Originally posted on InsidePreps.com by John Casper Jr.
Oh, how it could have been different for Sawyer Smith and the Central High School boys track and field team.
It was two weeks before the start of the 2010 season, and Smith, then a freshman, was deciding between coming out for the team or playing AAU basketball.
“It was a tough sell,” said Central coach Niels Anderson, who for months had subtly been recruiting Smith to the track team. “It was him and Jake (Roh) and Joe (Gasper). This was going to be a package deal.”
They all decided on track. In the case of Smith, that meant turning his back on some of the top AAU programs in the state.
“I’m not exactly sure what the deciding factor was, but Niels continually believed in me in track,” Smith said.
Anderson’s belief paid off in a big way.
Eight state medals, five MVC individual titles, five Central school records, four team conference championships and a Division I scholarship later, Smith is glad he listened.
The future University of Wisconsin decathlete will put on the black and red uniform for the final time at the WIAA state track and field meet, which starts today at UW-La Crosse’s Veterans Memorial Field Sports Complex.
He’s seeded first in the long jump (23 feet), second in the 400 (49.53 seconds) and runs anchor for the 1,600 relay team (3:23.66), which won a Division 1 title last year.
Missing from the agenda is the high jump, which used to be Smith’s top event but plagued him all year because of an ankle injury he suffered near the start of basketball season.
Smith, who holds the school record at 6-8¼ and finished runner-up in the high jump at state last season, couldn’t clear 6-4 this spring.
The frustration weighed heavily on Smith throughout the season, but Anderson said he’s started to see a spark in recent weeks.
“He’s excited about track again,” Anderson said of Smith, who’s dealt with an ankle injury that kept him from returning to state in the high jump. “I know he’s pumped up. To see the energy and life pumped back into him, it’s great.”
A Track Natural
The first meet of Smith’s track career, he set a freshman record in the long jump. The first time he attempted the high jump, with no more than 45 minutes of instruction, he cleared 6-3.
“That was the most memorable moment of his freshman year,” Anderson said. “We all looked at each other and went ‘What do we have here?’ This was an incredible athlete with unbelievable potential.”
While he could do just about every event that exists, Smith found a groove in sprints and the long and high jump. He won two medals in three events at his first state meet as a freshman — placing sixth in the long jump (21-10¼) and running with the sixth-place 1,600 relay (3:23.41).
He qualified for three events the following year and won medals in all three, placing sixth in the long jump (22-7¾) and 400 (50.11) and running with the second-place 1,600 relay (3:19.37).
“After that is was ‘OK, track is the sport now,’” said Smith, who also played soccer and football in addition to four years on the basketball team.
He said he sometimes wonders what would have happened if he focused on basketball instead of track — “Would I be on the level of Bronson (Koenig) or Matt (Thomas)? You never know?”
Instead, he became the Sawyer Smith of local track. As a junior, he qualified for state in four events and won his first state title as part of the 1,600 relay (school-record 3:18.64). He also placed second in the high jump (6-6) and third in the 400 (49.06).
Some of track’s biggest programs took notice. He was courted by SEC powers Arkansas and LSU. He had his picture taken with Olympian Lolo Jones and stood on the field to watch Alabama play LSU in a football game during a recruiting trip to Baton Rogue.
He eventually settled on Wisconsin, which offered a half-scholarship and a chance to be a decathlete.
“Sawyer gets bored easy if he’s not competing,” Anderson said. “That’s why he’s a natural for the decathlon. He’ll never get bored.”
A Frustrating Year
The season began with high hopes for the Red Raiders, who were the team runner-up at last year’s meet and had four Division I athletes on the roster. Aside from Smith, Roh and Gasper signed with South Dakota, while Aron Klos signed with North Dakota State.
But things weren’t going their way. Smith dealt with the ankle injury. Roh battled a hamstring issue that came back last week when he pulled it attempting the triple jump at the Baraboo regional, ending his season.
Smith grew visibly frustrated with every meet he entered the high jump.
“It’s unfamiliar for me,” he said. “Normally, I go up there and ‘OK, I’m going to do this,’ and I do it. I’ve had to do a lot of PT. A lot rehab. It’s really frustrating.”
The high jump demands a healthy ankle. The jumps are done at an angle, and Smith didn’t have the strength.
Had he been healthy, Smith said he thought he could clear 7 feet and had his sights set on the state record of 7-1¾, set by David Greenwood in 1979.
Instead, he’ll have to watch the event he placed second in last season after jumping 6-2 at sectionals and missing out on a return to state by 2 inches.
Chance for a Happy Ending
The disappointment of not making state in the high jump was soon replaced with anger that Smith fueled into his anchor leg of the 1,600 relay that closed the sectional.
When Smith received the baton, Central was in fifth — “a healthy fifth,” Anderson said — about 15-20 meters out of third place. Needing to negotiate some traffic near the exchange zone, Smith zigged and zagged his way to open ground, then tracked down the third- and fourth-place runners — one of whom was Madison Memorials’ Jester Weah, a University of Pittsburgh football recruit who earlier ran a 10.59 in the 100 — less than 150 meters into the lap.
“It was amazing,” Anderson said. “For him, it’s a huge confidence booster. To get to this point of the game and get excited about track again is big.”
Central began the season with state championship hopes — it’s last state title in track came 50 years ago — but the Red Raiders are now a long shot after Roh, who Anderson said was worth 10 to 15 team points, pulled his hamstring and Smith failed to qualify in the long jump.
But there’s still time for a happy ending. Smith wants to win the 400 and long jump, and although the 1,600 relay isn’t what it was, it’s still a threat with Smith on the last lap.
“It’s been disappointing, but me and Niels talked about it,” Smith said. “Bad things happen, but there’s always a reason behind it. I know something good can come out of it.”
Just like something good came out of rewarding a coach’s tenacity and belief.
“He’s the greatest track and field athlete to ever come through Central High School, and probably through the Coulee Region,” Anderson said. “He’s one of the all-time greats. What he can do, almost no one else can do. It gets me beyond excited to think about what the future holds for him.”
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