FPC was eclipsed by Miami Columbus 45-41 on Saturday, May 4.
"When you win big championships, you have to have a lot of stuff go your way: You have to have great athletes. You have to have great coaching. And you have to have some good luck because you just never know what's going to happen."
-- David Halliday, FPC track coach
From their first practice of the season, the members of Flagler Palm Coast’s boys track and field team have had one thing on their minds: to win a state championship.
Despite several qualifiers, the Bulldogs’ boys team didn’t score a point in last year’s state meet. But the 2019 season was going to be different. It had to be different.
The Bulldogs’ roster was immediately bolstered by the transfers of sprinter Jacob Miley, from rival Matanzas, and hurdler Nathan Farrell, from Spruce Creek. And the team was returning key athletes from last season, namely distance runner Shawn Gordon, sprinter/hurdler Ken’Derick Morton and shot putter Nelson Paul, among others.
The Bulldogs finally had all the pieces that would help them accomplish a goal they hadn’t achieved since 2009.
But — as is the nature of most sports, especially track and field — there’s always the unexpected.
Jacob Miley wasn’t ready to win a state title in 2018. He said so himself.
As a junior at Matanzas, he was already one of the top 800-meter runners in the state.
“It felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders,” he said after running a 1:56.41, placing eighth in the 800-meter final. “The nerves just got to me.”
Last season’s state meet was a learning experience for Miley. It allowed him to focus on what he needed to improve and how he was going to do it.
After months of rigorous training under FPC coach David Halliday, this year was going to be the year. The gold medal was his to lose, and there was no way to hide it.
At the crack of the starter’s pistol, Miley burst out of his stance and sprinted down the track in the 4A 800-meter run at the University of North Florida on Friday, May 3.
It was a hot day, spattered with patches of rain and lightning.
He hovered near the middle of the pack for most of the first 400 meters. Not going too fast to where he’d tire out, and not going to slow to where he’d fall too far behind.
Then, he attacked.
He passed the runners in front of him with ease, his 6-foot-5 frame gliding gracefully across the track. He thought he was running the best race of his life.
“Until the last four steps,” he said.
Nearing the end of the race, Piper’s Sukeil Foucha dove for the finish line.
He crossed in 1:51.00. Miley did so in 1:51.03.
“I should have pushed through. I should have leaned harder,” Miley said. “I thought I had it in the bag.”
The Bulldogs entered Day 2 of the FHSAA boys state track and field championships on Saturday, May 4, within striking distance of the team title and with nine opportunities to put points on the board.
Their first chance of the day came in the 4x800-meter relay.
Shawn Gordon, who ran the opening leg, built a solid lead for the Bulldogs before handing the baton to teammate Darrell Thomas. Thomas sped down the track, leading by more than 20 meters.
But he wasn’t used to running without people nearby. All alone, he had trouble pacing himself. He ran too fast and tired out. He surrendered the Bulldogs’ once large lead before handing the baton to J.T. Dahlberg, who struggled to close the gap during his leg of the race.
When Jacob Miley finally received the baton, the Bulldogs were in 10th place. By the time he neared the finish line, he had passed seven people and almost caught up to Miami Columbus’ Sebastien Cantave. Miley split in 1 minute, 50 seconds flat, earning FPC’s relay team a bronze medal and six crucial points for the overall team score.
“I didn’t realize how fast I was running,” Miley said. “I needed to pass as many people as I could. That’s the only thing that was on my mind.”
Nathan Farrell didn’t make it out of the district in the 110-meter hurdles as a sophomore at Spruce Creek last season, and he failed to qualify for the 300-meter hurdles state final that year, as well.
With a time of 14.69, he finished fifth in the 110-meter hurdles this year for FPC. Then came his bread-and-butter event: the 300-meter hurdles, an event in which he set the U.S. No. 1 time at the Five Star Conference Championship on March 9.
He started off slowly — he always does — and just barely grazed the top of the first hurdle. Still a bit behind nearing the final stretch, he “turned on the jets.” But his steps, always 17, were off.
He couldn’t get his right leg over the first of the last set of hurdles. His shin hit the bar and he crashed face-first to the ground. He couldn’t get up.
“My heart,” David Halliday
said, “it just sank.”
Farrell, who was one of four to fall in the event, doesn’t remember what the fall felt like. He was in a daze. He hadn’t fallen the entire season until now.
“I thought I was going to get knocked out,” he said.
Farrell eventually stood up with the help of Winter Park’s Sage Bertran, who also fell.
However, he couldn’t go over the hurdles and was disqualified.
He collapsed to the ground after crossing the finish line. Unable to put weight on his right leg, he needed the help of UNF trainers to get off the track and to the medical tent where his teammates were waiting for him.
Farrell was quiet, but positive, after the race.
“I’m not really worried how today went because I know that this offseason, I’m going to put that work in,” he said. “I know God has a plan for me. I guess part of that plan was just me falling — to make me stronger.”
THE LAST RACE
The Bulldogs led Miami Columbus 33-27 entering the 300-meter hurdles. With Nathan Farrell and Ken’Derick Morton both competing, it was an opportunity to score major points — an opportunity, despite a fifth-place surprise from Morton, that ultimately slipped away.
And after Miami Columbus’ Xzavier Henderson finished second in the 200-meter dash, the Explorers led 39-33.
The Bulldogs had one last chance to score in the 4x400-meter relay.
Darrell Thomas ran the opening leg, giving the Bulldogs a slim lead, before he handed the baton to Farrell.
FPC’s David Halliday didn’t believe Farrell would be able to compete after his spill in the hurdles. At first, he didn’t want him to, but Farrell refused to be benched.
After crashing in the biggest race of his life, Halliday gave Farrell a pep talk before the race.
“I told him that that race doesn’t define who you are. It doesn’t define your athletic career,” Halliday said. “What you do next will define you.”
Farrell’s head, neck, back and leg stung as he flew down the track.
“He’s a warrior,” Halliday said.
Morton worked to close the gap before giving the baton to Jacob Miley.
Miley passed several runners and almost ran down Piper’s Ethan Hanna.
“I wanted to leave it all out on the track for my last race in high school. I tried to catch him as hard as I could,” said Miley, who will run for the Florida Gators next season. “Five more steps and I would have had him.”
The Bulldogs finished second. The Explorers finished third.
SECOND IN FLORIDA
While Miami Columbus celebrated its 4A state title — shouting cheers, snapping selfies and slapping congratulatory high-fives — at the podium, the Bulldogs gathered in a quiet circle around David Halliday just outside the stadium.
The only sounds that could be heard were the occasional sniffle, the clinking of the medals around their necks and the sighs of disbelief.
They were this close. So close to glory.
What could have been done differently? The thought will keep Halliday up at night for the foreseeable future.
Verneal Henshaw scratching out on his last attempt at the discus? Jacob Miley missing out on gold in the 800-meter run by .03 seconds? Nelson Paul, after throwing his best shot put ever, getting edged out by 5 centimeters? The 4x400-meter relay team losing by two-10ths of a second? Nathan Farrell crashing in his best event?
“We can nitpick it to death,” Halliday said. “But there’s nothing we can do about it now. It is what it is.”
It was a long, hard season for the Bulldogs.
It was filled with success. It was filled with sadness.
And although they fell short of their goal, it’s a season that won’t be forgotten.
“This was a really special group of young men who bought in, who worked hard, who encouraged each other,” David Halliday said. “They’re brothers.”