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Daniel Claxton

The 4x400-relay team of Mark Rafuse, Lawrence Leake, Kyree Johnson and Anthony Joseph (on far right) took gold at the Suffolk County state qualifier meet (Jonathan Smith and Brian Pierre have also competed on the relay team). Photo from Huntington school district

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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Daniel Claxton gets over the bar. Photo from Kathie Borbet

Junior high jumper Daniel Claxton’s track and field career has already come full circle.

As a freshman at Smithtown East, he qualified to compete in the state championship, where he finished fifth in Division I and eighth overall, which includes public, Catholic and city schools. Last weekend, he was back at the state championship for the third time, but found himself back at the same Cicero-North Syracuse High School track he competed on two years ago.

“It felt pretty good to come back to this meet two years later,” he said. “The end of the season couldn’t have gone more perfect. It was a whole different story.”

Claxton finished first in Division I and second in the federation.

“You put your time in as a coach and to have the athletes who buy into the sport and are of that quality and come through every week is pretty amazing to see,” Smithtown East head coach Kathie Borbet said. “It makes you feel good as a coach to have some succeed that well.”

Liam Hendricks winds up to hurl the discus. Photo from Kathie Borbet
Liam Hendricks winds up to hurl the discus. Photo from Kathie Borbet

Teammate Liam Hendricks, a shot put and discus thrower who placed first in every dual meet and invitational in discus, placed third in Division I and sixth overall. Although capable of throwing 178 feet, which is the new school record he set this season — breaking his own previous marks — he threw 168 at the state tournament.

“You don’t always throw your best at the opportune time,” Borbet said. “But he was pretty close to the 178-mark all season. He had one throw that was just foul that would’ve been like a 180 throw. It just missed the mark.”

But throwing coach Mike Schilling, who joined the team just for this season since retiring after 41 years with Half Hollow Hills, said Hendricks was a bit nervous, adding he’s a really good thrower when he can keep calm.

“My job was not really to get him to set records, although he did, but it was more to get him to be able to compete consistently,” he said. His reputation preceded him. I knew who I was going to be able to coach this year and it was really good. He was there every day, he’s a hard worker, and he does all the things he’s supposed to be doing to get to where he is. He’s very talented.”

His team of throwers, including Dominik Oramas, Chris Perrier, Shaun DeGennaro and Kevin Murphy also helped the Bulls excel this season. Especially shot-putter Oramas, who won every dual meet and just missed going to states. The group never lost a meet, according to Schilling, and didn’t give up more than 10 points total the entire season, when throwers can garner a total of 18 points at each meet.

Claxton also finished first in all but one meet this season. According to high jump coach Kurt Margraf, new plyometric training was introduced to help him reach his goal of seven feet.

“When he hits for higher heights, you have to get your hips up at a certain points and kick your legs over,” Margraf said. “Your head has to be positioned in a certain way and your shins have to hit your chest at a certain point. It’s really technical.”

Although he didn’t reach 7 feet, he reached 6 feet and 11 inches this season, to break his own school record. He finished the state meet with a 6-foot-8 mark, so while Margraf said he may be a little disappointed knowing he could do better, he’s adapted well to his new training and he’s focused on continuing to strive for greater success.

“He was that determined back in his freshman year, when he wanted to reach 6 feet and ended up with a 6 foot-4 mark during the state tournament,” the coach said. “And it’s carried over without a doubt. He’s still determined, and that’s huge. He’s focused on getting the higher heights.”

Claxton is hoping to reach his target his senior season, and said his coaches have been providing him with ways to strengthen his body and mind to do it.

“It’s an honor to see my hard work pay off,” he said. “I will continue to strive for goals — ones I have set, others I haven’t set yet, and others I will try to break. The sky’s the limit.”

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Daniel Claxton leaps over the high-jump bar for Smithtown East. Photo from Daniel Claxton

As Daniel Claxton looked around his room, his eyes locked on something he said means most to him: a “most outstanding athlete” award.

The honor, selected and handed out by the Suffolk County coaches, is given to an athlete who excels in the sport or possesses great sportsmanship.

