It’s Tuesday, three days before the undefeated East Lansing High School boys track team is set to run at regionals on Friday, May 21, and runners are still filing onto the track at Lynn C. Adams Stadium.
The clock ticks past the scheduled start of team warmups, 3:30 p.m., on a sunny, hot May afternoon, and the stragglers are still lacing up track spikes and getting ready in the modicum of shade provided by the trees bordering the stadium. Interim Head Coach Octavis Long is unbothered by this — by virtue of some runners still doing virtual school, getting the whole squad ready precisely on time is a luxury — but he does holler that it’s time to get going. By 3:36 p.m., the team is gathered in a group on the sun-bathed track, warming up together.
“Keep it focused,” he says to the group after a swell of chatter catches his ear.
In the course of the next 90 minutes, Long administers the last hard workout the Trojan sprinters will encounter for at least a week. With regionals run on Friday, May 21, and the conference meet this week on Wednesday (May 26), Long fits in one more difficult practice session before letting his deep squad of boys runners — sprinters or otherwise — rest and heal.
Headlined by a 4×200 meter relay team that, until regionals, held the fastest time in the state, complemented with a deep group of tops-in-the-area sprinters and distance runners, the Trojans took 70.5 points to finish second at their regional.
And via their regional performances, 11 different boys runners qualified for the Division 1 state meet in June either individually or in a relay. But before then, the Trojans will once again go head-to-head with the local competition they’ve already topped once, at the conference meet this Wednesday.
“Every meet, it doesn’t matter who we’re going against, we’re always trying to better ourselves,” senior sprinter Conner Long said.
The baseline of the team’s depth is a crop of pace-setting upperclassmen sprinters and distance runners.
For the sprinters, Long, Alex Hosey and fellow seniors Pierre Butler and Mayan Mayan are joined by juniors Judd Pfeiffer, Malachi Barendilla, Jaden Patterson, Jonah Caldwell, and Asher Gregory. The distance runners are paced by senior Nathan Faust and juniors Matthew Zeleke, Jayden Page, and David Ferguson.
But on top of the known quantities of returning runners, the Trojans got a pleasant surprise from the speed of the underclassmen.
Most notable among those underclassmen is Dorijan Jackson, a sophomore who, according to Octavis Long, is running track competitively for the first time this year. That still has not stopped him from running a team-best 11.10 in the 100 meter dash.
At regionals, Jackson only managed third with a time of 11.30 in the championship heat, just missing the cut for states. This came after he set a blazing 11.18 in his qualifying heat — which would’ve placed him second in the final.
“Some people surprised us – I’m not even gonna lie,” Butler said of Jackson. “He came — we found a lot of surprises this year.”
The Trojans managed to place second at the regional in large part because of their depth. With Long — one of the four runners in the 4×200 relay, usually — dealing with a quad injury, East Lansing subbed in senior Alex Hosey. Hosey had been dealing with an injured hamstring himself prior to regionals. And with a revolving door of athletes, beset by injuries of varying degrees and missing time, the Trojans needed to lean on that depth.
For instance, at regionals, with Hosey running in Long’s spot, the 4×200 relay team finished in the top spot with a time of 1:29.52 — only three-tenths of a second shy of their fastest time, set on May 14 (with Long running.)
Prior to Friday, the regular East Lansing 4×200 relay team of Long, Butler, Barendilla, and Jackson held the fastest time in the state in the event (1:29.22.) With Long sidelined at regionals, the Trojans couldn’t improve on their fastest time — several felt they could go faster than they did on the 14th — but still comfortably qualified for states.
Three other teams set faster times around the state at different regionals, but because of the depth East Lansing features, the hope is a fully healthy 4×200 relay team can set a blazing time at states.
Along with the 4×200 relay, the 4×100 relay team — composed of the same four sprinters on Friday — also placed first at regionals, and will run at states.
“I’m confident in everybody,” Butler said, “I mean, we push each other in practice.”
Along with those two relay teams, the Trojans are sending 110 meter hurdler Jaden Patterson to states in that event, after he finished second in regionals by a margin of just two-hundreths of a second.
Additionally going to states for East Lansing are the 4×400 and 4×800 relays, where Faust, Zeleke, and other distance runners picked up points for the Trojans.
The 4×400 team of Page, Caldwell, Mayan, and Barendilla placed second, running at 3:28.18 at regionals, and the 4×800 team of Page, Zeleke, Faust, and Ferguson also nabbed second with an 8:09.01.
For the state qualifiers, it was hours, weeks, and years of work culminating in just a few minutes, or seconds, of action.
“You get four minutes in a mile,” Faust said. “That’s — it seems like a lot of time, but it’s not. It goes by really quickly. And if you’re not on your game, all the work that you put in doesn’t amount to really anything.”
But before anybody for East Lansing considers the state meet in early June, there’s the matter of the CAAC conference meet on Wednesday.
Many of the runners the Trojans will face there, they faced at regionals. And most, if not all, of the teams East Lansing will face on Wednesday are teams the Trojans have beaten at least once this year head-to-head.
And with a healthy, deep roster of distance runners and sprinters on hand, the Trojans are confident that the competition they face each day in practice is enough to prepare them for the meet.
It certainly is the case at the workout on Tuesday before regionals that the Trojan sprinters are competing against each other. The workout is simple: at about 80-percent pace, each group of six or so comparable runners set off for steadily shorter distances — 400, 350, 300 and finally 250 meters. Each group has a set time they’re aiming for to be considered “elite” or “good.”
And each time, as an assistant coach starts counting down the final five seconds before the “elite” threshold is crossed, runners start to appear and cross the finish line.
Between heaving breaths after each run, the sprinters joke and trade barbs about how they could go faster, or why they were behind that time.
But by the time they’re up to the line again and the whistle blows for them to set off, each sprinter’s demeanor resets to a competitive mode as they push off the line, setting off for another race against each other.
“And that’s the luxury of having a team that’s deep, is we’re competing against ourselves,” Octavis Long said.