High school track athletes in Greater Columbus ready for postseason – The Columbus Dispatch

High school track athletes in Greater Columbus ready for postseason  The Columbus Dispatch

The two biggest weekends on the calendar are here for the potpourri of central Ohio high school athletes known as track and field competitors. Are they mentally and physically ready to meet the challenge?

Sprinting might be the top attraction because of the rush involved, but there’s also the acrobatics performed by hurdlers, high jumpers and pole vaulters, the strength and balance needed in the long jump, shot put and discus and the endurance and strategy necessary to win distance races. 

The one thing all the top competitors share is they’ve spent the last few months building to the moment when they step into regional and state competition, where the crowds are the loudest and the stakes are the highest. 

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“It’s a combination of your training and being able to execute in a race,” Westerville Central senior Justin Braun said. “You can have one of those two things and you can go out and (run a personal-best time) just because you’re in shape enough, but to be able to go out and execute the race while you’re in shape, that’s how you get big numbers. That’s my mentality: Execute and the numbers are going to follow.” 

Braun won Division I state championships last spring in the 100, 200 and 400 meters after his sophomore season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the USC commit knows what it takes.

But just getting to be a part of regional competition, which concludes May 27 and 28, is only the beginning. Athletes must have the confidence that they’re prepared even though much of the season has been held in cold weather, and that they’ve had the right balance of rest and training.

Those issues don’t include potential injuries and illnesses, or the nerves athletes must overcome as the season reaches its crescendo.

To peak at the end of the season, learning to deal with all those factors takes the right combination of patience, preparation and experience. 

Gahanna Lincoln senior Alyssa Shope has been central Ohio’s premier girls distance runner for most of the last two-plus years, winning Division I state titles in the 3,200 last spring and in cross country last fall. 

This spring, she had problems with her wisdom teeth and then tested positive for COVID-19, issues that kept her out for significant training times before she returned for the OCC-Ohio Division meet May 12 and 14

She’s also battled hip issues in the past. 

“It’s really about being patient and not being focused on trying to race your peak in the middle of the regular season,” said Shope, an Indiana recruit. “When you get into the high-intensity meets like district, regional and state, you’re a lot fresher. It depends on where every athlete is at and it’s very tailored to where you are, but in my successful seasons, that’s been the formula.” 

The process of peaking 

When Watterson coach Adam Kessler was an athlete at Columbus Academy a little more than three decades ago, he remembers competing three times a week during the regular season. 

Those days have long since passed. Now, there’s no clear answer regarding how often or when athletes should compete before the postseason. 

“First, you have to have a plan as far as how they’ll progress,” Kessler said. “Then two, you have to take into consideration that you want them to be fresh when the postseason comes, so you really have to pick and choose how many events your kids are going to do initially in the middle and toward the end.

“It’s a progression depending on their events and volume. The distance runners need probably a little bit more volume and the sprinters need volume to bounce back, but you have to have that healthy balance. I’ve had kids toward the end of the season running on fumes.” 

Gahanna boys coach Shawn Johnston keeps “load management” in mind when putting together a schedule, which includes having his athletes compete at a constant rate for the first six weeks.

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Then as the championship season approaches, Johnston typically cuts back on the number of events in which individuals compete to create freshness for the league and postseason meets. 

“If you follow our teams, especially with our relay times, that championship season is when they start to find their groove,” Johnston said. “They may be running races with heavy legs or not running great (in the regular season), so once it gets warmer and you decrease the load, now they’re feeling great. A lot of times it’s mental, where they hadn’t felt this good earlier in the season and that translates to the track performance-wise.” 

One unavoidable contributor to training in central Ohio is the weather. This spring, April and early May were cold and rainy but by the second week of May, temerpatures were reaching the 80s. 

“Sometimes (the weather) will have an effect, but at the same time, it really shouldn’t,” said Pickerington North junior Dawaun Green, who was OCC-Ohio champion in the shot put. 

His coach, Dave Spring, doesn’t get hung up on weather issues because he’s “done this long enough that I’ve run at district championships before where it’s 40 degrees and raining.”

Spring, who guided the Panthers to the Division I state championship last spring, focuses mostly on the needs of the moment once the postseason arrives. 

“With the workouts you’re doing, every coach has ways that they tweak the workouts, and then as the postseason gets rolling, those workouts change,” he said. “Although the intensity can stay high, the reps and the distance can change. One thing I’ve seen over the years is that we get this string of meets through April where we do a lot of Friday night meets and then when you come to the postseason and you pop out on a Saturday morning after not being in school all day, you start to see something.” 

Bringing it all together 

After finishing eighth at the Division II state meet last spring in the 400, Columbus South’s Spiritual Wilson Foster Wright entered this season as one of central Ohio’s top returnees. 

The senior missed time in early April with illness and competed in only two individual events at the City League meet May 10 and 12, winning the 200 and 400. 

When an athlete has a limited amount of regular-season preparation, Wilson Foster Wright believes keeping things simple is best. 

“I actually was out for a while and then came back, but it feels like I never left,” she said. “I feel like you’ve just got to stay focused, stay away from negative energy and don’t put pressure on yourself. To me, it’s an individual sport when it comes down to it, so it’s all about focus.” 

Pickerington North senior David Alabi, who was a regional qualifier last year and won his second consecutive league title this spring in the discus, views each meet like a stepping-stone.

“For me, it’s just about wanting to compete with yourself and just trying to PR from the meet before, not worrying about who’s throwing farther or who’s spinning better than you,” he said. “You focus on yourself.” 

According to Spring, the last thing a coach wants to do is add pressure to an athlete who is looking for a particular time or place. 

“There are kids where you can tell they aren’t where they need to be before a big race,” he said. “I try to go in it with a little bit of humor. I’m a dad of three kids, so I pull out a stupid dad joke and try to relax them a little bit by getting their mind off the pressure of the situation. You don’t want to say, ‘You’ve got to get these points so we can get this score.’ You just want them to go out and do what they can do.” 

It can be easier said than done, particularly when an athlete can’t find his or her rhythm. 

It’s something Watterson senior Cris Kubatko is familiar with having placed 10th in the 3,200 last spring and 10th at the state cross country meet last fall, both in Division II.

He remembers struggling from a mental standpoint during cross country in 2020 before he gained more experience.

“Last year was a really important season in terms of competing,” he said. “I was in a rut the previous cross country season (in 2020) and couldn’t figure out how to compete to my level. Last year I learned how to do that and I’ve tried to carry that through to this year.  

“It’s a mental battle. You kind of train your body so that you’re ready for when you get to district and it’s something we think about a lot, so that when we get there, we’re not intimidated and we’re ready to rock and roll.”