The standard cliche for attempting to explain a phenomenon is, “There must be something in the water there.”
Whatever the true explanation may be, there’s been a remarkable streak of success in the track and field sport of hurdlers by Marshall County High School athletes over the past 16 years.
For example: Three straight state championships in the 100 hurdles by Laken Dirkes in 2005-2007; Stephen Walker, state runner-up in 2003; four straight state meet qualifications and two fourth-place finishes by Brittany Martin; five straight trips to state and a runner-up finish in
the 100 in 2012 for Lauren Miller; and those are just the highlights.
Every year since 2001, Marshall County has had at least one hurdler in the state meet.
Presently, rising junior Stephanie Russell is ranked first in the region in both the 100 and 300, while Sydney Goff is ranked third.
To keep the streak going, Paige Henson, who will be a freshman next year, recently broke the state record at the middle school meet.
The previous record was held by Laken Dirkes.
If there is an explanation for the success, girls coach Cory Westerfield believes it’s a combination of largely intanglble things, such as presenting hurdles as a challenge to the athletes who have a sprinter’s speed.
“It’s going to take a special kid to compete in the hundred-meter dash at the state level,” Westerfield said. “But we have a lot of fast girls and we have felt that we would better be able to compete at the state level in the hurdles, because it’s more about technique.”
He added, “That’s not to say we can’t have somebody make it in the hundred.”
But running the hurdles takes more than raw speed, and the coaches try to get the athlete to hone his or her technique.
“If we can get them to buy in,” boys coach Jared Rosa said, “we can get them to understand it’s a very technical thing, that speed can be accomplished through great form and technique.”
Marshall County Schools Superintendent Trent Lovett is a former track athlete and coach at MCHS, and he endorsed the approach of Westerfield and Rosa.
“If I had a runner who was fast in the 100 meter dash,” Lovett said, “I’d sort of let him run a few times and then I’d ask hiim: ‘Do you really think you have the speed to be a state champion?’”
Then Lovett would challenge the athlete to try the hurdles, and challenge him to improve and perfect his form.
“It is such an event of skill,” Lovett said, “and you can teach that. You can’t teach world-class speed.”
Hurdles is also an event with some degree of risk, Westerfield pointed out.
“You’re going to fall,” he said. “You’re eventually going to crash a hurdle. You can’t be afraid of those things.
“Our girls are kind of fearless, and that helps.”
And then, the coaches said, some athletes just have the event in their sights naturally.
“Some kids just have an affinity for it,” Westerfield said. “They come out there and say, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to run the hurdles.’”
Rosa added, “It takes a special kind of student that has that determination and inner drive.”
Continuity and peer mentoring help sustain the success, Westerfield said.
“From Laken up until now,” he said, “they’ve each taught the others. Laken helped teach Brittany stuff and gave her somebody to compete against in practice.
“Brittany helped Lauren. Lauren helped Stephanie. Stephanie helped Sydney, and Stephanie and Sydney are helping Paige. They’re helping Cassandra (Penney, a rising senior).”
Miller, who will be a sophomore at Murray State in the fall, runs hurdles and is a long jumper on the Racer track team.
“Lauren has come back two or three times this year to help show our current hurdlers some of the drills that she’s doing at the college level,” Westerfield said. “She has come and done a couple of workouts with them. I just think that’s pretty awesome.”
n Joni Walker started the streak of state meet qualifiers in 1996 as an eighth-grader.
“Joni was the spark that probably lit the fire as far as our trying to build a hurdle tradition here,” Westerfield said.
n Stephen Walker, Joni’s brother, qualified for the state meet in 2001 and 2002. He finished second in the state on his second trip. On the girls’ side, Leanne Neal also qualified for the state meet in 2002.
n Laken Dirkes first qualified in 2003 as an 8th grader and finished 10th overall. She was state runner-up in 2004, champion in 2005-2007 in the 100. She was third in the 300 in 2005.
“Laken came along and had an enormous amount of success at the state level and I think that helped to propel us,” Westerfield said.
n Brittany Martin qualified four times for state, starting in 2008. She placed as high as fourth in 2009 and 2010. She qualified and did not run in 2011. She qualified twice in the 300 as well.
n Lauren Miller qualified five times from 2008 to 2012 in both the 100 and 300. She finished as state runner up in 2012 and placed in the top eight every time in the 300 hurdles.
Other qualifiers included Sam Devore in both the 110 and 300 in 2008-2009 and in the 300 in 2010 and Mitchel Stelter in the 110 in 2010 and both sets in 2011.
A pair of sixth-place finishes by Devore in the 300 were the best state finishes.
In this year’s state meet, senior Doug Reed competed in the 300, finishing 13th. Stephanie Russell placed 10th in the 300 and 12th in the 100.
The success has deep roots, Lovett said, naming several athletes who exceled in the hurdles before the current streak of state qualifiers began, including Teresa Wagner Manley, Mitch Perry, Scott Hopkins and Carla English.
And there was sprinter Adriane Diamond Travis, whose state record in the 400 meters stood for 30 years until this year’s state meet.
The present generation of athletes are aware of the achievements of their predecessors.
“They’ve seen the people that have come ahead of them and they want to have that kind of success,” Westerfield said.
“The kids make fun of me,” he said, “because I’m always telling stories – ‘This is what Adriane did,’ or ‘This is what Rebecca Brown did in high jump to train,’ or ‘This is what Laken did.’
“And now I say, ‘This is what Lauren did.’ They get tired of hearing the stories but I say, ‘One day, I’ll be telling the story about you to my next kid.’”