When Huntington head coach Ron Wilson and his winter boys’ track and field team stepped into the Suffolk County state qualifier meet at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood, they had one thing on their mind: redemption.

Kyree Johnson crosses the finish line in the 4×400-meter relay. Photo from Huntington school district

And that’s exactly what they felt when they went home.

In the last couple weeks, the Blue Devils had experienced their fair share of shortcomings, notably during its Armory Track Invitational Feb. 3, when senior Shane McGuire, a leg of the team’s 4×400-meter relay, tore his hamstring. The next day, at the large school county championship, the Blue Devils’ top sprinter Kyree Johnson felt a tweak in his own hamstring before competing in the long jump and, at the request of Wilson, sat out of competing altogether.

The team ended up losing the county championship 52-51. Had Johnson jumped that day, they would’ve won, the coach said, but it wasn’t worth the risk.

It was that tight loss that hurt them most, dropping from first to fourth in local published polls — only fueling the fire that would light up the track in Brentwood Feb. 13.

“Before we started, I said to the boys, ‘alright fellas, everyone thinks we’re not as good as we used to be, but we need to go out here and prove them wrong,’” Wilson said. “At the meet, we let everything take care of itself and when we finally started running, I was like ‘redemption at last.’”

That redemption came in the form of collaborative speed and agility.

Smithtown West’s Michael Grabowski with his first-place plaque. Photo by Kevin Redding

Johnson, whose week of resting paid off, placed first in both the 55-meter dash, with a personal best time of 6.41 seconds, and 300 dash, with a meet-record time of 34.8, qualifying him to compete in the state championships March 4 at Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex on Staten Island.

“After I won the 55-meter dash and saw my time of 6.41, that made me realize that I’m not hurt anymore,” Johnson said. “I just relaxed and stayed calm, and looked at it like every other meet … because if I didn’t, I’d start making myself nervous, so I just kept thinking ‘it’s just another regular meet.’”

Running the anchor leg, he also helped the Blue Devils take home gold in the 4×400 relay in a time of 3 minutes, 32.15 seconds, along with teammates Lawrence Leake, a senior, Mark Rafuse, an eighth-grader, and Anthony Joseph, a senior. The Huntington teammates will be joining Johnson at the state championship March 4.

Leake, who, according to Wilson, is one of the toughest and hardest working young men he’s ever coached, also placed first in a competition of his own. He took gold in the 600 run and broke the meet record with a time of 1:21.70. The record was previously held by Brentwood’s Greg Santiago, who finished in 1:21.99 in 2000.

Smithtown East’s Daniel Claxton leaps over the bar during a previous competiton. File photo from Daniel Claxton

“During the race, I figured everyone else was going to get out pretty hard the first two laps to make sure I wasn’t going to catch them, so I just stayed close and in striking distance until the last lap and put the pedal to the metal and let it go,” Leake said. “It feels pretty good to have a record beat all by myself.”

Smithtown West senior and state qualifier Michael Grabowski had a similar strategy on his dash to first place in the 3,200 run, which he finished in 9:29.19. Competing against  Jack Ryan of Westhampton Beach and Jonathan Lauer of Sachem North, Grabowski knew he had to play it smart by feeling the race out for the first five laps, and push it for the final sixth.

“I was comfortable with my pace and stuck with Lauer, until Ryan made a move and went past him with about 300 meters to go, and opened the race up,” he said. “As soon as Ryan went past Lauer, I followed Ryan and waited until the last lap and kicked. Once I started my kick, there was no going back and he didn’t really have a chance.”

Marius Sidlauskas of Smithtown East placed third in boys’ 1,600 with a time of 4:29.40; Daniel Claxton of Smithtown East placed first in boys’ high jump with a jump of 6 feet, 10 inches; Elijah Claiborne, Isaiah Claiborne, Tyler Dollhausen and Dan O’Connor of Northport placed first in boys’ 4×800 relay in 8:09.76; and Ryann Gaffney of Huntington placed fourth in girls’ 55 hurdles with a time of 8.75.

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