By all accounts, this has been a banner year, if not a banner era, for Utah high school track and field athletes — and, by extension, Utah athletes in general. If the trend continues, this weekend’s state track and field championships will produce some head-turning performances.
Most sports rely on opinion to answer the often-asked questions — What are the greatest athletic performances? Who are the greatest athletes? How much are athletes improving? But track and field offers an objective measurement of athletic performance — it’s right there on the stopwatch or the measuring tape. It’s a sport that is so precise that even the wind is monitored.
Based on those measurements, Utah prep athletes are performing better than ever and moving up in the world (and we can assume this carries over to football, basketball, baseball, etc.).
We know this because the numbers don’t lie, and we’ve got plenty of numbers. No sport, aside from baseball, breeds more stat geeks than track and field, and Roger Buhrley, the dean of track coaches in Utah (current residence: Syracuse High), is Exhibit A. About 20 years ago, he compiled a list of the greatest performances by Utah athletes in all events — the sprint and distance events, the throws, the jumps.
It’s indicative of Buhrley’s passion for the sport that he embraced such an assignment, for no pay. He spent several weeks one summer interviewing old coaches and searching microfilm at the library to collect the best performances and verify their accuracy. He compiled a list that was 50 deep for each of track's 34 events — 1,700 entries — enabling coaches and athletes to compare performances against marks going back decades. Over the years almost every list has swelled to well over 100 names as more marks were discovered from the past and as athletes produced new marks each spring (only a few event lists have failed to grow — for instance, the boys high jump, a weak event in Utah).
As a result of Buhrley’s work, we know that Utah athletes are producing better marks than ever in most events. This season they have produced six performances that rank as all-class state records. Not only that, but many of them rank among the best in the nation — and not just in the distance races, where they have been strong traditionally.
Cam Dopp, a BYU-bound senior at Woods Cross High, won the 300-meter hurdles at the BYU Invitational with a time of 36.30 — the fastest ever by a Utahn and second fastest in the U.S. this season, just .06 behind the leader.
Austin Kafentzis, Jordan High’s Wisconsin-bound junior quarterback, threw the javelin 217 feet, 6 inches — or, in football terms, 72+ yards — third best in the nation and a whopping 12 feet farther than Utah’s 13-year-old all-class record.
Chrissy Glassman, a junior at Park City High, threw the javelin 160 feet, 6 inches — nearly 10 feet farther than any other Utah girl has ever thrown and No. 3 in the nation this season.
Trevor Leavitt, a senior at Davis High who will join Dopp at BYU next season, covered the 400-meter dash in 47.00 seconds at the BYU Invitational, breaking the 14-year-old all-class record and ranking No. 8 in the nation this year.
Conner Mantz, a senior at Sky View High, clocked 8:52.90 in the 3,200-meter run at a meet in California. That time ranks No. 8 nationally and No. 3 on Utah’s all-time list.
Kaysha Love, a sophomore at Herriman High, demolished the all-class state records for the 100- and 200-meter dashes by clocking 11.68 and 24.11 — times that rank among the top 40 in the nation in what are arguably track’s most competitive events.
This continues an upward trend in Utah performances, which is why Utah preps have produced all-class records in 14 of 34 events the last two years — seven by the boys, seven by the girls (this counts the girls pole vault — not a state-sanctioned event). The improvement has been reflected in their performance at the next level. Five Utah preps have gone on to win NCAA championships in the last five years — Alta’s Amy Menlove and Kyle Perry, Spanish Fork’s Nachelle Stewart, Lone Peak’s Lacy Cramer (twice) and Jordan’s Miles Batty.
Ask Buhrley if there has been a resurgence of top performances, he says, “It sure seems like it the last few years. This year it’s nice to see the kids do well and rank near the top (nationally) in something other than distance running.”
Just for fun, Buhrley took his obsession with stats a step further. Each year the coaches association votes on the Performance of the Year. Initially, this was problematic. How do you compare a discus mark with a 100-meter dash time? Sure, there are scoring tables that facilitate this, but they are not designed specifically for Utah high school athletes.
So Buhrley created his own Event Equivalency Table to determine the top performances each season. He compiled the top 11 marks in each event, tossed out the No. 1 performance so it did not skew the numbers, and averaged them. Then he assigned a point value of 1,000 points to that mark and created incremental point values, ascending and descending, with 1,200 being the top score. Marks that are off the chart are given prorated values.
The accompanying chart ranks the top track and field performances in Utah history, regardless of event. Several superior marks have been produced out of state, but for purposes of comparison we use only marks that occurred on Utah soil, eliminating the advantage of, for example, distance races at sea level and so forth.
"It's not 100 percent full proof," says Buhrley, who reconfigures the point values every few years because of the improvement in performances, especially among girls.3 comments on this story
As you can see, Natalie Shield’s time of 10:22.88 for the metric two-mile run — 3,200-meters — is the greatest performance ever by a Utah female prep athlete on Utah soil. And Ben Saarel’s time of 8:49.08 for the 3,200 ranks No. 1 for Utah boys. Not surprisingly, nearly half of the top 20 performances are from the distance races — 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs — where Utah has excelled for years.
There are three athletes whose marks are off the chart, exceeding Buhrley’s top1,200-point benchmark — Saarel, Nik Arrhenius and Luke Puskedra. Arrhenius set the national record in the discus; Saarel won the Dream Mile in New York last summer (an annual meeting of the nation’s top milers); and Puskedra was one of the nation’s top distance runners in the country. What is surprising is that five of the top 20 marks are sprint and hurdle performances, which are improving steadily.
It is also relevant to note that four of the boys’ marks and four of the girls’ marks occurred since 2012. These are golden days for Utah athletes.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org