Canyon Lady Eagles striving for individual, team titles at UIL Class 4A state track meet

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The Canyon girls will compete at the UIL Class 4A State Track and Field meet on Thursday at Mike A. Myers Stadium in Austin. [David Erickson/ Press Pass Sports]

It’s become a familiar routine for the Canyon girls track team at this time of the year to know that it will have so many competitors going to the state meet in Austin, and it will be no different at the Class 4A meet Thursday at the University of Texas Mike A. Myers Stadium.

With that brings expectations Canyon will take home a lot of hardware. There will be some girls who will finish the day with medals to be sure, but Canyon as a team could end up being tops in the state when all the points are tallied as the sun descends.

On paper, that’s a definite possibility considering the recent history of the Canyon program under coach Ray Baca. Last year Canyon finished second in the team standings, and in 2019, Canyon won the 4A team competition.

Baca says his team has progressed as mapped out from the start of the year, which as a formula has seemed to work every year.

“What we try to do at the start of the season is get our kids in a situation where we can qualify the most kids from district to area, area to region and then region to the state meet,” Baca said. “I tell our girls several times we can’t control who we run against. What we can control is our performance and I feel if we run our best, all of our girls put themselves in a situation to compete individually for a state championship. The team aspect’s going to take care of itself.”

That’s what happened the weekend before last at the Region I-4A meet at Lubbock. Canyon won with 122 points, finishing 16 points ahead of second place Argyle, clinching the meet by winning the 1600 relay on the last event of the day.

Ironically, it was the 1600 relay on the last event of the day last year which ended up being Canyon’s undoing in terms of winning a state title. Kennedale won that event, and in fact, swept the three relays in which the point totals are doubled, making all the difference in finishing eight points ahead of Canyon for the state championship.

Canyon returns half of last year’s mile relay this year in junior Abree Winfrey and senior Whitney Willeford. They’re scheduled to run the final two legs of the relay, but they’ll have a big say in how many points Canyon scores before that.

Winfrey, who won gold in the 800 last year, is the No. 2 seed in the 800 (2 seconds, 17.96 seconds) and No. 3 in the 300 hurdles (45.13). Joining Winfrey in the 800 is teammate Avery Brown.

“I feel pretty confident,” Winfrey said. “With me and Avery running In (the 800) I feel we have a pretty good shot. I think it’s going to be a good day.

“For hurdles the goal is to break 44. It’s going to be a close race just staying up front and being able to finish. In the 800 I’d like to break 2:10  because that’s what I got last year. That should get me in first as well.”

If there was a surprise winner for Canyon at the region meet, it was probably WIlleford in the long jump, although a “surprise” for Canyon is relative. Willeford surpassed her previous best jump by 10 inches with a leap of 18 feet, 6 inches to take home the gold and earn the trip to Austin.

Last year Willeford also qualified in the long jump and finished fifth, which is where she’s seeded this year.

“I think it was a good experience to go out there and do long jump last year and just know how it’s going to be,” Willeford said. “It’s just given me that confidence this year that I can do the same thing and I just need to go out there and have a good day.”

There’s one individual who might be a prohibitive favorite for Canyon, and naturally, she’s also been there before. Junior Kashlee Dickinson Is the defending state champion in the pole vault and is the No. 1 seed in the event this year.

Dickinson enters the meet with a vault of 13-6, two inches ahead of No. 2 seed, Comal Canyon Lake’s Alencia Lentz.

“I just need to keep working on my form and make sure I stay focused on that and not the competition and psyche myself out,” Dickinson said. “I feel like (being a defending state champion) puts a lot more pressure on me because people want to go out there and beat the state champion from last year.”

That experience from last year alone should be nothing but a benefit for Dickinson.

“I had a rough season at the beginning because the weather wasn’t as good as I’d like it to be, but once I got into district I went up a couple more inches every time and I think I’m in a great spot to keep going up,” Dickinson said. “I think I won’t be as nervous because all that crowd makes you feel small. If I just focus not on anything around me I’m good.”

Sophomore Hannah Stuart is also seeded to potentially win a pair of medals in the distance events. She’ll have a chance to be the first Canyon girl to bring home a medal at 9:30 a.m. in the 3200, where she’s the No. 3 seed with an 11:04.42. Stuart is also the No. 2 seed in the 1600 at 5:04.25.

But it’s where Canyon has its second No. 1 seed besides Dickinson which could decide if the Lady Eagles bring home a team state championship. Canyon is the No. 1 seed in the mile relay with a time of 3:55.90, almost five seconds faster than last year’s nemesis Kennedale in the second seed.

Appropriately enough, that’s the final event of the day and could have some huge implications. Baca says having the No. 1 seed doesn’t mean anything on paper.

“That’s kind of deceiving because when you get to this point you have a lot of teams that are changing their relays because they had some really good individuals at the regional meet who may have not gotten out in those events and now those kids are getting put on relays,” Baca said. “This mile relay team might not be the same one we ran in the regional finals. You do see teams get faster at the state meet and it’s not always because of the weather, sometimes there’s just different people on the relays. That’s what happened to us last year against Kennedale.”

Willeford and Winfrey look secure in their final two legs, but Talia Solis and Samara Ramirez, who ran the first two legs in the region meet, aren’t cinches. Baca opened up challenges for then relay spots after the region meet, and freshman Brooklyn Kinsey, who competed in the 300 hurdles most of the year, nudged ahead of Ramirez in a challenge and looks likely to have a spot in the state finals.

On the UIL heat sheet for the event, Ramirez is listed as one of the six runners (four competitors and two alternates), as is freshman Megan Pullen.

As the most experienced competitor on the team, it’s no surprise that Winfrey will be the last Canyon competitor of the season to cross the finish line. That’s the way she wants it.

“It’s awesome,” Winfrey said. “I love the fact that my teammates are relying on me. I’m relying on them to start us off with a good race. That bond and trust our teammates have is incredible.”

For Winfrey to have a chance to clinch a gold medal, everybody else has to do their part. On paper, Canyon has a chance to score a lot of points, particularly in the distance events in which Baca’s runners traditionally excel.

Baca likes the way things are set up for his team.

“We’re in a great situation right now,” Baca said. “We’re 100 percent healthy, our girls have had a really good week of workouts after regionals, and I do like where we’re at. I feel like we have a good plan and the weather’s going to be really good so they’re going to have to do the best each one of them can individually. Hopefully when we put all the parts together at the end we’ll be in the hunt for the state championship.”

If all goes to plan, Baca thinks the mile relay will be the perfect ending to the day for Canyon.

“As a track coach that’s your dream,” Baca said. “If it comes down to a mile relay to win the state championship, I’d bet on us.”

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