By Harold Raker
The Daily Item
— MILTON -- When Southern Columbia distance standout Andrew Steely crossed the finish line in the 1,600-meter run, he gave his team a 20-8 lead over Milton in a battle of unbeaten track and field teams.
What happened behind Steely was what helped spark the Black Panthers, who rallied from the early deficit Wednesday afternoon for an 84-66 Heartland Athletic Conference Division II victory.
Milton's Zak Lewis made a late charge to take second place (and the three team points it was worth) from Southern's Javon Ring.
The move by Lewis did not go unnoticed by his teammates, particular Wade Heidel, who won the 400 (53.1 seconds), placed third in the 800 and anchored the winning 1,600 relay.
"Really when Zak Lewis took second in the mile passing that kid with like 10 meters to go, that was a really big momentum swing," said Heidel, who won the 400, anchored the winning 1,600 relay and took third in the 800. "It got me pumped up and it got a lot of us pumped up, and ready to run our races."
Milton coach Tom Leeser, whose Black Panthers are 4-0 overall, 3-0 HAC-II, also pointed to the effort by Lewis in that race as a key momentum swing.
Leeser said, knowing that the Tigers had a pair of stars in Steely and hurdler/jumper Luke Rarig, he told his kids, "We're not racing the first guy, we're racing the second guy and the kids did a pretty good job with that."
He said a good example was Lewis coming back for a second instead of a third.
"I think if there is such a thing as momentum in track, that really gave us some," he added.
He said that, before that race, "We started feeling like it might be slipping."
Heidel said he had confidence in his teammates that they would rally.
"I was pretty confident, I knew our jumpers were really good. We had Norm (Whaley), Brandon (Rogers) and Greg (Shultz) and I knew we were pretty decent in the sprints, so I thought we could make it up pretty easily."
Whaley (second in the high hurdles and long jump) was worried for a while and said he asked the coach what they needed to do to make up the points. "He told me just focus on your events."
Whaley added, "Definitely in the beginning, they seemed like they were stealing it away, but the seconds and thirds were keep it from getting out of reach."
Leeser also noted the performances of the field athletes, most notably sweeps in the javelin (led by Josh Brown's 180-foot, 3-inch winning throw) and the triple jump (Brandon Rogers won with a 39-7 ¾).
Whaley said it was a day not to go for personal records, but just score as many points as possible.
Despite the presence of Steely in the distance events, the Black Panthers did what Leeser expected on the track, outscoring the Tigers 43-20. The difference, he said was in the field, where Milton trailed the Tigers by just 48-41.
"We don't have a bunch of superstars, guys who win three or four events," he said.
Indeed Milton won despite having no individual double winners.
The Tigers (3-1, 2-1 HAC-II) had three of them. Steely won the 1,600 (4:59.5), the 3,200 (11:19) and the 800 (2:06:8) in addition to a leg of the winning 3,200 relay. Rarig took both hurdles races (15.9 in the highs, 42.6 in the intermediates) and Cody Pavlick won the shot put (45-3) and the discus (138-4 ½).
Whaley was nervous, knowing the challenge that Southern could bring.
"We had to put our best foot out there and, for me personally, I had to get mentally prepared and physically prepared for my races," he said. "I knew I had to pull through and get the points for the team as much as possible."
Heidel said it feels amazing to be undefeated, but added, "We are a long way from the end."
Wednesday's meet was just one more hurdle for the Black Panthers, who are trying to win their first league title since 2009.
n Milton 89, Southern 61
First-year head coach Rod Harris has his squad on track for a run at the HAC-II title as well as the Black Panthers improved to 3-1 overall, 3-0 HAC-II.
Joselyn Pascual won three individual events, the 200 in 28.2, the triple jump in 33-10 and the high jump in 5-4 and Maddie Yoder won both hurdles races (13.6 in the 100s, 52.4 in the 300s).
Southern dropped to 2-2, 3-1.