Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
There is little to support the notion that high school senior Blake Spencer sat through a middle school social studies class as a motivational tactic for track and field's postseason.
True, the lesson plan that day was about General Sherman's "March to the Sea."
And Spencer, a North Medford middle-distance standout, has a running style that is as subtle as a tank barreling down main street. His warrior mentality sometimes prompts a dive across the finish line, a win-at-all-cost measure you like in those on the front line. Or at the finish line.
"He's been bloodied in more races than any kid we've had," says his coach, Piet Voskes, who also happens to be the Hedrick Middle School teacher whose class Spencer visited Tuesday.
But Spencer wasn't there to get psyched up. After completing a 31/2-hour advanced-placement exam, he went to Hedrick to meet with Voskes, his senior-project mentor. The two collaborated on the Longest Night Mile, and there was paperwork to take care of.
Rather than wait until after class, Spencer sat through an hour of Civil War discussion about Sherman's war tactics. He also interacted with kids who are ticketed for the Black Tornado cross country and track programs and, ultimately, learned a little.
"I really do like learning, I guess, as odd as that sounds," says Spencer.
He has long enjoyed Voskes' delivery as a coach and was curious to see him in action as a teacher.
It was a rarity for Voskes, who was further impressed when he received a text from Spencer at 10:30 that night containing links to Civil War online sites he thought the kids might like.
"He's unique," says Voskes, "the type of kid you're going to miss when he's gone. He's a student at everything he does. That speaks volumes about him, more than what he does on the track."
What Spencer does on the track isn't too shabby, either. He has the third best time in Class 6A for 800 meters and is taking aim at Stetson Smith's school record. Smith's standard of 1 minute, 53.09 seconds came as he captured the state championship two years ago.
Spencer, whose competition schedule has, by design, been light this season so he could train harder, has hit 1:54.77.
In preliminaries Thursday at the Southwest Conference championships in Roseburg, Spencer cruised into Saturday's finals with a time of 2:00.03, finishing as one of the top two in his qualifying heat. He'll advance to state if places in the top two or meets the automatic qualifying time.
Voskes, noting that Spencer has looked as good in practice this week as he has all year, believes something in the 1:52s is feasible.
If he gets it, it might come with a dive at the finish.
Spencer used to participate in a number of sports. In the eighth grade at Hedrick, it was football, basketball, wrestling, track and club soccer. He continued to run and wrestle through his sophomore year at North Medford, a combination that apparently is not easily separated.
There is a grittiness about Spencer reminiscent of Smith and another recent Black Tornado state champion, Drew Jordan.
"He embodies what we want," says Voskes, "physical, offensive runners. He'll bust through a wall to get it done. Blake has that wrestling mindset that he brings to track and field. Sometimes it's misconstrued as being overly physical, but there's nothing malicious in anything that kid does. He's just a tough kid who will do anything to get the job done."
Voskes remembers three times when Spencer crashed and burned trying to win a race.
The most recent was at the Meet of Champions in April in Sacramento, Calif., when he accomplished his personal best. With 100 meters to go, he had one person ahead of him.
"I made a strong move on the outside, and he was definitely a strong runner himself," says Spencer. "I knew it was going to be close at the finish line."
Spencer lunged at the finish line — "I guess I leaned too far," he says — and went down in a heap. There was a little blood, but he won by 3/100ths of a second.
"The immediate pain of falling isn't anything compared to the feeling you get from success," says Spencer.
Spencer's competitive nature showed itself early. In elementary school, he always enjoyed the year-end mile race for the kids. In middle school, there was the H Run, a tour around Hedrick's campus that measures half a mile.
"Every week, I made sure I won," says Spencer.
It was, he reasons, a makeshift introduction to the 800.
Spencer never considered running cross country in high school, but Voskes, his eighth-grade basketball coach, saw qualities on the court he thought would translate to running. Specifically, Spencer always hustled back to play defense and tirelessly ran the floor.
When Voskes recruited him and used the word "family" to describe the team, Spencer was hooked.
Last spring as a junior, he was second in the 800 at district and advanced to state. During the season, he competed in all but one meet and consistently ran the 800, 1,500 and a leg on the 4x400 relay.
A bout of bronchitis hit him before district and hampered him at state. He just missed making the 800 finals and placed 12th overall with a time more than three seconds slower than his PR.
His experience then and last fall with cross country — in which he was ninth at state — boosted his racing acumen. So coach and runner elected to craft a schedule that included only a few big meets.
Spencer has run the 800 only three times. He would have done a fourth but was ill the week of the Grants Pass Rotary Invitational.
"We reduced his volume quite a bit with the idea he's pretty race savvy at this point in his career," says Voskes. "He adapts well, he anticipates well, meaning he realizes when a race is going to break and what he needs to do to respond."
That's half the battle. Being fit enough to answer the challenge is also important.
In lieu of races, Spencer has concentrated on training. Included were Monday "callusing" sessions, designed to toughen the track athletes. After a warm-up run of 5 to 7 miles, the real workout began and almost always involved hills.
"After a few of them, I don't think he (Spencer) wanted to repeat my name," Voskes laughs.
But Spencer embraced the work. It's hard running fast, he says, and it's hard running uphill. Put them together and it's the quickest route to aerobic fitness.
"I saw a lot of improvement," says Spencer. "I was able to start in February running the same time I did last year at my peak, so it was nice to have that fitness going into the season."
Entering Thursday, Spencer trailed top-ranked Alec Smith of Westview by less than two seconds and Joshua Kellebrew of David Douglas by a half-second.
The former keeps a potential state championship in perspective. He'd dearly love to win it, of course.
But, says Spencer, "I've been successful. I'm not going to look back on my days of high school with shame if I don't achieve that."
"This isn't what I'm planning to be or the top of my career," he adds, noting that he'll walk on and run for Brigham Young University. "This is a stepping stone for what I can do later because I know there's still a lot left in me."
Suffice to say, he will march on.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email firstname.lastname@example.org