Archive for Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Eephus Pitch

May 29, 2008

I'd never been to the state track meet in Wichita before this year.

My initial concerns dealt with the location, I mean it seems logical that the meet would rotate between the other Division 1 schools in the state, but that egoistic concern was more based on the distance from Eudora to Wichita rather than any real justified concern.

I mean, Wichita is the biggest city in the state and it's located near the center.

And after attending the meet for the first time, I can see why the location doesn't change. Everything ran smoothly, and it's a great atmosphere for high school track.

Talking with Emily Ballock after she won her fourth medal in the 300 hurdles, it became clear what this meet's atmosphere means to high school participants.

"I mean look around, it's amazing, the fans, the people, the coaches, just everywhere," she said. "Next year I'll be here practicing every day and it will be weird to see it empty because I've never ran here with it empty."

Friday the stands were probably just over half full for the morning session, which consisted of classes 4-through-6A. Saturday, when all six sizes of schools were competing at the same time, the place was nearly full.

Anytime athletes were going for a record, and it happened a lot, the public address announcer called it to the attention of the stadium.

In events like the high jump, where the result is seen instantly, the entire stadium would start clapping in unison, trying to coax a history-making feat out of a high school athlete. No where else in high school sports can you get that; all people, no matter where from, cheering and hoping an athlete will succeed.

That makes the meet more special and probably more competitive.

Also important is the manner in which officials handled the events. Throughout the year I'd often find myself wandering what the holdup was between heats. Why were meet officials waiting so long to fire that cap gun? The answer probably lies in the fact that, anymore, technology is used to time athletes, and often in smaller towns that can be lacking.

Not so in Wichita. It was rapid fire all the way, using the same technology that will be used for the Olympic trials June 27 in Eugene, Ore.

Events were usually in the area of 15 to 30 minutes ahead of schedule, an amazing luxury I'm told happens yearly.

And lastly, what it's all about, the athletes themselves make the event special. Stories like Ballock taking her fourth gold medal in as many years. Her performance would have beaten the fastest time in 6A by about a half of a second. Not every sportswriter gets to witness something like that.

It's even more amazing considering an event like the hurdles, where one misstep can result in tripping over a hurdle and the resulting faceplant - one reason I never messed with the hurdles after being persuaded to go over one in the wrong direction as a boy.

Also rare is seeing sprinters like Wichita Heights' Audacia Moore, possible a future Olympian, and how they handle themselves at big meets they dominate.

It was fun to watch the state's best, and it fostered in me a whole new appreciation for Kansas high school track and, in a general sense, athletics and spectators at the highest levels of sport.

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