Editor’s note: This is the sixth and last in a series of stories about Gorge all-time track and field bests. Track and field, because of its relatively standard distances, allows for somewhat of a level playing field when comparing athletes from different eras — giving rise to the possibility of a virtual meet. Each school was allowed three entrants in individual events and one relay. The series has been published continuously since Dec. 15.
Eleven events into the 2020-21 Gorge Virtual Track & Field Invitational only two things were certain — neither was a big surprise, by any stretch of the imagination. The team race would come down to two schools and it would be decided on the final event, the 4x400-meter relay.
With six events remaining, there was plenty of uncertainty, however, and it started with what seemed like simple horseplay near the discus ring behind Hood River Valley’s east bleachers. An argument among some of the discus throwers warming up for their event quickly escalated into pushing and shoving. Coaches started to head toward the commotion, but they were interrupted by the start of the 800 meters.
The Dalles, trailing 83-79 to Hood River, had one of the favorites in the two-lap race in Scott Limbach. His distance resume included a senior-year sweep of the state cross country championship in 1987, as well as a distance double (1500 and 3000) at the 1998 Class 3A Oregon track and field finals. Standing in Limbach’s way was Columbia’s Matt Lovrin, the 2005 Class 2A Washington state champ.
Lovrin let Limbach take the field through a pedestrian 60-second opening lap before bursting to the lead with 300 meters to go. Limbach hung on his shoulder the rest of the way, but he couldn’t pull in front and lost by less than half a second, earning eight team points. The Dalles outscored Hood River 13-4 in the 800 — Gary West was sixth and Eric Whitmire seventh — and overtook the Eagles, 92-87, with five events remaining.
Meantime, the concerned coaches continued toward the discus ring — where things momentarily appeared to have settled down — before they were told to squat down for the start of the 200. Joe Bryant gave the Riverhawks 10 more points, when he won a quick half-lap race, where five runners dipped under 22 seconds. Hood River countered with nine points of its own, as Parker Irusta, Ian McNaughton and Cesar Rodriguez finished 5-6-7. That left The Dalles holding a 102-96 lead heading into the intermediate hurdles.
Pre-meet hype in the hurdles race centered on HRV’s Kennedy and Goldendale’s Brian Golding. They had raced just once before in the event, at the 2016 Apple Blossom Invite on the HRV track (albeit when it was a rock hard, well-worn rubber asphalt surface). Golding was an intermediate hurdle veteran, who would go on to win the Washington Class 1A state championship that year. Kennedy, the ultimate team player, was penciled into the event by coaches as a potential way of scoring state meet team points later in the season. He had run the high hurdles, but not the longer race in competition.
Kennedy ended up winning that thrilling Apple Blossom matchup in a photo finish, 40.81 seconds to 40.82. The decision to have him run the hurdles that season was fortuitous, as HRV did win the state championship and Kennedy contributed eight points (second place) in the intermediates — along with 10 in the pole vault and a leg on the Eagle 4x100 relay.
Golding prevailed in the virtual meet race, however, clocking 38.99 seconds to Kennedy’s 39.38. Nathan Bell of Columbia also dipped below 40 seconds, at 39.82, for third. Hood River cut The Dalles’ lead in half in the team competition, scoring 13 points to pull within 112-109 with three events — triple jump, discus, and long relay — remaining.
Hood River’s triple jump depth enabled the Eagles to retake the team lead. Aaron Amick of The Dalles won on his last attempt, stretching just beyond 47 feet. Amick later reportedly admitted that he was spurred on by the group of coaches from five different schools who had stopped by the runway to join in a cadence clap before continuing on to the discus. Hood River countered with the second (Dan Carter), third (John Vaught) and fifth (Jonah Tactay) spots and outscored the Riverhawks, 18-11.5 in the event to pull ahead, 127-123.5.
The discus was nearly halfway over when the group of now five concerned coaches arrived. (One of the coaches apparently pulled a hamstring and was last seen limping toward the trainer’s tent.) By that time, the athletes were in full competition mode and in no mood to be interrupted. Later, one coach who wished to remain anonymous said if the dispute involved distance runners. They would have pursued the matter further, but they were more than willing to give throwers (who averaged 6-foot-5, 280-plus pounds) plenty of leeway.
Four-time state champion Sebastian Barajas of HRV won by 13 feet. On his final throw, Barajas jokingly (and secretly) grabbed a girls’ discus and chucked it into the fir trees beyond the landing area before scratching the attempt. Ron Schmidt of Wahtonka was second and Robert Atoe of The Dalles third.
The final call for the 4x400 relay threw the group of coaches off the scent momentarily in their pursuit of finding out what the earlier commotion at the discus ring was all about. As it turned out, Schmidt and fourth-place finisher Clayton Sexton had shown up for the final in The Dalles warmups — instead of the green and white of Wahtonka High. After some harmless posturing, the athletes decided to let the coaches decide if the Wahtonka throwers could throw for The Dalles (Wahtonka) instead. That decision would have a huge bearing in the team race with one event remaining. As it stood, HRV held a 140 to 135.5 lead with the relay yet to be contested. If the discus scores were reshuffled by combining Wahtonka with The Dalles, then the Riverhawks, or Eagles, or Indians, or whomever, would be ahead 142.5 to 141.
As news of the potential discus controversy quickly spread throughout the crowd, an elderly man sitting in the stands shouted at the meet referee that Limbach had competed in three distance events for The Dalles. As it turned out, none of it mattered, as Hood River’s 2018 4x400 team of Mathew Tichenor, Gabriel Campos-Davis, Chad Klaas and Robby Running edged the 1993 team from The Dalles, 3:24.74 to 3:25.73. Hood River either won the meet 151-150.5 or 150 to 143.5.
As the relay competitors were milling around on the turf field for photos with family and friends, another fan could be seen whispering something in the ear of Caleb Sperry, who had just finished anchoring the long relay for The Dalles. A week later, local editor Kirby Neumann-Rea reportedly told radio man Mark Bailey on his nationally syndicated radio show that he had tracked down the person who spoke to Sperry. As the story goes, the man had tried to get Sperry to contest the results of the shot put, which also included Wahtonka throwers, the Schmidt brothers, Ron and Butch. Sperry reportedly brushed off the concern as being too little, too late to matter.
As two 8U club soccer teams started to warm up on the turf field, the throwers followed Henry Buckles to the HRV weight room for a bench press contest. Sperry headed toward the football practice field, where the flags marking the discus sector were being rolled up by volunteers. Apparently, about half the track athletes — including all the sprinters — had agreed via text to play a 7-on-7 football mini-tourney; Sperry was pensively trying to decide whether to suit up for The Dalles or coach Hood River Valley.
(Thanks again to the many Gorge track and field coaches who helped compile entrants. Apologies in advance to any athlete who was overlooked. Readers are invited and encouraged to send in corrections, all-time best additions, and comments to email@example.com.)