Wednesday, June 11, 2014

State Champ? There's no "maybe" about it.

For those of you who have been reading my blog for awhile, you may recall this post from almost three years ago. Well, I'd like to go ahead and update you.

I had the pleasure of coaching Zack during his 7th and 8th grade year and again this year, his 10th grade year. I was still coaching middle school track when he was a freshman, then moved up to high school when a job opening presented itself. I was responsible for coaching the jumpers this year, and of course Zack was a part of that group.

After having success as a 7th grader on the national scene in Kansas, Zack went on to win the Triple C Invitational his 8th grade year. The Triple C Invitational is essentially the middle school championship meet that includes all or most of the schools in Cumberland County in Maine. He won the meet that year with a jump of 5' 8", easily beating second place by 4". The kid clearly had a ton of potential when he entered high school the following fall.

I didn't have a chance to coach him that year but saw him jump in the state meet a week after he set a personal best 6' 0" in the Western Maine Conference (WMC) Championship Meet. He was definitely in the running for a state championship as a freshman.

Turns out he hurt his hip at the WMC Championship Meet and just couldn't do what he normally could do at the state meet -- compete at a high level in the high jump or the 100 and 200 meter dash. He still showed up and still did it, but the results just weren't there as he ended with a jump of 5' 8" (the kid who ended up winning, also from Gray-New Gloucester, jumped 5' 10").

So that brings us to this year: 2014. I was fortunate enough to move up to the high school from the middle school and was able to pick up working with Zack again. After going through 2013's state meet results, I told him during the first week of the season that Class B was going to be wide open this year. Whoever had the better day would win, plain and simple. Whoever worked the hardest during the season and peaked at the right time would take the crown. He immediately responded with, "I want to jump 6' 4" this year and win states."

So we went to work. He worked hard in practice as I pushed him through some different high jump drills. However, when it came to the meets the results just weren't there. He jumped 5' 6" his first meet, 5' 8" the second meet, 5' 8" the third meet, and closed the regular season with a measly 5' 4", and even that was a struggle. Needless to say, frustration was extremely high.

It was back to the drawing board before the WMC Championship Meet. I wracked my brain the weekend after the not-so-good 5' 4" jump...what the hell was going on?

When Monday came, I changed his entire approach. In the high jump, you run a certain amount of steps straight, then curve in a general "J" shape before taking a few more steps, then jump. So we lengthened the straight part of the "J" and shortened the short part of the "J" and had him approach the pit at a different angle. This would allow him to go over the bar more directly without spending so much time over it, reducing the time he had to knock the bar off. Increasing the straight or long part of the "J" allowed him to develop more speed in his approach. We also measured his distance from the the pit, something we had never done before, so he had an exact number he could put his mark at rather than just trying to find it by feel. His flexibility over the bar was still a work in progress but there wasn't much we could do about that with only a week to go before WMC.

Well, the results were instantaneous. He finished third at WMC with a jump of 5' 10" and said he felt way more comfortable and that his new approach was much better. On to States we go...

Saturday June 7, 2014 was a warm day without much wind. It was an ideal day for short, quick bursts such as the 100, 200, 400, long jump, triple jump, and high jump. It was not an ideal day for distance running, but that didn't matter to what Zack was trying to achieve.

I told Zack to do absolutely nothing between his events, and unlike a lot of kids his age, he actually listened. He layed under the team tent between events and just chilled in the shade. When it was time for high jump I went to get him, measure his mark out, and had him run only a couple of run throughs to make sure it was correct. He said his mark felt "great" and he was ready to go.

So the event started. Zack was seeded tied for third at 5' 10" with the number one seed at an impressive 6' 4." He cleared the first heights of 5' 4", 5' 6", 5' 8", and 5' 10" without missing a single jump (you get three attempts at each height). He was absolutely cruising. There were eight jumpers left when the bar was raised to 6' 0", with the number one seed being one of them.

Zack missed his first two jumps at 6' 0" and faced elimination with his last jump. Now, this kid is one cool customer. During the event he had been joking with me about how all he was thinking about was he couldn't wait to eat Chinese food later, or how warm water was better to drink than cold water when it's hot out, or how sunburned he'd be, or whatever. His mind was elsewhere and he was loose. This is usually a good sign in a high pressure situation when it comes to athletes...

Before he lined up for his final attempt at 6' 0" I told him to focus, to put every ounce of energy he had into that last jump, and to force himself over the bar if he had to. He took his mark, stood there looking off into space, and let it fly. He absolutely crushed the jump. It would have easily been a 6' 2" jump and maybe a 6' 4". I went nuts, the other Gray-New Gloucester coaches cheered, and Zack came off the pit with a huge smile on this face.

When the bar was raised to 6' 2", there were only four jumpers left. The number one seed was still in but he had missed more attempts than Zack at this point, which put Zack in the lead. I knew it, he thought he knew it, but we didn't really talk about it. I didn't want him to tense up or focus on that. All he had to do was hit another jump like the one he just had and he was in the driver's seat for a championship.

Zack was first of the four to attempt 6' 2" and he missed. It just wasn't a great jump. He may have been tense or maybe he was just maxed out. Either way, the number one seed missed his first jump as did the other two guys.

Zack lined up for his second attempt at the height. His mind appeared to go to "that place" as he focused on the task at hand. I don't usually yell when jumpers are focusing, but I just had to let out a quick and amplified, "Here we go, Zack!"

He took off for the mat, hit the turn in the "J" perfectly, and crushed the jump. I went nuts again and there were hugs and high fives from the coaching staff that was there. Absolutely incredible! All three of the guys attempted the height but all three missed. Zack was in command and everyone knew it.

The two non-number one seeds attempted and missed for the third time (one actually slipped and fell into the mat, which counted as a missed jump), and the number one seed took his mark. The crowd started clapping for him as he made his approach then cheered when he cleared the bar. The height was going to 6' 4".

Zack still had fewer total misses at this point so he was still in the lead. If the other guy cleared 6' 4" and Zack didn't then the other guy would win. He had cleared 6' 4" once this year, and Zack had never been above 6' 0" in his life. If neither cleared the height then Zack would win.

My nerves started going haywire.

Both guys took turns attempting 6' 4" but neither was even all that close. Zack had won but I told him to check with the official to make absolutely 100% sure. He ran up, checked with the official, shook the other guy's hand, and turned around with his arms in the air in victory. The kid had done it.

I've run a ton of races in my life, have set a ton of personal bests, won a few races here and there, won some awards along the way...but I can honestly say that I've never been happier or more proud at a sporting event in my life. Never.

To "discover" Zack's high jump potential partway through his 7th grade year, to watching him win the Triple C Championship his 8th grade year, to watching him struggle through his sophomore year only to end it with a state title...Wow.

His mother told me at the state meet that this would be Zack's last year at GNG because they were moving to Windham (the next town over from Gray). She said Zack didn't want to go and that he had asked her if he could stay with friends and continue to go to GNG. She said to me, "Who knows? Maybe he'll hate it there and will be back at GNG." I didn't ask why but I was crushed when she told me this news.

If this is the case -- and I'm still clinging to whatever shred of hope that it's not and something will change -- then he sure went out in style. Truly awesome.

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