FEATURE Central Pieces Together the Right Relay to Win State


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CLOVIS -- Enjoy putting puzzles together? Maybe you fancy a game of Tic-Tac-Toe, or most appropriately, Connect Four? If so, perhaps there's a future for you as a track and field coach.

It was obvious, soon after the Fresno Central (CS) boys' 4x100 relay team captured its title in the early evening at last Saturday's CIF-State Track and Field Championships, that something was off. Visibly, it was off.

Sure, the Grizzlies earned 10 big points in the team standings, but star runner Jeremiah Walker was standing on crutches at the end of Veterans Memorial Stadium. He was in excruciating pain. The crutches cushioned him as he made his way up the exit ramp and over to the medical training table. While he was getting looked at closely with coaches and family surrounding him, one could see the look of concern on the faces of his teammates.

They wouldn't speak it, but their responses were defiant.

"It's not over yet," said Cameron Tarver, one of Central's consistent relay and sprint standouts and a newly medaled state champ. So, too, was Elijah Lindsey. "It's not over. We still have a ring to get."

To win a state title, you need everything to come together, everyone to do their best and contribute. The pieces of the puzzle are there, scattered around, and it requires finding the right fit.

By now it's obvious that Cedric Pulliam, co-head coach for Central and in charge of the relay teams, is up to the task. It was going to be his decision after the 4x100 win Saturday what would be best for the 4x400, the meet's final event. He understood that the points it afforded could be the difference in Central winning its first boys' track state team title.

The Grizzlies had come into the state meet on a high. The 4x100 relay went undefeated this season. It broke the 41-second barrier numerous times. The team of Tarver, Walker, Lindsey, and anchor Imari Conley set the Central Section record at the May 21 Masters' Meet with a sizzling 40.63 time.

Meanwhile, Central's 4x400 relay was very good, definitely best in its CIF section. It had more than enough talent to win as long as Walker, one of the state's best 400 runners, was on the anchor leg. But the state final was already going to be a chore with competition such as state-leading L.A. Cathedral and Long Beach Wilson in the mix. Winning the 4x400 relay for another crucial 10 team points would require everything the team had left.

Once Walker's health was questionable, it was a lock that Pulliam needed to act fast and formulate a plan to find the right relay combination to maximize the points Central could get in a tight state team title race.

"When Jeremiah went down after the 4x100, initially there was thought there might not be an opportunity (to win state)," Pulliam said. "But when Jeremiah got off the training table and said 'I'm ready to go, coach!' There was a feeling that if Jeremiah can go on a hurt leg and it sparks something in him, it sparks something in the rest of the team."

Walker's resilience, grit and determination took off. He returned to the track and gutted out a state title win in the 400 in 47.49 seconds for a huge 10 points. Tarver finished fifth in the 100 to add on to the team's point total. Walker ran the 200 and finished sixth, combined with Tarver's third-place finish, for nine huge points. 

"Our team didn't quit on me and I can't quit on them," Walker said. 

He wouldn't stop. As the 4x400 relay neared, he didn't stop. 

"I'm depending on my team to push me, push our team to get up there and be good because we're trying to win state. This 4x4 determines if we win state. I'm depending on my team to get up there and then what I'm going to do is slam the door on everybody. I'm going to give it my all ... and bring that championship home."

Walker was there, in the anchor spot, and with the state title on the line. Pulliam had made his decision and he did make one significant adjustment to the team. Tarver was the leadoff and Conley was second, but junior Jerome Brown was inserted into the relay. He was the strongest bridge runner between the speedy Conley and senior leader Walker.

"We had to run this combination," Pulliam said. "I knew we had to be within 15-20 meters of the anchors for Cathedral and Wilson. We felt that Jeremiah had a chance to close it if we get that 46-47-second split."

Everybody on Central's 4x400 did his part. Tarver and Conley were sharp and Brown's contribution was spot-on, giving Walker an opportunity. When the latter's natural talent took over, he went from third to just enough to push past Wilson's anchor and secure a second-place event finish. The team's 3:14.78 was only behind Cathedral's season and state best of 3:13.87.

The eight points Central earned was good enough to win the state team title by one point, 41-40, over Upland. 

"When (Walker) crossed the finish line, a range of emotions came out, I cried," Pulliam said. "There was tears of joy. I thought about all of the hard work put in, the ups and downs we've had, but the kids stayed together, worked hard and pulled it off."

Ryan Blystone is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to MileSplit

Photos by DeAnna Turner, Daniel Hernandez, Pat Rhames, and Dan Tyree