Daniel Claxton and his father Bill pose for a photo with his Most Outstanding Athlete Award. Photo from Daniel Claxton
Daniel Claxton and his father Bill pose for a photo with his Most Outstanding Athlete Award. Photo from Daniel Claxton

The junior high jumper for Smithtown East first stepped foot on a track and field arena in seventh grade. Having an amazing day at a middle school meet in eighth grade, Claxton said his older brother William, who was on the varsity team, came up to him with a Bulls T-shirt.

“I told him I wasn’t on the high school team, but he told me his coach said I qualified to be on it, and wanted to give me the shirt as a ‘see you next year’ kind of thing,” Daniel Claxton said. “From that moment I thought to myself, ‘there’s no way I’m going to stop doing this.’”

When Daniel Claxton first started jumping, he reached 5’1’’ and, now, has reached a personal best of 6’10’’ and said he hopes to break the seven-foot barrier in the near future.

One of his most memorable moments of his high school career to date, though, was when he jumped 6’3’’ at the state meet qualifier as a freshman.

“Everything went perfect — I got it first try,” he said. “I heard my parents screaming for me and only one other kid ended up making that height. I got knocked out the next round, but my coach told me I still might make it to states. Everyone was sitting with me and I was shaking, and my coach, who is a foot-and-a-half shorter than me, kicked my backside and handed me my plaque. That was such a great day I’ll never forget.”

Earning All-State as a freshman, after coming in fifth place, was just the first of many accolades Claxton would garner. Each season, he’s earned All-League, All-Division, All-County and All-State nods. Each year, he’s improved his height as a result of rigorous training, despite head coach Kathie Borbet not needing to coach him.

Daniel Claxton stands atop the podium at the Eddy Games in Schenectady. Photo from Daniel Claxton
Daniel Claxton stands atop the podium at the Eddy Games in Schenectady. Photo from Daniel Claxton

We’re basically there for more moral and emotional support, because he’s such a natural athlete that when he came into varsity track he had perfect form,” she said, adding that she heard about Claxton early on from a middle school gym teacher. “He’s tremendously talented and has this great concentration.”

That focus and drive took him all the way to states again, his sophomore year, where he placed second. This season, he made it back to the finals, where he was able to avenge his loss to become a state champion.

“Ever since I knew I would be competing for this type of stuff, I’d say I’ve been taking the sport a lot more seriously,” he said. “I knew this year that I wanted it, and I needed it. My workouts were getting harder and the stakes were getting higher, and it felt great to finally win and show that not only did I deserve it because I was seeded first, but because of my work ethic and my passion for the sport.”

Since then, Claxton has also competed at the New Balance Nationals, where he garnered All-American honors.

What has helped Claxton improve his height has been his plyometric training with assistant coach Kurt Martraf.

Claxton said he does drills with three-foot, four-foot and five foot boxes, doing toe taps and step ups, and different types of vertical jumps with soft landings. Martraf said the training has been paying back dividends.

Daniel Claxton is all smiles with his state champion medals. Photo from Daniel Claxton
Daniel Claxton is all smiles with his state champion medals. Photo from Daniel Claxton

“He wouldn’t be where he is right now without those various plyometric exercises, and he’s willing to train and follow direction and take feedback and look at every aspect of his jump, and that’s another reason why he is where he is today,” he said. “He has great character. He has a good, positive attitude and he’s a well-liked athlete throughout his team.”

Which is something Claxton said he prides himself on.

“I always motivate athletes on my team to do better,” he said. “Even when I’m in other competitions … I always try to give advice. They may not take my advice, but I’m always willing to share it.”

It’s just because he loves the sport.

“Every meet I’ll go out there and realize that this sport is my life,” he said. “It’s sleeping, eating and breathing track and field ever since I was 12. I don’t know where I’d be without this sport. It means everything to me.”

And Borbet thinks he’s exactly where he needs to be.

“I’m just along for the ride and enjoying every moment of it,” she said. “He’s not out there to flaunt it — he’s a humble kid. If you’ve ever seen him jump it looks like he’s been doing this his whole life. Watching him jump is like seeing a work of art in progress.”