PASCO -- John Morgan will climb the stairs of the starter stand in the south end zone of Edgar Brown Stadium in Pasco about 9:30 a.m. today.
For his 30th year, the Pasco School District administrator calmly will shout instructions to a group of young men lined up on the track.
Moments later -- Bang! -- he will fire the starter gun and set off a flurry of activity at the 51st annual Pasco Invite track and field meet.
An army of 200 dedicated volunteers has been working behind the scenes since November to prepare for the Northwest's premier track and field meet.
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The meet features about 1,400 kids on 102 teams from Washington, Idaho and Oregon competing in 42 events.
"It is a great community-supported event. To be able to put on a quality meet for that many kids and to have that good of an experience, it is a great day," said Le Burns, Pasco High's athletic director.
Burns took over as meet director four years ago, though she credited a brain trust of about six people for running the meet now that longtime meet director John Crawford has scaled back his role.
Crawford, 70, of Pasco, who retired as meet director four years ago, took over running it in 1974 and helped make it the largest single-day track and field meet in the nation for a long time.
"I don't think you could ever have a meet that is this successful and this large without the caliber of someone like John Crawford," former Pasco High teacher Tom Fleshman said. "I don't think any other meet can compare to the quality and the number of years that it has gone on."
What makes the meet -- which the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau says will bring to town about 2,000 people to fill up hotels and restaurants and spend about $198,000 in the Tri-Cities -- so special?
The athletes, coaches, volunteers and fans say it's simple: their love of the sport, people involved in it and the high-level talent.
Almost 250 miles from Edgar Brown Stadium on the banks of the Columbia River, Northport's Kassie Guglielmino practices flying on an abandoned airstrip.
No, not soaring through the air on the wings of a jet plane, rather flying around a makeshift track cut out by a tractor on the tiny town's old dirt airstrip.
The junior is the best Class 1B sprinter in the state, racking up six state titles in her first two state meets.
The Pasco Invite, though, is another animal.
Guglielmino, who lives on a cattle ranch on the outskirts of Northport, competed at the Invite last season, advancing to the finals in the 200 meters.
"It was crazy," she said. "I've never been on a track that big, first of all. I don't face that much competition ever. That was a pretty crazy experience. I was pretty nervous the whole time.
"I think it is a great thing. It is a really cool experience just to be able to compete at that level."
Not only was she running in a big venue and against top competition, she also was representing her school single-handedly.
Northport has two girls on the track and field team, but only Guglielmino will compete this weekend.
While practicing on a dirt track is not ideal, as using blocks isn't necessarily feasible, there is one advantage to the airstrip -- its location.
"Our track is surrounded by mountains, so we run a lot of hills," she said.
The day after the Pasco Invite, Jim Qualheim feels sore.
He's tired, his back is screaming and his feet hurt.
Qualheim doesn't compete in any events at the Invite -- at least he hasn't in 42 years -- but the Richland High track and field coach might as well, considering all the walking he does.
"I never sit. I can't do it," he said. "I probably put in several miles each meet. I wear my running shoes. That is just the way I am; I'm wired a little different. As far as my athletes go, they don't come see me, I go see them."
Most coaches move around during meets, but not to the degree Qualheim does.
He's been the track coach at Richland for 33 years, going to the Pasco Invite every season.
"From a kid's perspective, it is huge because it is so big and has so much prestige," he said. "If they can get a medal or a ribbon here, they can likely get a medal or a ribbon at state."
With all the walking Qualheim has done through the years, he has seen myriad quality performances.
From when he competed at the 1969 meet, where it was so windy the cinder track was lifted into the air making visibility poor and choking the athletes. To the 1984 meet, where Richland high jumper Scott Frick and Franklin High's Rick Noji went back-and-forth, with the Seattle athlete eventually clearing 7 feet -- a meet record that Noji broke in 1985 with a 7-21/2 jump.
Through it all, Qualheim has been there. The Bombers' longest tenured coach sometimes even sneaks onto the infield -- an act that is forbidden for coaches -- just to try and get a better photo of one of his kids.
