Predictions irrelevant

Anything can happen - just ask Lions

On paper, the Lawrence High boys track and field team doesn’t have what it needs to repeat as the Class 6A state champs this weekend in Wichita.

Of course, the paper said the exact same thing last May before the Lions spent two days tearing it into shreds.

So LHS rookie head coach Jack Hood rides a wave of optimism as the Lions look to defend their title when the two-day madhouse that is the Kansas state meet – or, more accurately, state meets, as in all 12 of them – opens today at Cessna Stadium on the campus of Wichita State University.

“We’ll take our chances with these kids. I love the kids we’ve got,” said Hood, an assistant coach last season who took over the LHS boys and girls programs this spring when Scott Stidham left for a job in Tennessee.

“Are we good enough? Who knows? The only times that matter are the ones we run Friday and Saturday.”

Such is the unpredictable nature of the state competition, where injuries, unknowns and just plain wackiness often have an unforeseen shaping hand on the final outcome of the team standings Saturday night.

The LHS boys know it all too well. Last year, the Lions needed a very specific scenario to fall in place in the final event of the competition and saw it come to fruition when their 4×400-meter relay team finished third, one spot ahead of Garden City, and earned the gold medal by .75 points over the Buffaloes.

Prior to that, Lawrence High’s last golden trophy came in 1997, when a dropped baton by an opponent in the same event allowed the Lions to finish atop the team standings.

Given that history, Hood isn’t going to let a relatively small group of 10 qualifiers – highlighted by top-seeded Kevin Logan in the high jump – color his thoughts about what might happen over the next 36 hours.

“Our goal is to win state on both sides,” Hood said. “We’re either going to get it done or we’re not.”

One of the biggest obstacles on the boys side likely will come from the guys north of 15th Street.

Unlike LHS, the paper speaks highly of the Free State High’s boys squad, which finished second in last week’s ultra-competitive Class 6A regional meet at the Olathe District Activity Center and counts a number of medal favorites among the 13 athletes making the trek to Wichita.

However, just as there’s no way to accurately measure a team’s heart, there’s no true way to measure its health, either. And that’s where the questions come into play for the Firebirds.

A trio of talented senior sprinters – Christian Ballard, Keron Toussaint and Austin Winn – all are battling hamstring tweaks of some degree. How they hold up will go a long way in determining whether Free State finds itself in the middle of the team race, or forced to settle for whatever individual successes can be obtained by those who aren’t among the walking wounded.

“I think at this point we’re definitely one of the top four teams if we’re healthy,” said Free State coach Steve Heffernan, who endured a similar crisis last spring with his power-packed girls squad when senior Alysha Valencia, a favorite in both the 1,600 and 3,200, was forced out with a lower-leg injury. “It’s going to be a question until we’re done on Saturday.

“We still have some big expectations, but we realize right now our real competition’s going to be how healthy we can stay through the weekend.”

The girls half of this weekend’s gathering offers a role reversal for the two city schools, with LHS showered with pre-meet acclaim and Free State hoping to spring a surprise.

The Lions are bringing nine athletes to state and have realistic medal expectations for just about all of them. Some of the safest bets include senior Abby Jones in the pole vault, junior Courtney Barber in the high jump, junior Kelly Renfro in the distance events and both the 4×800 relay – which LHS won last spring – and the 4×400 relay.

“There’s five or six girls teams that have a chance, and we’re lucky to be in that mix,” Hood said.

Meanwhile, the Firebirds qualified eight girls, many of whom know what to expect on the state stage.

Like the LHS boys, Free State’s girls aren’t traveling to Wichita with an array of top seeds, but senior thrower Lindsay Simms, senior pole vaulter Ashley Sakamura and senior high jumper Julia Guard should lead a steady march to the medal stand.

“Most of the eight have been there before and have a chance to medal pretty highly,” Heffernan said. “The difference is we just don’t have enough people to put up a lot of points.

“Our goal there is to put up some (personal records) and win as many medals as possible.”