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New Balance Nationals

Ward Melville's 4x800-meter relay team placed third at New Balance Nationals June 18. Photo from Christy Radke

Ward Melville spring track and field head coach J.P. Dion sent a text to his 4×800-meter girls relay team the day of the national race: “Believe in yourself, like I believe in you.”

The girls had shaved 15 seconds off their time and bested a school record in the process at the state-qualifying meet a few weeks earlier. Despite a letdown, falling to sixth after going in as the No. 2 seed in the state meet, the Patriots believed and pushed themselves to the limit to reverse the drop in the standings with a third-place finish at the New Balance Nationals in North Carolina June 18. Placing in the Top 6 also earned them All-American status.

“They have that fire, and they harnessed it,” Dion said. “They’re more than willing to work, and there’s big things to come here at Ward Melville with these girls.”

Ward Melville’s 4×800-meter relay team of Allyson Gaedje, Samantha Sturgess, Elizabeth Radke and Samantha Rutt following the third-place finish at New Balance Nationals June 18. Photo from Christy Radke

The quartet of soon-to-be seniors Sam Rutt, Sam Sturgess and Allyson Gaedje and will-be sophomore Elizabeth Radke started the 2017 season like any other. The four had competed in both the 4×800 and 4×400 relay, outrunning the school record for the latter in 2016. As the weeks passed, the girls weren’t sure which race would be the focus come county and state championship-time. That is, until the school record-shattering 9 minute, 1.81 second finish at the state-qualifying meet at Warwick Valley High School.

The team needed to finish second or better to be able to compete in the state championship. With anchor Gaedje, or “Gator” as her teammates call her, racing to a hard-fought finish against a top-tier competitor in Shoreham-Wading River’s Katherine Lee, she knew it’d come down to the wire.

“I always race against her, so I knew it’d be difficult, but I just wanted to do my best,” she said.

In a photo finish, Lee beat out Gaedje for second place. Despite the loss, the girls celebrated their historic run. They were competing on a Saturday, and had finished the race in 9:16.61 that previous Tuesday, less than 4/10ths of a second off the state standard of 9:17, which was needed to qualify to compete in the state meet.

“That’s when we knew we had what it takes,” Radke said.

Her teammates agreed, especially after easily surpassing the 2011 school record of 9:10.56.

“We were hoping just to get the state standard — we thought the school record was almost untouchable,” Rutt said. “It was really emotional. We went to the tent to grab our stuff and Sam [Sturgess] and Gator were hugging each other on the track, and J.P. Dion called us over and asked us why we’re crying.”

That’s when the Patriots found out Shoreham-Wading River had been disqualified following a judgment call from one of the officials. Lee had changed lanes rounding a bend, instead of taking the straight path, which officials argued forced Gaedje to run a longer distance.

“I was perfectly fine not going to states because they ran their socks off,” Dion said. “They really performed well. Just the fight in that race was good enough for me as a coach.”

Ward Melville’s 4×800-meter relay team of Allyson Gaedje, Sam Rutt, Elizabeth Radke and Sam Sturgess were crowned All-Americans for finishing in the Top 6 at New Balance Nationals. Photo by Desirée Keegan

The girls’ race game wasn’t up to par come states, and they knew that after a big letdown, they needed to believe in themselves, like Dion said, in order to pull out an All-American finish.
“After we ran a 9:01, we realized it’s time to get serious, and we can do something other than just show up,” Sturgess said. “Competing in that atmosphere gets you serious.”

As the leadoff runner, Sturgess knew she needed to set the tone.

“I had to get us off to a good start,” she said. “I wanted to be in the Top 6 to get us that All-American status. That’s what we’ve been working on and working toward. We were motivated.”

She made her way to sixth before she handed the baton off to Radke, who said she has always had a problem controlling her anxiety heading into a race.

“I was freaking out,” she said, laughing while still showing that nervousness. “I kept telling myself ‘maintain and kick, maintain and kick.’ I didn’t want to get passed, because that gets me down, so I kept my spot, and ended up moving up a couple of spots before handing off to my teammate and hoping for the best.”

Rutt was next in line, who helped move the team to fourth before passing the baton to Gaedje.

“It was a little bit of a mind game, because we had to think to states and remember how bad we did and how we needed to pick it up,” Rutt said. “It’s cool to see what you can do when you put your mind to it. It’s so mental — how far you can push your body. The way Gator races, she’s so driven. I knew that as long as I got her in a good enough spot that’d be good enough for us.”

As she crossed the finish line, Gaedje said she couldn’t believe what her Patriots had done.

“My head was a little fuzzy,” she said, laughing. “I was a little tired, my legs were burning, and it took a little while to process, but my teammates came over and hugged me. I couldn’t believe it.”

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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.”