Joe Davidson

Why California's track finals, in their 100th year, are unmatched in U.S. high school sports

Athletes run in the boys 4x100 relay preliminary event at the CIF State Track and Field Championships at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Clovis on Friday, June 2, 2017.
Athletes run in the boys 4x100 relay preliminary event at the CIF State Track and Field Championships at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Clovis on Friday, June 2, 2017. The Fresno Bee

As anniversaries go, this one is colossal.

The CIF State Track and Field Championships turn 100 this weekend, worthy of a fireworks show.

OK, fireworks have long been a staple for the state event that caps the academic year. What makes the CIF track finals perhaps the best of any track meet at this level in the country is the who's who list of stars who have run, jumped or thrown their weight around over the decades.

No other state meet has witnessed more national records or served as a launching pad to more future Olympians.

And this event crowns a true champion. Winners are not layered by enrollment-based divisions as they are in other states, or even in other sports in California. In this grand event, schools of all sizes, public and private, scramble to reach the finish line and victory stand.

Opinion

"There have been so many Olympians who competed in this meet, and the competition is intense. We have great numbers, great weather to train and no other state comes close to this one," said Rich Gonzalez, the editor of PrepCalTrack.com and a longtime meet director for events in Southern California. "This is just a great event."

In track and field, there is always something happening.

"The state meet is always a great show," said Mitch Stephens, the longtime columnist/editor for MaxPreps and contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. "I think state track is the best event by far of all the CIF state championships. And the fireworks? Kaboom!"

Cusp of history

The CIF finals began in 1915, the year Roy Brown of Sacramento High broke the tape on a dirt track at Fresno High in 10.2 seconds in the 100-yard dash. The meet took three years off during World War II in the 1940s and bounced across the state, including Oroville in 1971, Woodland High in 1972 and Hughes Stadium at Sacramento City College 11 times (last in 2007).

The finals have found a home at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Clovis since 2009, where the temperatures generally exceed 100 degrees and the stands pack out.

The sprints are forever a draw at any meet. No one sits for the 100 or 200.

"People just love speed," Gonzalez said. "We joke about it. You know it's a distance race when fans take off for the snack bar. In the sprints, that's where the maniacs are in the stands, and some are betting on who's going to win."

This weekend, the distance races will be worth a watch, particularly the girls. Of the top 25 runners in the country based on times in the 1,600 meters, 14 of them will be in Clovis, including state leader Olivia O'Keeffe of Davis.

Her 4 minute, 42.71 effort won the Sac-Joaquin Masters meet last week in Elk Grove and was, for a few hours, the top mark in the country this season. O'Keeffe's older sister, Fiona, in 2016 became the first Sacramento-area girl to win a state race other than the 400 or 800 when she took the 3,200. She now runs at Stanford.

Maddy Denner won the CIF State 1,600 last season, holding off Olivia O'Keeffe.

Will more history be made here? The girls 1,600 also includes Oak Ridge twins Maddy and Elena Denner. Maddy's 4:44.01 from the Masters meet is the third fastest in the state this spring, and Elena's 4:45.15 from the Masters is the fourth fastest.

Maddy is second in the state going in the 3,200 with a best of 10:08.01, less than a second behind state leader Mariah Castillo of Saugus, one of the stars of this meet. Translation: It'll be a sizzler of an eight-lap race.

The first CIF track finals for girls was in 1974, shortly after the mandate for gender equity, Title IX, became law.

A region united

Davis coach Bill Gregg appreciates how united area runners become this time of year. They want to win, but they're also pulling for each other, as the Southern California teams have overwhelmingly dominated track and field events due, in large part, to the sheer number of athletes and schools that dwarf the Northern California talent pool.

"Olivia and the Denner twins were all warming down together after that great race the other night, hugging each other goodnight, wishing each other well," Gregg said. "I thought it was awesome. Their thinking was this is a NorCal alliance and we're going south together. That's the spirit of track and field. They're competing against each other but are not adversaries. It's going to be a great race."

Said Gonzalez, the editor of PrepCalTrack.com and a decadeslong meet director and enthusiast, "That's a dynamite field. Incredible times and without question, the best race of the night."

Davis has more than just O'Keeffe, as Gregg has built a powerhouse program. The state record holder in the pole vault is Davis senior Sondre Guttormsen at 18 feet, 2 3/4 inches.

He is an exchange student from Norway whose father spent time studying at UC Davis years ago.

"He's pretty amazing to watch," Gregg said of the younger Guttormsen. "You think 18 feet and go, 'Yeah, that's pretty darn cool.' That's elite world stuff. That's pretty high. He's incredible worldwide for his age."

Stars on the big stage

Among the great names to grace this meet: Bob Mathias of Tulare, who won two hurdles state titles and then won gold in the decathlon in the 1948 Olympic Games in London and in the 1952 Games in Helsinki.

Lynn Swann won the 1970 state title in the long jump for Serra of San Mateo, clearing 24 feet, 2 3/4 inches, edging Edison of Fresno's Randy Williams and Blair of Pasadena's James McAlister. Swann won four Super Bowls as a soaring receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers and landed in the Hall of Fame.

Williams won gold in the 1972 Games and McAlister's 27-0 1/2 effort in 1973 was the best in the world and remains a school record at UCLA.

Even entertainers had a CIF thrill. Johnny Mathis, a member of the Grammy Hall of Fame, competed in the high jump in the 1952 finals for Washington of San Francisco. Robert Culp of Berkeley medaled in the pole vault in 1947 and was a Golden Globe and Emmy nominated actor.

How will this year's competitors handle the big stage?

"You look up and see 10,000 people packed in, and that can be nerve-wracking," said Gonzalez of PrepCalTrack. "Nowadays with social media, you already have a good following. You're already pre-conditioned, but there's nothing like experience. The first time you're at this met, there are jitters and nerves. But if you come back, you get past that. That's what makes this so fun to watch."

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