Sometimes he gets caught, but he said security lets him stay out there because he is so old.
"I usually don't wear any Richland colors. I try to find something purple," he joked about Pasco High's colors, the host school.
Though Tom Fleshman retired from teaching math at Pasco High after 34 years and moved with his wife, Peggy, to Colville, he and his wife still drive to the Tri-Cities to volunteer at the Pasco Invite -- which they have done for at least 35 years.
"This meet is special," he said. "The first thing is the quality of the kids we work with. They are good athletes, but also good citizens. I can't remember ever working a meet without a large number of kids who are thanking us."
The Fleshmans have helped run the girls shot put and discus for nearly the entire time they've worked the meet, seeing many good athletes through the years, highlighted by Pasco's Quenna Beasley, the female athlete of the meet in 1980.
Tom Fleshman also mentioned the joy of seeing Colville's Sara Lentz place in the discus in 2010.
The camaraderie of working with other teachers and coaches throughout the years is what keeps the Fleshmans returning to help at the event.
"It is a real pleasure to come back and see kids you had in school that are involved in education now that are giving back to the community," said the retired teacher.
Near the finish line, halfway up the stands and underneath the press box at Edgar Brown Stadium, track regulars likely will see a familiar face.
It is a face that has been seen at nearly every Pasco Invite and a face that has been seen not only in the stands, but also as a competitor, an official and a key sponsor.
Doyle Clapper of Pasco has a unique history with his beloved track and field meet.
The former owner of Richland's Glass Nook, Clapper won the pole vault title at the first Pasco Invite in 1962 -- clearing 12 feet.
After graduating from high school, he wanted to remain involved, so he started sponsoring the trophy that goes to the winner of the pole vault, donating the money even before he owned his own business.
His son, Cody Clapper, now owns Glass Nook and continues to sponsor the trophy. His other son, John Clapper, owns Pita Pit in Pasco and sponsors the discus trophy. The elder Clapper missed a few years while serving in the military, but has been there ever since.
"It's the greatest high school track meet," Doyle Clapper said. "It makes you proud to be from Pasco."
When Doyle Clapper returned after serving in the military, he became a pole vault official.
The sport was a tad different then, as they used a sawdust pit for the athletes to land in, having to keep it fluffy with pitchforks. He also never used a pole that bent until his senior season.
After 20 to 25 years working the meet, he decided it was time to retire.
So, he foraged out his favorite seat near the finish line and for the past 15 years has just enjoyed watching the meet -- something that was hard to do when he had to concentrate only on the pole vault.
"I go with a couple of buddies, and we sit there pretty much all day and just enjoy it," he said. "God must be a track and field fan, because as a rule it can be miserable the day before and miserable the day after, but 95 percent of the time, they have a real decent day weather wise."
Which makes sitting in the stands for 10 hours on a Saturday a little easier.
Scott Spruill has covered a lot of track and field meets in his career.
The Yakima Herald-Republic high school sports reporter has been covering the Pasco Invite since 1983. He and his wife, Joan, used to produce a track book and a weekly newsletter, and run a state meet historical website.
So when he says the Pasco Invite is a great meet, people listen.
"That is one of the neat things about Pasco," he said. "Small-school kids can go. Not only is it a chance for a small-school kid to compete, but to do it on that stage. That is what I've always liked is the intermingling of the big-school kids with the small-school programs. That is what makes it unique."
While Tri-Cities and Yakima athletes consistently get the chance to go head-to-head against high competition, the best stories typically are when a small-town kid shows up and bests the field.
Prosser heptathlete Kelly Blair LaBounty was just that type of athlete, winning female athlete of the meet honors in 1988 and three more events in 1989. Her career took her to the University of Oregon and onto the Olympics.
"She loved that meet," Spruill said. "It was a stage."
Spruill's favorite year was 1999 when the Davis boys 4x400-meter relay team set the meet record, running a 3:18.6 -- a record that still holds today.
"The way you can see an elite event every 15 minutes is what keeps kids in tune with that meet," he said.
* Craig Craker: 509-582-1509; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter.com/Craig_Craker