Spartan relay team shines at Star Track

The quartet turned in the second fastest time in school history to claim second place.

Spartan sophomore Hillary Pritchett took one for the team at last weekend’s Star Track, the 3A/4A Washington state track and field championships in Pasco.

The eighth and final qualifier in Friday’s 800 meter prelims, Pritchett hung with the pack for the first lap of Saturday’s finals. Then she backed off a little in the second lap, finishing last in a time of two minutes, 27.85 seconds.

The reason: She was an integral element of the 4x400 meter relay team, which was among the favorites in that event. With just a little over an hour between the two races, running at the slower pace in the 800 allowed her to conserve her strength for the relay.

The tactic paid off.

Running the anchor leg, Pritchett had enough left to hold off three fast-finishing teams and preserve Bainbridge’s second-place finish.

Pritchett, her twin sister, Geneva, senior Michelle Baggett and junior Alana McWhorter combined for the second fastest time in school history as the quartet clocked 4:01.32.

It was even faster than last year’s state title time of 4:02.60.

While they were two seconds behind a Lakeside foursome that featured two of the top finishers in the 400 and 800, there were smiles all around among the Spartans.

“We all ran a great race,” Baggett said. “It’s the first time it happened this year. I missed half the season with a knee injury, and we all had off moments during the season.”

Her leadoff 59.37 leg was a personal best, and her teammates were all well under 61 seconds.

Sophomore discus thrower Quinton Agosta also turned in a personal best, throwing 134-01 to finish in a tie for 10th even though he had the lowest qualifying mark among the 16 entrants.

“I felt pretty calm,” he said. “I was just trying to ‘PR’ (achieve a personal record) today. I felt happy with how I did.”

The girls 4x100 relay team of McWhorter, Baggett and sophomores Morgan Nottingham and Zena Hemmen ran a non-qualifying 52.17 in their heat and didn’t advance.

“I’m proud of the kids that went,” coach Andy Grimm said. “The 4x4 was our marquee team. It was fun to see them get in there. We knew it would be tough to knock Lakeside off.”

Hillary Pritchett and her teammates extended two streaks. Pritchett’s eighth place made it six years in a row that Bainbridge girls have medaled in the event. The 4x400 relay has finished in the top three for five consecutive years.

There was a festive air among the Spartan faithful in the sun-splashed stands, as a number of parents and about a dozen non-qualifying teammates, mostly freshmen and sophomores, made the long trip to Eastern Washington.

“It’s good for them to see how much fun it is and what it takes to compete at that level,” Grimm said.

Junior Caroline Johnson was perhaps the most intense of the onlookers. Her meteoric rise from obscurity last season to one of the state’s elite distance runners came to a premature end when she was unable to qualify at the district meet due to a bad cold.

Speaking with traces of the ailment still evident in her voice, Johnson explained her unlikely rise.

“I thought maybe if I was good in a sport it would help me get into college,” she said.

Her first effort was the Spartan swim team as a freshman, but she didn’t do very well. Then her friend Darcy Wallace, who had competed in the 400 meters as a freshman, suggested that Johnson join her on the track team the following year.

Somewhat by default, she wound up as a distance runner.

“Just because I’m taller, I thought I’d do better there,” she said, admitting that at the time she knew very little about the sport.

Her first 3200 time of 13:30 gave hardly any hint of her potential, though she dropped to 12:43 and 6:21 in the 1600 by the end of the season. The breakthrough began in the fall.

“Cross-country seemed a natural progression,” she said.

Johnson emerged as the team’s top runner a little more than halfway through the season, and missed qualifying for the state meet by just one second at the district meet. Realizing her talent for running, Johnson spent the winter working out every day.

It didn’t take long to make herself known in the spring. She ran best times of 5:07 in the 1600 and 11:10 in the 3200. Perhaps her best race came in May at the Lake Washington Invitational with a 10:15 3000 meters, which translates to about 10:57 in the 3200.

The timing of her cold couldn’t have been worse. It began about a week before the Metro League Championships, in which she ran both the 1600 and 3200.

“Those two races took it out of me,” she said. In the district 3200 a week later, she hung with the leaders for seven laps. “They took off in the last lap and I couldn’t keep up,” she said, finishing out of the top four by just three seconds in a time of 11:15.

She tried to come back two days later in the 1600. “It was just disastrous,” she said. “I felt dizzy while I was warming up.” She finished well back in 5:25.

Even a sub-par Johnson probably would have fared well at state. Her 3200 time would have put her sixth and the “disastrous” 1600 was better than at least six of the competitors. Had she been healthy, who knows?

“It’s frustrating,” she said, watching girls with whom she was very competitive receive their awards. “But it is also really inspiring. I know that I can come out next year and do better than them.”

The effervescent Baggett will be a big loss next year.

“It’s sad,” she said. “It’s been a phenomenal four years here. I made some great friends. I never thought I’d be a 400 runner, especially one who could run 59 seconds.”

With a year of maturity and a healthy Johnson, the Spartans should score well in 2006. The team will be buoyed by the return of Emily Pierce, who competed at State as a freshman before being sidelined.

Following knee surgery last winter, she made a standing throw of 110 feet at a home meet, the top mark in Metro. But she wasn’t granted medical clearance to compete further. Grimm believes she’s capable of throwing at least 120 feet when she’s healthy – probably at least a top-five mark – and perhaps even challenge for the championship in the event.

So Geneva Pritchett spoke for her teammates as well as herself when asked if she was looking forward to next year.

“Oh, yeah,” she said.

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