’s not just the Neeley’s; Jessica is running splits that are equal to the Neeley’s when they were freshman and our eighth graders were Mid-Indiana Conference champions again.”
The Neeley Twins
Under threatening skies that never opened up as predicted, the Neeley twins released their own storm – grabbing an individual state title each to go along with their relay title. Bethany defended her state title in the 1,600 meter run with a time of 4:53.37 and was a member of the fifth place 4×400 meter relay team with Brittany, Sprinkles and Avery Ewing.
“It was almost identical of last year and almost an identical time,” said Bethany of her 1,600 meter run state title. “They ran out quickly, but I felt comfortable and my form was good. I wasn’t sure if I could respond (after the relay race), but I got out there and just felt good. I was super excited.”
Brittany, along with her two relay medals, also won the 800 meter run with a state meet record time of 2:07.91 (she was third a year ago) and placed eighth in the 300 meter hurdles.
“I felt confident and I was peaking at the right time,” said Brittany of her 800 meter run. “I went through the first 400 right where I wanted to be and I was relaxed. Everything just came together at the right time. Last year, I was disappointed before the meet. But this year, I haven’t had any bad workouts. So I was very confident but I never thought I could run a 2:07.”
Other Eastern participants included a 12th place finish in the high jump for Wagner (5-4) and a 27th place finish for Sprinkles in the 800 meter run (2:29.43).
Grant Cole goes long
Twelve months ago, Grant Cole was an unknown in his first year of participating in the long jump – and incredibly he captured a 15th place finish in the state meet. Current Comets coach Austin Roark was an assistant last year when Cole took his first long jump attempt as a junior and noticed Cole had great potential. Now, he is a state champion and will take his skills to the NCAA Division I level for Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, this fall.
“Wow, a year ago if you would have told me all of this would happen, I wouldn’t have believed it,” said the soft spoken Cole after winning the long jump with a leap of 23-5.25. “I am excited. My whole experience last year at the (state) meet allowed me to be more comfortable this year. I was just a lot more relaxed.”
Cole said he gives a lot of credit to Roark and fellow Comet senior Josiah Marx for pushing him this season. Marx won the Howard County track meet, set the Zionsville Invitational record and took home a 19th place finish at the state meet with a leap of 21-4.25.
“Those guys just pushed me and we have helped each other become great jumpers,” said Cole, who became the second individual boys state champion from Eastern. “We had two jumpers in the state finals, which is great for a school like (Eastern).”
Roark agreed that having a solid teammate and state experience helped Cole win the state title this time around.
“This was our goal to get this done,” said Roark. “When I pulled him aside last year he was a high jumper and hurdler. We worked all summer and he really has not met his full potential yet. The first jump he ever made was over 20-feet, so I knew we had something to work with. We could be looking at a 25 to 26-foot long jumper. And Miami is going to work him into the triple jump, and he could be a national caliber triple jumper as a freshman. Man, that’s exciting.”
Also for Eastern, the Mid-Indiana Conference and sectional champion 4×800 meter relay team (Robert Duke, Adam Schaaf, K.J. Myers and Joshua Sommers) competed, running an 8:15.16 to finish in 22nd place. Earlier this year, the foursome broke the all-time Howard County record with a run of 8:09.20
A medal for Matt Grider
Running the 3,200 meter run means eight laps around the 400 meter track – and for a quarter of the Indiana state championship race the nearly 5,000 fans in the stands saw a Western High School jersey in the lead. Matt Grider, a Panther junior, returned to the state meet as the 17th seed but wowed the crowd with a seventh place finish, putting in a gutsy finish on the last lap. He finished 21st a year ago.
“I really wanted the pack to go out faster,” said Grider. “I was trying to hit splits of 69-seconds so I kept looking at the clock as I led. I didn’t want to get in the lead to early and break the wind for everyone, but the pace was pretty slow.”
His time of 9:16.74 set a new Western record. During the last two laps, he started to fade back from the lead, but he also realized he had a shot at winning a medal.
“I knew I had enough in me to kick and get to the medal stand,” said Grider. “This feels great. I wasn’t as nervous as last year and it was a lot more fun.”
The Purple Tigers sent a pair of student-athletes to the state finals. Amber Miller participated in the long jump and Darren Curry took to flying over the bar in the pole vault. Unfortunately, neither athlete got past the preliminary round. For Miller, it was her second state finals berth of 2013 after a trip to Ball State University and the IHSAA Gymnastics State Championships in the vault.
“When I first came down here to practice, I was in shock because the stadium was so big and it was just awesome,” said Miller. “This surface makes you run a lot faster, and I just missed the board. I think I thought too much about it. Gymnastics was a surprise, but getting here was a surprise too. What a year.”
Summer Blackamore a double medalist
Kokomo High School junior Summer Blackamore concluded a sensational year with two medals at the state finals. Blackamore set an all-time Howard County record when she finished seventh in the discus with a toss of 132-4. She bettered that finish when she tossed the shot put 42-10.25 to grab a fifth place medal.
The Lady Wildkats 4×100 meter relay team (Brianna Lancaster, Ma-Ryssa Martin, Raven Pugh and Iesha Wallace) finished 17th with a time of :49.54. And pole vaulter Anh Pham was unable to participate due to an ankle injury she sustained during the week. This was the second consecutive year Pham, a junior, was forced to exit the state meet due to an injury.
Unfortunately, Blackamore and Kokomo girls head coach K.O. Jackson were unavailable for comment.