‘Finish strong’

JON BLANK | CONTRIBUTED

JON BLANK | CONTRIBUTED

Universal Pam Pack philosophy personifies its 400-meter champion

 

By DAVID CUCCHIARA

Washington Daily News

 

It was the first week of the Pam Pack’s track and field season and 13-year head coach Jon Blank was looking for a way to overcome his team’s fear of “the monster.”

Blank and his coaches decided to employ a mandatory running of the 400-meter dash – a race the team so eloquently refers to as the “monster” – at the conclusion of each practice to familiarize his runners with track’s most difficult and technically demanding spectacle.

“The 400 is not just going out and running a lap,” Blank said. “You need to know where you need to be at the 100-meter mark, the 200-meter mark, the 300-meter mark, really even the 250 mark, because that 200 to 250 stretch is probably the most crucial part of the race. Obviously the finish, that’s something that we focus on. Our team motto this season was ‘finish strong.’”

Coaches mobilized around the start line to watch all their runners – sprinters, distance runners and hurdlers – tackle what Blank calls a beast of a competition. Seconds into the dash, one runner began to separate himself from the pack, darting through the blistering cold at an uncommonly fast pace. Oddly enough, this athlete was Stefpon Rodman, a junior football and basketball player, whose track resume was limited to that one week of practice. Blank and his coaches had seen this far too many times from inexperienced 400 runners.

“When he took off, all of us coaches laughed because we knew, inevitably, what was going to happen. I said, ‘man, he’s going to die around the curve, you guys watch.’ Then … he finished,” Blank said reluctantly. “He proved us wrong. To be proved wrong and see it happen over and over and over again, that is rare.”

Rodman had never run an organized track competition before, much less compete in a high school meet. Since he was little, football has always been his favorite sport. But on that chilly, overcast March afternoon, Blank knew at that moment he had found not only his 400-meter runner for the season, but also an exceptional talent.

From that point forward, Rodman dedicated himself to shedding seconds off his time. Each day, following the final bell to signal the end of the school, the junior sprinter made his way out to the track, partitioning his workout regiment to develop specific segments of the 400.

“I don’t run the full race,” Rodman said. “I run stuff that will help me run the 400 better like the 200, 100, 300, running with sleds on my back, parachutes. Just stuff that will help me conquer each part of the race. I do it every day, except for the day before the meet.”

On March 10, the Pam Pack journeyed to North Pitt High School to take on the Panthers in the season opener. In his first NCHSAA-sanctioned 400-meter dash, Rodman edged his teammate, senior Myron Brooks, by the slimmest of margins, .05 of a second, to win the race with a time of 53.20.

From that point on, Blank’s newly found protégée never looked back. Rodman went on to win his signature race in every single meet thereafter. His personal-best time came in the final meet on the season at South Central, earning five points with an impressive time of 49.60, almost two seconds better than the second-place finisher.

“He’s won the 400 by five or 10 meters every time he’s run it,” Blank said. “We’ve been working all year long to cut time, but to cut time you need someone to push you. We kept saying well maybe this week somebody will push us, maybe this week we can set another personal record because this kid will give us a great race … it never happened.”

“I start off at a pace where I let everyone else die out because more than likely they’re going to die out,” said Rodman. “Then, my finish … I just get this burst of speed. I don’t know where it comes from.”

After recording another sub-50, first-place time at the regional meet on May 3, Washington’s newly acclaimed No. 1 runner received an invitation to compete at the Class 2-A State Championships in Greensboro. There, Rodman would have to run alongside North Carolina’s elite.

“We’ve had other kids go to the state meet in the 400 with times close to his, but I’ve never seen the finish that he has,” Blank said. “At the end of the 400, it seems like he could run another 100 meters at that pace. Where other kids are really struggling to get through that finish line, he pulls away.”

Blank watched as his undersized 400 runner lined up alongside some of the most well-conditioned athletes in the state.

“Stefpon was calm. He might have had some butterflies, but he felt good. He knew he was going to win. That was his philosophy the whole season; he just knew he was going to win.”

And that’s exactly what he did. Rodman, again, kept pace with the leader, until a burst in the final 50-60 meters propelled him to the podium. Forty-nine seconds was his time, a second better than the next closest competitor. A runner who had never touched a track prior to the season, except to access the football field, was now a state champion.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Blank said. “Typically, most of the guys he competed with at the state championship are kids who run track year round and have been doing so since middle school or earlier. In the fall, they won’t be playing football; they’ll be running club track. He’s a kid who plays three sports, walked on to track, experienced success and never failed at it. I’ve never seen it before”

Being a junior, Blank hopes to work with Rodman this offseason to become even better in 2015. With an unrelenting work ethic and desire to win, there’s no telling how far this talented athlete can go next season.

One thing won’t change, though. Rodman still considers track to be his third-favorite sport.