Rachael Clay is the first to admit that her track resume before high school didn t predict future stardom.
In seventh and eighth grade at Rossford Junior High she held her own, particularly racing in the 400 meters. But she wasn t necessarily considered a favorite.
I finished only third in the NLL meet when I was in the eighth grade, recalled Clay, a sophomore. I wasn t an exceptional runner in junior high.
But a year after becoming one of the area s biggest track surprises of the 2005 season by placing sixth in the 400 at the Division II state meet, Clay no longer can classify herself as just another runner. Her presence on the awards stand during last year s state meet disqualified her from such classification.
Clay was the only freshman among the 400 state finalists.
Before turning in a time of 59.24 in the state final, she posted a personal-best 58.73 in the preliminaries. She became the first Rossford athlete to compete in a state track final since distance runner Scott McMahon ran 12th in the 1600 in 1999. She became the first Bulldog to earn a medal since 1998, when Tiffani Paige won the 100 hurdles and placed third in the 300 hurdles.
We had all the faith in the world in her to do well last year and she even exceeded our expectations, Rossford coach Todd Eckel said.
Among the coaching staff pleasantly surprised by how her season played out was James Clay, Rachael s father, who is the team s sprint coach.
James was the head track coach at Whitmer for 10 years before joining the Rossford staff, which enables him to work with and watch his daughter.
Now that she s had the experience of reaching the state meet, Rachael is working hard to make a return trip.
If I don t make it to state this year I ll be so depressed, she said.
Last year s surprising run to state is something the elder Clay will never forget.
Nothing against kids you coach that make it to state, but there s no comparison to taking your own kid to state, James Clay said. There s nothing like being a proud parent and knowing the work she put into it paid off.
James makes it clear there s plenty more work to be done.
I ve already told her she ll have to work twice as hard as last year to make it back because people know her now and she has a mark on her back, he said. She has the bull s-eye on her.
Besides her father keeping a close eye, Rachael s grandfather, Dee, and uncle, Joel, are also longtime track enthusiasts who have been instrumental in her running career. Dee has been involved as a high school track official for 25 years while Joel is the girls track coach at Clyde. Both were in attendance, along with James and several other family members and friends, when she ran at state.
It s a lot of pressure, she said. I see my family at a lot of the meets and they expect me to do well and I want to do well for them.
In an effort to improve as a runner, Clay started a weightlifting program in November to get stronger. Her training regimen also included running track during the indoor season.
Results from the additional work are already showing, according to Eckel.
I think right now she s a little ahead of where she was at this time last year and that s a positive, Eckel said It s good to [improve] during the season because it s always important to peak at the right time.
In spite of how well Clay did in the 400 as a freshman, Eckel said she showed plenty of potential in the 300 hurdles and 800 a year ago. Although she prefers running the 400, solid split times in her 800 portion of the 3200 relay late last season revealed she s capable of doing well in distances.
For now, the plan has been to allow her to put more time and work into running the 400 and 800 instead of adding the hurdles. Her best 400 time this season has been 1:03.5, while her best 800 split this season has been 2:34, which is behind her best of 2:21 last season.
We placed seventh in the regional in the 4 x 800 relay last year and her split was great. We looked at her time [2:21] and said that might be her race, Eckel recalled. We ll see how the season plays out. We re currently looking at her split times this year and we ll see where she s at by the end of the year.
I think she could be a success in any three of those races. We ve put the 300 hurdles on the back burner for now and are trying to decide between the 400 and 800.
Given a choice, Clay would choose making it to state as a member of the 3200 relay team over making the trip alone for a second year in a row. Sophomores Sam Zalesak and Jill Brentlinger are the other returning members of the 3200 relay team. Freshman Kacey Kunst is being considered to complete the group.
I don t want to be the only one there this year so I m really trying to push them, Rachael said. I want my teammates to be right there with me.
Contact Donald Emmons at: email@example.com or 419-724-6302.