By Rick White
CLOVIS — On a day when Carlsbad pole vaulter Zach Graham catapulted himself to gravity-defying heights and Kenyan-born La Cueva distance standout Shadrack Kiptoo ran with effortless efficiency, a slightly built, overachieving Clovis senior stole the hearts of local fans and teammates.
Matt Appelman, who earlier signed with Lone Star Conference school East Central of Ada, Okla., shaved 11 seconds off his personal best while finishing third in the 3,200 meters at Friday’s Wildcats Relays at Leon Williams Stadium.
Despite being out-kicked in the final straightaway, Appelman did win his spring-long battle with the 10-minute barrier.
“I gave it everything I had,” said Appelman, his face a mixture of pleasure and pain. “Every time I came around the backstretch it was lined with people cheering me on.”
By breaking the 10-minute barrier (9:58.83), Appelman qualified for the state meet.
Clovis assistant coach Mike Hankins said Appelman’s success is a testament to his work ethic.
“I would have bet my paycheck two years ago if you said Matt would have gone under 10 minutes,” Hankins said.
Jesse McDaniel of Albuquerque High won the 3,200 in a time of 9:57.06.
Meanwhile, seven-time big school defending state champion La Cueva ran away with the team title.
Portales didn’t score in the meet but ran well in the relays and had junior Dustin Bare qualify in the shot with a throw of 44-5.
“We came here for the competition,” Portales coach Glen Johnson said. “We figured by running against this kind of competition it would help us run better times.”
Led by Kiptoo, who won the 800 and 1,600 meters, and unparalleled depth in field events, the Bears again cemented themselves as the team to beat at state by finishing comfortably ahead of the deep 15-team field with 91 points.
Highland parlayed its usual strength in sprints and relays to a second-place finish with 77 points, followed by Alamogordo (61) and Clovis (56).
“I think you saw the top five teams (in Class 5A) here,” Clovis coach Darren Kelley said. “I think you can look at a lot of little things that might change, but overall I think it’s a pretty good indication where everybody is.”
Clovis picked up wins from steadily improving junior Jacob Jones in the 400 and the 800-meter relay team in what Kelley said was the strongest field at the Wildcats Relay in a while.
Ranked in the Top 10 in the nation, Graham grabbed the attention of most of the stadium as the pole-vault bar kept climbing higher. He did clear 16 feet, but failed on three attempts at what would have been a personal-best 16-6.
“There is no better feeling than being above the bar and looking down,” said the muscular Graham, headed for the Air Force Academy after graduation. “Or at least I haven’t found it yet.”
About the same time Graham was entertaining the crowd with his aerial antics, Kiptoo was breezing to an easy win in the 1,600 (4:25.01) despite nursing a sore foot.
“I was just trying to take it easy and get the win,” said Kiptoo, who moved Albuquerque two years ago. “That’s why I didn’t go out early.”
Kiptoo who also anchored La Cueva’s winning effort in the 1,600 medley relay, took the lead on the third lap and held a comfortable margin the rest of the way.
Jones’ first win of the season was anything but comfortable as he held off Rio Rancho’s Sean Bergsten down the stretch in the 400. Jones missed the state qualifying mark by five-tenths of a second.
“Coming out of the corner, I could see him,” Jones said. “I was just trying to hold him off.”
Jones said he’s been working on his arm position in practice, which helps lengthen his stride. “The longer the stride, the faster time I can get,” he said.
In addition to winning the 800, the Wildcats were second in the 400 and third in 1,600 relays.