COLUMBUS — Kayleigh Keyes has been running competitively for less than two years.
A short time period to become a state champion.
Keyes won the Division I girls 400-meter race on Saturday at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium on the campus of The Ohio State University.
The only freshman in the finals, her time of 55.27 completed a mid-race comeback which saw her come from the middle of the pack around the race’s midway point and storming ahead from the middle lane.
“I felt it was redemption from last year at middle school state,” Keyes said. “I went in with the fastest time, but I placed fourth. This year as a freshman, I’m just really happy with my time and my place.”
Keyes attempted to begin running for the first time in seventh grade, but the start of the COVID-19 pandemic prevented her from officially doing so until eighth grade.
She entered her first high school state meet with the fastest time from regionals by all qualifiers and ran the second fastest overall during Friday’s preliminaries.
Keyes said it was good motivation heading to the finals.
“It helped see where I was for today and helped push me to place first,” she said.
While she feels the 400 is her strongest event, Keyes wants to next improve in the individual 200 meter and 1,600 relay races with teammates in future years.
Jessica Beard, a former gold medalist at the world championships and four-time Ohio state champion in the 400, presented Keyes with her medal atop the podium. The moment could have been the start of a torch passing, something Keyes certainly could not replicate without getting the first.
“I hope that my last three years of high school I do just about the same,” she said.
— Legacy Christian’s Maddy Merritt missed making state by one spot last year. She wasn’t nervous heading into this year’s 400 meter final in D-III because just by making it she knew she had already surpassed last year’s performance.
The junior sprinter may also have been the most cheerful runner-up on any podium throughout the day after finishing second in 57.20.
“I love Sydnee [Sinn], she’s a hard worker,” Merritt said of the race winner. “She’s so sweet. It was awesome and cool to see her accomplish something she’s been working on.”
Merritt also qualified in the 200 but was unable to advance out of prelims. It didn’t dispirit her heading into Saturday’s 400 final as she had one of the more collected routines of the competitors in the starting blocks.
“Before every race, I have to do a little prayer saying like, Lord just keep me safe,” she said. “And I’ve been doing it ever since my coach last year taught me that like, the abilities that I have aren’t mine and every accomplishment that I do is honestly for His glory, not mine.”
Her second-place finish garnered eight points to have LCA place in a five-way tie for 35th in the team competition.
— Getting to run the same race at the highest level along with one of your peers created lasting memories for two Cedarville juniors.
Aleena Cook and Caleb Sultan ran the D-III 800-meter finals in back-to-back races at the meet.
“We’re good friends and it’s pretty cool that we’re both running the 800 together,” Cook said. “We’ve been training together all season.”
Sultan laid back in his run and was in the middle of the pack after the first lap, but he said it allowed him to challenge himself to gain as many positions back as possible on lap two. He finished fifth in 1:55.92.
Cook made it to Columbus after having one of the two fastest times from the non-automatic qualifiers across the state, and was thrilled to have a chance to run again after originally thinking her year was finished. She ran 17th in 2:20.70.
The two were both happy to be there together.
”This year has been really fun,” Sultan said. “You know, she’s improved a ton since last year. I can’t say enough about how hard she’s worked. To be able to like not only share that but also go on my own, it’s pretty fun.”
Said Cook with a smile, “He might go to the same college as me maybe so we can be like 800 buddies in the future. It’s both of our favorite races.”
Sultan earned four points with his finish to get Cedarville into a eight-way tie for 45th.
— Bellbrook’s Tony Jiovani was nearly at a loss for words after finishing his senior year. He had just wrapped up the pole vault alongside the best running mate in Isaac Lefeld.
“It was really a wild journey,” he said. “I never thought I would be here. If you told me freshman year when I was clearing nine feet I would be at state my senior year, I would have laughed. It’s really just this last journey and to do it alongside my best friend, it’s been something that I couldn’t have asked for a better ride.”
Lefeld finished in sixth, while Jiovani tied for 10th.
Lefeld was the district and regional champion heading into the meet. Also a senior, he was happy about making it to state after missing out a year prior and getting to do so with his friend.
“It was really fun especially with Tony being here,” he said. “It gave me someone always to warm up with and just compete with especially at practice really pushing me to get better.”
The two said it’s been easy to push one another as each personal record reached being the best motivation to one-up each other.
“It’s just fun going back and forth and we have nice and friendly banter because we’re friends,” Lefeld said. “It’s always fun to hang out with him.”
The two will be heading to different colleges in the fall, and Lefeld said it will give a different feel to their potential preparations. Neither have firm plans to continue competing competitively yet, but it doesn’t mean the drive to keep pushing one another won’t be there.
“[Vaulting] likely will become a more individual activity, but if we continue, then getting to see our highs on paper go up, it will still push us,” Jiovani said.
— An eventful freshman year for Carroll’s Ruby Gross gave her some confidence she didn’t have previously.
Gross made it to state in cross country in the fall and track in the individual 800 meter and team 3,200 relay.
A time of 2:21.68 in the D-II 800 meter put her near the back of the field in 17th, but it caps off an impressive first year at the prep level.
“I learned how to be more mentally strong throughout the year,” Gross said.
Gross said she certainly didn’t think it would be possible prior to either season she might end up in state, but thought there was a strong correlation between cross country and track preparation she was able to take from one to the other.
Now she is able to take a year’s worth of experience and a more powerful will into her sophomore year.
“It was nice to be able to see all of this strong competition and it gives me something to be able to strive for,” she said.
— A short break is something the D-II state cross country champion, is looking forward to after a rough final race in track season.
Carroll junior Jack Agnew finished in the back of the pack in the D-I 3,200-meter race after he was ran into during the second half of the race.
Agnew said he had to slow down at one point due to traffic ahead of him and believes a competitor from behind may have kicked his leg. He also later nearly tripped over the railing which is meant to keep runners from going off the inside of the track. He finished 17th in 9:34.06.
“It didn’t mess me up too much I didn’t think, I felt like I’d maintained position,” he said.
Agnew was in the top-five until the first incident which led to him uncharacteristically finishing nearly 10 seconds behind the next closest racer.
It appeared to be an easy result for him to shake off knowing external factors played into the result, as well as another exciting time being around the corner when cross country begins in August.
There’s an individual title to defend and a potential team title to attain, but some quick rest needed first.
“I’ve been really excited,” Agnew said. “Pretty confident and all I know is now I must be tired and the body must be tired.”
— Beavercreek senior Keegan Souhan set a new school record in the 3,200 race to take third-place.
Souhan finished in a time of 9:07.54 to reach the podium. He found himself running alongside the pack from the outside lane and in the back half early in the race. He steadily moved to the front and ran his fastest lap of the race his final trip around.
— Sammy Deep had a strong first attempt at 22-feet, 4-inches, in the long jump and advanced to the finals of the competition.
The Carroll junior faced a strong head wind, causing him to appear frustrated for several jumps after the first. He was not able to improve his distance during his final three attempts on his way to an eighth-place finish.
— Greeneview senior Laney Hines was unable to compete in Columbus despite qualifying for the meet in two events.
Hines suffered a broken finger during a non-track competition prior to the regional meet.
Greeneview head coach Tim Aronhalt said surgery was delayed to allow her to compete at regionals, and there was not enough recovery time to be able to make it to state.
Hines had qualified in the 100-meter hurdles and the long jump.
Contact Steven Wright at 937-502-4498 and follow on Twitter @Steven_Wright_.