LANGLEY — Gary Lutes was getting ready to step behind the wheel of the team bus at Langley’s Walnut Grove Secondary School on Thursday morning.
Ahead, for Lutes and the rest of the Gators’ traveling party of coaches and athletes, was the near-four-hour drive to Kelowna for the start later that day of the 2019 Subway B.C. High School Track and Field championships.
“It’s about 7:30 in the morning, I’m all ready to drive the bus and all of a sudden I see K.T. in the parking lot,” begins Lutes of Ken Taylor, only the most decorated coach in the history of the provincial meet, who while long since retired, has often times worked as a substitute teacher at the school.
“I asked him to come aboard the bus and to give us some words of wisdom,” began Lutes, the team’s head coach and a longtime disciple of Taylor, who led the Burnaby Central Wildcats to a record 15 B.C. senior varsity team titles over a career which stretched from 1967 to 2000. “He was great. He gave the kids some special words of wisdom, and then he told them to bring home the bacon.”
WINNING THE TEAM WAY
Lutes and co-coach Don Sparks have turned Walnut Grove into a perennial Fraser Valley power with an excellent girls team, and one which at the provincial meet always swings with everything it has for the overall team title against the likes of heavyweights like Oak Bay and St. George’s.
Aimee Corrigan and Meg Harradine have jumped in assisting Sparks with the distance events, while the power/speed events have been coached by Jason Tait, Sam Prevost and Ben Ethier.
Yet for all its trying, that all-encompassing signature championship moment had eluded them.
That was until the final two events of the 2019 meet — the girls and then the boys senior 4x400m relays — rolled around.
Heading into those two races, Walnut Grove led Oak Bay by a margin of just 2.5 points (81-to-78.5), yet the Gators won both races for a total of 20 more points, while the Bays lost ground with 11 total points after finishing third in the girls race (six points), and fourth in the boys race (five points).
That gave Walnut Grove its first-ever senior varsity team title, 101-89.5 over Victoria’s powerhouse Bays.
“We have never had an opportunity to even sniff at a team title,” explained Lutes, whose Gators once finished second (in 2008 to Oak Bay) but were fully 57 points off the winning pace.
“We’ve won two girls titles before (2006, ’12) but we’d never been able to find enough balance with our guys team. This year, it came together. The team title is pretty epic and I can tell you that without me even saying anything, the kids all knew what was going on.”
It also goes without saying that you can’t exemplify winning a meet the team way any better than by having your girls and boys teams close things out with back-to-back wins in the sprint-relay events.
THE SMALL DETAILS MATTER
The Gators’ coaches have always preached sacrificing personal glory for the betterment of the team, and of the importance of grinding for points over the three days of competition.
That’s why Lutes found himself in such an emotional moment on Friday when he came face-to-face with Jordan Jacobs, who runs a mean third leg on WGSS’s 4x400m relay team.
“She didn’t make the 100m final,” began Lutes. “She finished ninth in her heat (top 8 advance) and she did it in a season-best time (12.97 seconds, 3/100ths of a second off the pace).
“She already running in the 4×100 and the 4×400 for us, but she’s in tears because he felt like she let us all down,” the coach continued. “I got so emotional that I started to cry.”
Yet if you love what the team aspect of the sport is all about, then it was a reason for everyone else to smile.
It was a similar story for Holly Harrison, who runs the second leg on the 4x400m team. All she did was place second a week previous in the multi-event heptathlon to score eight big points for her team.
Yet her personal-best 15.68 seconds in the heats of the 100m hurdle was ninth best, again, one spot shy of a place in the finals.
Ask the track and field gods about just such in-the-details effort, and they’ll likely tell you that even though actual points weren’t gained by Harrison and Jacobs, they did a lot to stoke karma on their side.
ANATOMY OF A GOLDEN FINISH
As race time approached on a hot Saturday afternoon in Kelowna, Walnut Grove’s senior girls 4x400m team had gathered around the track.
First up was Samantha Matthewman, followed by Harrison, Jacobs and then anchor runner Prab Wichramaarachchi.
Heading into the race, Wichramaarachchi had had a brutally tough day, running the morning heats of the 400m hurdles, then clocking a 1:03.37 to earn a silver medal and score eight more points.
In the end, however, she had just enough to give the Gators a two-second win over Vancouver’s Sir Charles Tupper Tigers.
Yet don’t ask Lutes where Walnut Grove’s gold-medal winning time came from because even he’s not sure.
“Two of the girls had really never run a lot of 400s,” began the coach. “The best the team had run was 4:08, but they left it all on the track. They didn’t hold back. They were amazing.”
So much so that they went sub-4:00, clocking in at 3:57.87.
The results of that race extended Walnut Grove’s lead to 6.5 points heading into the final event.
Still, one bad exchange in the next race by the Gators could decide the championship.
Yet buy-in within Walnut Grove’s 4x400m boys team was equally as strong.
Earlier in the season, its fortunes were significantly enhanced when Grade 10 David Midgley decided to forego races in the junior division and compete in the senior varsity events.
“This was something he did knowing he was giving up individual glory because he likely could have won the junior boys 100m and 200m races,” said Lutes, who installed Midgley as his anchor runner, allowing him to take the final handoff on Saturday from his brother, Grade 12 standout Richard Midgley.
That foursome, which began with two Grade 11s in lead runner Evan Wright and second man Cam Calbrick showed just how much more balance the boys team had brought to the team this season, winning in a time of 3:25.20, some three seconds ahead of the second-place finishers from Richmond Christian.
“I was thinking the best-case scenario was maybe we finish second in both races,” admitted Lutes afterwards. “I had heard some teams had sat their best runners so they could better seal the deal and I didn’t know, at the end of a long day, what our kids would be able to bring.”
What they brought home was … the bacon.
BRING IT ON HOME
Sometimes you have to take positive signs for what they are: A precursor to signature moments.
A high school track and field team, at 7:30 a.m., on its way to the B.C. championship meet, just happens to bump into the coach who has won more team titles than anyone in provincial high school history. Said coach then climbs aboard their bus and wishes them well.
It’s a Bowerman-like moment you simply can’t make up.
“And then afterwards I am looking through the records,” says Lutes, “and I find out that the last time a school won the boys and girls 4x400m senior relay in the same year was 1996. Those were Ken Taylor’s teams.”
Twenty-three years later, it’s why the B.C. meet remains a jewel.
Every athlete and every team had its share of stories from this past weekend.
For the Gators, they would not have won the team title had it not been for the first- and fifth-place finishes by Cassidy Cardle and Josephine Bennett respectively in their 1,500m racewalk final.
All the points count, and in the end, they added up the school’s first-ever B.C. track and field team title.
And if that wasn’t sweet enough, how about the person Gary Lutes bumped into when he arrived back at school on Monday.
“Ken Taylor was waiting for me this morning,” smiled Lutes. “He was waiting for me with a pound of bacon.”
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