By Christopher Hunt
photos by Tim Fulton and Don Rich
NEW YORK – There will come a time when Lukas Verzbicas will have to put what he did in perspective. One day he’ll have to take stock of his performance and see that he laid the foundation for what legend is built on.
People will call him the greatest high school distance runner in United States history and it will be hard to prove any of them wrong. Verzbicas pulled off a three-win effort at the New Balance Indoor Nationals that no high school runner has ever completed. None of the greatest distance runners that you can think of, none that your parents can think of.
The senior came within seven-tenths of a second of the national 2-mile record – a record that no one thought anyone but Verzbicas could break. An hour later, he stepped back on the track and handled the best milers in the country. All that came after he broke his own national record in the 5,000 meters on Friday.
He did it running from the front. He did it with very little sleep. He did it with his best friend, Kevin McDowell, the nation’s best junior triathlete, who was diagnosed with cancer earlier this week, in the forefront of his mind.
Verzbicas started Sunday with the 2-mile. St. Benedict’s Prep (N.J.) sophomore Edward Cheserek shadowed his every step for 15 laps like Cheserek was attached to his singlet. Verzbicas didn’t shake the New Jersey phenom until the back straightway on the bell lap when Cheserek just couldn’t maintain the pace any longer.
Verzbicas won in the second-fastest time ever in the U.S. then promptly stormed off the track without a word.
“I felt horrible,” he said talking more about his legs than the time. “I did something bad in that race. The mile, excuse my language, but I pulled out of my ass. I don’t know where that came from.”
Verzbicas clocked 8:40.70 in his second attempt to break Gerry Lindgren’s 1964 record of 8:40.0. Cheserek broke the national sophomore in second place in 8:42.66, the third-fastest time in nation history. Even Cheserek said he was surprised by the move.
“I thought if I stayed close to him until the end, I could win with my kick,” Cheserek said. “But his kick surprised me. I had nothing left in my legs.”
Think about that. Verzbicas ran the kick out of Cheserek, who Verzbicas said would be the future of high school distance running in America. Then Verzbicas got back on the line and ran the kick out of Millrose champ Chad Noelle of Greene (N.Y.). He opened a 30-meter lead on the bell lap to win in 4:10.67. California’s Elias Gedyon was second 4:11.76.
“I got on the line and thought, what the hell am I doing?” Verzbicas said. “I thought to try to win the mile and 2-mile, I did have it in me. This wasn’t for me. It’s really for my parents and all the people that support me because I really do have a lot of people that support me.”
Verzbicas said he doesn’t have plan for the outdoor season in terms of racing but said he wanted to win the World Junior Triathlon in September for his friend McDowell. “That’s personal,” he said. “I want to win it for him because he would have won.”
If Verzbicas never ran another high school race he still wouldn’t have anything to prove. But that’s not how Liverpool (N.Y.) junior Zavon Watkins felt.
Watkins lost the 1,000 meters at the New York state meet last week and said that he thought people had started to doubt his talent. But there were no doubts after Sunday.
Watkins used a tremendous blast down the back straightaway with 150 left to win the 800 meters in a New York State record 1:50.84, making him the sixth-fastest U.S. performer all-time. Stymar Livingston of Columbus (N.Y.) led through 400 meters before but the pace played right into Watkins’ favor. He stayed back and crushed the field on the bell lap.
“I knew if the race went out like that and I was in the position that I was in, that I was going to win,” Watkins said. “I feel like people started to think I wasn’t good. I wanted to prove that I’m still the best. I’m still good. I’m just so excited.”
Mount Vernon (N.Y.) also used the national meet to make a state. Often overshadowed by Sheepshead Bay and Medgar Evers of Brooklyn, Mount Vernon has quietly been among the nation’s best all season.
Michael Blake rocketed out the start on the leadoff and gave a lead that Darien Burnside and Christopher Winslow fought to keep before sophomore Steven Gayle took over dead even with Speed City of California.
Gayle and Speed City anchor Blake Gray challenged each other the whole way and bumped elbows on the last turn. It seemed that the contact killed Gayle’s momentum but he came storming back on the home stretch to give Mount Vernon a national title in 1:29.14.
“I knew there was going to be contact but I couldn’t worry about that,” Gayle said. “I just wanted to win. I gave it everything I had.”
Maryland did most of its damage in the sprints. DeMatha Catholic earned a win over Abington for the 4x400 championship in a nation-leading time of 3:15.23. Maryland’s Ronald Darby also won the 200 in 21.24. Sean Sutton (Rockville, Md.) slipped past favorite Najee Glass of St. Peter’s Prep (N.J.) and Champ Page (Upper Marlboro) to win in 47.91.
Reach Christopher Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org.