By SCOTT JACKSON Courier sports writer
---- — DES MOINES – It had probably never been said before. Or at least, it hadn’t held up as remaining true to the end.
But as he watched teammate Alex Schultz race down the backstretch of Drake Stadium with a big lead on the rest of the field on the final lap of the 2A boys 4x400 Saturday afternoon, Albia’s Ryan Sarver said out loud what no Blue Demon track athlete before has ever had the opportunity to say before.
“I think we’ve won it, guys,” Sarver said to fellow 4x400 teammates Brett Leshen and brother Luke Sarver.
It would be a state championship, which Schultz would indeed bring home 200 meters later. As he came home at 3:21.21 Saturday shortly before 4 p.m., Schultz did something no Albia boys track athlete has ever done before as he crossed the finish line at the state track meet first to bring home the program’s first ever state championship.
“I heard everybody yelling I was coming down the homestretch. I thought Monticello was right behind me, so I gave it everything I had,” Schultz said. “When I was about 10 meters away, I knew we had it. It’s just a great feeling to know we’re the first ones to win a state title here.”
Schultz was given the opportunity to bring home the championship thanks to the position his teammates gave him as Schultz was handed the baton for the final lap with a nearly 100-meter lead on the field. Most of the lead was gained by Luke Sarver, who took the handoff at the midpoint of a tight race with Monticello from Leshen and ran away from the rest of the pack to give the Blue Demons a huge lead heading into the final 600 meters.
“We knew that it was going to be close through the first two runners. We discussed that with (head) coach (Todd Ratliff) earlier in the day,” Luke Sarver said of his fast 400 meters. “My goal was to get the baton and get as big a lead as I possibly could. We got so close on Friday to winning the first state in the 4x200. To have that first-ever second-place finish motivated us to come back here and get that first state title in this event.”
After narrowly missing out by .53 seconds to OA-BCIG in the 2A boys 4x200 earlier in the day, Albia qualified Friday for the 4x400 final with the fastest time. Still, the Blue Demons found themselves in the middle of the pace after Ryan Sarver kept Albia in striking distance through the first leg before handing off to Leshen who quickly bolted Albia into the lead in the first 100 meters of the second leg.
“We knew that going into the race that if I could get the baton to Luke in first place, we were going to win this race,” Leshen said. “I was going to do everything I could to make sure we had that lead going into that third leg.”
The victory bumped Albia into the top 10 in team points as the Blue Demons tied for ninth in Class 2A with 20 points, making Ratliff’s squad the highest placing team this season in the area. The historic win is also significant considering all four members of the 4x400 team will be returning next year to try and become Albia’s first team to successfully defend a championship.
“It’s a great feeling to know that we came up here with all four of these teams, placed in the top 10 in all four races and we’ve got all four guys in this team coming back,” Ryan Sarver said. “I don’t know how to describe this right now.”
It was day where history also repeated itself, again, on Saturday for Centerville senior Payton Busch who returned to the track less than 24 hours after anchoring the Big Reds to a successful championship defense of their boys 3A Distance Medley relay title. With several Big Red fans awaiting him at the finish line, Busch defended his second title in as many days by bringing home his second-straight 800 meter run championship, topping his own title-winning time of a season ago of 1:55.5 with a run of 1:55.43 in his last appearance in Centerville red and black.
And while the performance for the race, the weekend, and perhaps the overall career drew a long and sustained ovation from the Centerville faithful, Busch was his own critic even after claiming his fourth state title in two years.
“I wanted that 3A final record,” Busch said refering to the mark of 1:53.74 set by Isaac Wendland of Charles City in 2008. “I was pretty confident coming into the race that I could win this title again. I set my sights on a new goal to challenge myself. I really wanted that title.”
Minutes earlier, North Mahaska senior Beau Freeborn exploded in celebrating his first championship by claiming his one and only 800 meter title in the boys 1A race. The Warhawk runner beat out Martensdale-St. Mary’s senior Trent Verwers in his final race by 1.06 seconds to win the title in 1:55.68.
“It’s almost like winning the Super Bowl,” Freeborn said. “You growing up as a kid watching your favorite team win the Super Bowl and this is it right here. Winning the state championship to me in the great state of Iowa to me, right here, you can’t beat it.”
Freeborn also beat out a fellow South Iowa Cedar League rival in the 800 final on Saturday. Sigourney senior David Wehr brought his career to a great close, finishing fourth in the same race in a time of 2:00.25 in his first and only appearance at state.
Wehr and Freeborn shared a special moment as both left the track together after competing against each other for the final time on the elite state of state.
“I just wanted to congratulate him and tell him what an honor it’s been running against him all these years,” Wehr said. “I told him that was an awesome run. I tried to stick with him and I think it helped me produce an awesome run of my own to wrap up my track career.”
Unlike last year, Fairfield’s Sydney Howard could not join in on the fun of celebrating a state title on Saturday. The defending 100 and 2A girls 3A champ, who entered the day with the top qualifying time in both races, fell just short in her bid to win two straight in both as Rose Ripslinger of Davenport Assumption avenged her loss to Howard last year by edging the Trojan sprinter by .06 in the 100 final.
Howard couldn’t recover less than hour later, finishing fourth in a time of 26.12 in the 200 final. The pressure of trying to defend the championships ultimately may have played a huge factor in keeping the Fairfield senior from finishing first this year in either race.
“Everyone is looking at you. I feel like the target’s on my back. They’re all wanting to beat me. That’s a lot of pressure,” Howard said. “I was nervous all morning. I’m glad it’s over with. It’s definitely nerve wracking.”
“It’s definitely a different mindset to be the person that comes up here as the defending champion as opposed to being the person looking to win that first title,” Fairfield head girls track coach Ron Hunderdosse added. “That shouldn’t take anything away from what Sydney’s accomplished. She may go down as the greatest sprinter in Fairfield girls track history when it’s all said and done.”
State title hopes were also hanging in the balance for the Davis County girls team heading into Saturday. The leaders in Class 2A after day one, the Mustangs trailed by just a quarter of a point entering Saturday and found themselves tied for first after getting top-10 runs from Addie McKee and Ally McClure in the 800 run.
Davis County eventually settled for seventh place with 34.75 points, capped by a third-place run in the 100 hurdles by senior Kassidy Sharp. The UNI recruit ran a personal-best time of 15.76 to finish third, giving the Mustangs at least a mathematical hope to cap off the day.
“Our team has really come together toward the end of the season and been really supportive of each other,” Sharp said. “I’m very proud to be a part of this run this season.”
“To come up to this meet and see the girls score points every day here is amazing for this program,” Davis County girls track coach Josh Husted said. “We did what we had to do to have any kind of shot at contending for the team title. They just wanted the opportunity and the girls put up times that are among the best in school history.
“It’s awesome as a coach to have a state packet that’s got so many medals in it for the effort these girls put in.”