May 24, 2012

Bob Lutz: South Haven may have state’s best hurdler

Blake Wilkey is an outstanding all-around athlete at South Haven, a small Class 1A school on the Oklahoma border south of Wellington.

Blake Wilkey is an outstanding all-around athlete at South Haven, a small Class 1A school on the Oklahoma border south of Wellington.

He lives in Rome, eight miles north of South Haven. It’s the kind of small town even the people who make maps can miss, but it’s been home to Wilkey all of his life.

“Basically, it’s made up of a few houses and a Co-Op,’’ Wilkey said. “I know everybody here by their first and last names. I think there are eight or nine houses and probably 20 people. Maybe.’’

But one of those people is Wilkey’s grandfather, Terry Williams. And their bond is strong. It was Williams, who coached track and field at Belle Plaine for almost 40 years before recently retiring, who convinced his grandson to try hurdling.

Let’s face it, high school track and field athletes aren’t as drawn to the hurdles as they once were. It’s a tough calling. The running is difficult enough but then you have to clear several hurdles along the way. It requires timing, endurance, strategy, attention to detail and athleticism.

But Wilkey is good at the hurdles. He won both the Class 1A 110- and 300-meter events at last year’s state track and field meet at Cessna Stadium, along with the long jump. And this weekend, he’ll try to be a repeat winner in those events in what will be his final high school activity.

“Hurdlers are so spread out, especially in 1A,’’ said South Haven coach David Hughes. “Last year there was a kid from Caldwell that Blake was able to compete against a lot and that really helped him.’’

Wilkey said he’s been to track meets this spring with as few as four or five other hurdlers. So in an effort to find competition, he participated in the Kansas Relays this year and finished fifth in the 110 hurdles, when he was the only Kansas hurdler in the finals. In the 300, he finished ninth.

But it’s his time of 13.9 this season in the 110s that has everybody talking. It’s one of the top 20 times in Kansas prep history and the fastest time, by far, for any of the state’s hurdlers this season.

But there’s a twist. It was windy when Wilkey ran his 13.9 at Wellington, and the timing was done by hand.

“Yeah, we had the wind at our backs,’’ Wilkey said. “But there are two other pretty good hurdlers there, from Rose Hill and Conway Springs. One ran a 14.1 and the other had a 14.3. Those are really good times. I love facing other really good hurdlers but that very rarely happens.’’

Wilkey ran a 14.75 in the 110 hurdles to win in 1A last season. Hs winning time in the 300 hurdles was 39.55. He’s been South Haven’s top athlete this school year as a standout in football, where he played running back and defensive back as well as punting and kicking, and in basketball, where he was a high-scoring guard.

It’s running the hurdles, though, that Wilkey identifies with most.

What is it about hurdling that he likes?

“I honestly couldn’t answer that,’’ Wilkey said. “Probably I like it just because I’ve been doing it for so long. And I guess having success helps. It’s just something I’ve been doing since I was in the sixth grade.’’

Remember, hurdling is hard. Hurdlers get beat up. A slight misstep can ruin a race.

“That’s happened to me this year in the 300 hurdles,’’ Wilkey said. “I couldn’t get my steps right and I started stuttering between hurdles.’’

It’s a terrible feeling, almost as bad as getting to a hurdle out of step and knowing you’re going to make contact and hoping that doesn’t bring you to the ground.

Wilkey has been running the 110s consistently in the low 14s, Hughes said. But during a regional meet in Burlington last week, he was clocked in 16 seconds flat, which is only the eighth-fastest time for a 1A qualifier in the state meet.

“That was a tough deal,’’ Hughes said. “It was a really windy day and those kids ran right into that wind.’’

Hard work has never deterred Wilkey. To conduct an interview, he first had to be called out of the wheat field, where he was helping cut a 135-acre patch. Growing up in a rural area — and there’s nothing more rural than Rome — taught him a work ethic and Wilkey has been devoted to sports — and especially to hurdling — for years.

“Being out in the country, there’s just more to do,’’ Wilkey said, an assertion some of his city-dwelling friends might debate. “Four wheelers, fishing and there’s always something to do around the house. It’s been a great experience.’’

Wilkey said he plans to run track at the junior-college level next year, but isn’t sure where he’ll go. He wants to continue hurdling, though he’s not always sure why.

“We know some people question the 13.9 and it was a windy day and a fast track,’’ Hughes said. “But we don’t worry about it. Blake just goes out and completes. He’s a real modest kid but he’s a competitor. He doesn’t let anything rattle him.’’

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