Hanford junior Kevon Skinner has been running the 4x100-meter relay since he was a freshman, but this was the first season he would be the elder statesman of the group.
That didn’t bode especially well for the talented three-sport athlete.
“Usually, when you have three sophomores running on a 4x100, you’re not very good,” Skinner said.
The truth is, the Falcons 4x100 wasn’t. The foursome — consisting (in relay order) of himself, Mateo Valadez, Gavin Slack and Joseph Gauthier — had lots of raw talent but not a lot to show for it. Five weeks and nine meets into the season, they had cracked the 45-second barrier just once, and their hopes of competing for a district title appeared distant at best.
It got so bad that Skinner wasn’t sure he wanted to continue.
“We were at the bottom of the league. There was a point in time I was going to tell Coach (Darren) Crow I didn’t want to run anymore, because this (was) frustrating,” Skinner said. “I was just getting so mad. I talked to my family and decided I just had to stick with it. I just held to the faith that everything would work out.”
Skinner’s faith was soon rewarded. Crow pondered over how he could get the most out of his relay crew and decided to switch the order. He thought using Slack as the opening leg, Skinner on the back straightaway, Valadez on the curve and Gauthier bringing it home might yield a positive result.
“We mixed up the order a lot,” said Slack, who went from the third leg to the second leg before finding a home as the lead leg. “(The order) is very important. Some people are better at starting, and some people are better at corners.”
Turned out that Crow had the right guys all along. He just needed to put them in their optimal positions.
Instantly, the times started dropping, going from 44.94 to 44.44 at the first Mid-Columbia Conference meet April 23. Two days later, the quartet lowered their PR to 44.10 at the Prosser Rotary Invite.
“Gavin was just so much happier starting off, and Kevon doesn’t care. He knows what to do and when to do it,” Crow said. “And they got faster, especially Mateo. He’s probably made the biggest improvement this year.”
The times continued to drop in the MCC district meet, where the Falcons clocked a 43.38, and at the Class 3A regional meet in Spokane, where they set a school record with a time of 42.90, breaking the year-old mark of 43.13. They finished second to Mt. Spokane but still earned a state berth and put themselves in the discussion of potential state champions.
“I thank my lucky stars I’ve got guys like that. This (sport) is so much better when you’re winning,” Crow said. “When they realize they’re that good, a lightbulb goes on.”
Gauthier said chemistry plays an important role in the team’s improvement. They are all teammates in football, too — Gauthier and Valadez are running backs, Slack is a receiver and Skinner is a two-year starter at cornerback.
“We started off not super close, but as the season progressed we’ve become more like a brotherhood,” Gauthier said.
And when the work is done, they do enjoy indulging their playful side.
“At the hotel at regionals, we were all trying to figure out the (sleeping arrangements),” Valadez said. “Kevon likes to mess with Joe a little bit, like, ‘Joe, I’m always going to cuddle with you.’ Gavin and I were just laughing at them.”
They’ve also found success in their individual events — Valadez in the 200, Slack in the long jump and Gauthier in the 100 — although Gauthier’s false start in the 200 at regionals probably cost him another state berth.
“I was really mad,” Gauthier said. “I just used that as motivation for the 4x100.”
It was that false start that also ended up helping Valadez.
“I just tried to run for (Gauthier),” Valadez said. “He would have won too. I was mad for him.”
However, there’s only pure excitement and hope when it comes to the future of the 4x100 relay squad. If all goes according to plan, the Falcons could be in rare company by the end of next season.
“If these four guys stay healthy, I see us running in the high 41s by the end of next year,” Crow said. “That would make (a state title) pretty easy.”
Skinner, for one, couldn’t be happier that he didn’t give up hope. Seeing the school-record time flash on the scoreboard made the early-season struggles a distant memory.
“It was a moment I’d definitely want to relive. There’s no moment like it,” Skinner said. “No matter what happens (at state), if we are state champions or finish second, I tell myself all four of us are coming back next year. So not only our district or region or Class 3A, but the entire state of Washington needs to watch out. Hanford’s coming.”