A relay event in track and field may be the most unique situation in all of high school sports. It consists of four athletes coming together, performing at their best in hopes of contributing to the greater good: the team score. And if each athlete, whether they are running 100, 400 or 800 meters, gives it their all, they sacrifice their individual aspirations.
Then there is the math: victory in any event, relay or not, at a championship meet is worth 10 points. So if you are a top athlete, and can possibly score 10 points in an individual event and claim individual glory, why run a relay?
It is this question we consider when telling the story of the Carroll boys 3,200-meter relay team, a special quartet of seniors who came together for one final run. Yes, they put each other and their school before themselves, but in the end none of them even considered it a sacrifice.
Eric Claxton, Kyle Gater, Alex Hess and Jon Harper did sacrifice their individual aspirations this past track season but they may be the only ones who see it as a sacrifice. It is for this reason, and for their IHSAA and New Balance National Championship performances that they are selected The News-Sentinel Boys Track Athletes of the Year.
The quartet won the North Side Sectional and Wayne Regional before running away from the field at the IHSAA state finals, finishing in a time of 7 minutes, 40.14 seconds. It was the fastest time in the nation this year. Two weeks later, they extended their training and competed on the largest stage possible for them: New Balance National Outdoors where they won in 7:39.77 and recording the top two times in the nation this year.
“It's pretty cool because they didn't have to,” said Carroll distance coach Zach Raber of the relay. “They could have, as seniors, chosen to focus on their individual events and they would have done quite well. They all could have medaled at the state meet (top 9) in their events.”
The 3,200-meter relay is the first event in each track meet, so whatever events the athletes run after, they obviously can't run at their best. It didn't matter to them. The final result was Hess placed sixth in the 1,600 at the state meet and Harper and Claxton were unable to place in the top nine. And Gater wasn't able to advance to the state meet in the 1,600, something he certainly would have if he'd been fresh for the event.
“We won last year, so the opportunity to repeat is pretty rare,” Claxton said. “We were pretty driven to win it again.”
Last year's state champion (and national meet fourth-place finisher) consisted of Claxton, Hess and Harper. Only Gater was new to this relay.
Said Hess: “We decided back at the beginning of the season that this was our first goal. Then we had our individual goals, but they came second.”
Harper put it all in perspective: “Winning a second time is definitely the highlight of my career. Last year was kind of a surprise. But this year we all knew we were running for a common goal, running to win a state (and national) title.”
Winning the state title wasn't without it's drama. Raber treated the season much like last year, allowing the runners to focus on their individual events until the post-season. Carroll came into the state meet as the third seed (third-fastest time) and some of the pundits over-looked the Chargers.
“These guys are special because they all have that (championship) instinct,” Raber said. “When it's time for that one performance, they get it done. Kids have good days and bad days, but these guys, on THE day, they have a great day.”