CLOVIS – Joe Lighthall’s legs felt more heavy with each stride. He heard the crowd begin its roar, and he felt – and heard – someone closing in on him.
The Hughson High star, on the verge of an improbable state title in the 800 meters, even dared to glance at Cathedral junior Ambodai Ligons closing ground.
Would Lighhalll hold on? Can he hold on? Will Hughson High celebrate its first state track champion?
Lighthall staggered toward the line but remained stubborn to the end, falling to the synthetic turf at the tape, to edge Ligons by about a stride. The Hughson star made history Saturday night at the 103rd CIF State Track and Field Championships.
“Last summer, I had to think it out,” the Brigham Young-bound Lighthall said. “What does this 800 look like?”
Lighthall figured out how to improve from his seventh-place performance a year ago at Veterans Memorial Stadium. Here’s how he did it: he got a year older, a year bigger (he filled out his 6-foot-3 frame an additional 10 pounds to 180) and, for sure, a year wiser.
Then he used his physical and powerful frame to surge away from the state’s best middle-distance runners. Not only did Lighthall become his school’s first state champion in track, he also is the first Sac-Joaquin Section athlete to win the boys 800 since Golden Valley’s James Levine in 1997.
Incredibly, Lighthall predicted his game plan after Friday’s successful trials and then executed it. He went out hard, stepped in front as the field collected at the cut-in, made sure he was ahead with 300 meters to go and, well, willed his way home.
Lighthall actually led by about 10 meters in the middle of the back stretch before Ligons began his gutsy drive. The lead gradually lessened but, thankfully for Lighthall, did not disappear.
“With 300 meters to go, I realized, ‘Oh crap, I’m going to win,’” he said.
Lighthall strikes a presence on the track with his bumble-bee black and yellow striped Hughson top and, if you look hard enough, his Sponge Bob socks. Upbeat and confident, he’s at home with his skill-set just enough to do the outrageous – like winning it all at state.
“I thought Ligons was going to catch him, but he found one last bit of energy,” said a proud Joel Bernard, Lighthall’s Hughson mentor. “He is super-athletic.”
Indeed, Lighthall can two-handed dunk a basketball without warming up. He also served as captain of the Huskies’ soccer team. By the way, he holds school records in the 200, 400 and 800.
That athleticism kicked in when he literally sprinted the first 50 yards of the 800 just to find running room at the cut-in. That sizzling opening lap probably won the race for him, but a price was paid.
“Thirty seconds after the race was over, (my) body hit a brick wall,” he said. “So awful.”
But it must have hurt so good.
Lighthall’s title underlined a top-tier showing by a small group of finalists from frontrowpreps.com’s coverage area.
Turlock junior Max McFarlane put forth a spirited performance en route to a tie for second in the pole vault. He shot into contention by hitting three of his first four vaults, the last at 16-2, before he bowed out at 16-6. Hilton Green of host-school Buchanan, the favorite who hit 17-1 earlier this season, cleared 16-6 for the title. Dylan Curtis of Redondo and McFarlane shared second.
“At the beginning of the season I didn’t think that was going to happen,” said McFarlane, who qualified for state a year ago but didn’t reach the finals. “I just wanted top three.”
There’s still hope for McFarlane. Both Green and Curtis will graduate.
“Next year,” McFarlane said.
Weston Ranch senior Galadriel Mellion punctuated a brilliant career with fifth-place finishes in both the discus and the shot put. That was an improvement for the four-time Sac-Joaquin Masters champion, who came home with a sixth in the shot put last year.
Mellion tossed the discus 148-7 and trailed two-time state champion Nailea Fields of Caruthers (167-6). About two hours later, Mellion turned in a 41-5 ¾ in the shot put while Aja Johnson of Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks won at 44-3/4.
“I was happy with it,” said Mellion, who’s on her way to Arizona State. “Technically, it wasn’t as good as yesterday, but I’m strong mentally. I don’t beat myself up too much. I’m ready for my college career.”
Golden Valley senior Delbert Davis hoped to contend in the high jump, but the day didn’t break right. The Masters champion, who reached Saturday’s program with a successful leap of 6-5 on the final jump of the trials, topped 6-4 but was eliminated at 6-6.
Davis, with his eighth-place finish, did take advantage of this year’s expansion of the podium and medal-awarding from sixth to ninth place. So did Sonora sophomore Broen Hofman, who hinted at a promising future with his ninth-place performance in the 3200 (9:03.61). Oakdale senior Dax Daley, a runner-up at the Masters 3200, was in fourth place until an unfortunate fall and eventually placed 15th (9:09.12).
Modesto senior Chidiebere Agunanne, the only Modesto City Schools athlete competing Saturday night, placed 10th in the triple jump (36-9 ¼). She was a Masters runner-up last week.
The night, however, belonged to Lighthall, who congratulated the athlete who chased him (“Next year is your year!”) and, probably on the ride back to Hughson, may have realized what he had done.
Or maybe not. It’s not easy to be a state champion from Hughson.