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Ashland's 'Firewall' heads to state

As if running what is considered to be the most physically taxing track event isn't difficult enough, competitors in Saturday's Class 5A 800-meter boys state final will also have to deal with "The Firewall" — the moniker given to Ashland's red-headed identical twin brother combination of Sam and Ben Jackson.

The Jacksons will enter Hayward Field in Eugene with two of the top four 800 qualifying marks in the state and are a serious threat to place first and second after doing just that last week at the District 1 meet in Bend. In fact, their personal records rank first (Sam) and second (Ben), and like everybody else they fully expect to go even lower at Hayward.

"We want to try breaking our PRs in the last race of the season," said Sam Jackson, the favorite who already has one 800 state title under his belt after winning as a sophomore in 2010. "That's what we're both hoping for."

"I've never had a race against (Sam) saying I really want to beat him, but this will be our last race," Ben Jackson added. "Usually, it's like, 'Well, one of us is going to win and that will be fine,' but now it's kind of like, 'Well, I want to win because it's going to be our last race together.'"

The OSAA Class 4A-5A-6A track and field state championships will be held today and Saturday at the famed field in Track Town USA. The Jacksons, both seniors, will join five other Ashland Grizzlies there: Senior Ian Wurfl qualified for the boys 300 hurdles and is also a member of Ashland's third-ranked 4x400 relay team; and freshman Kelsey McKelvey qualified for the javelin.

Sam Jackson will be the firewall favorite, but not by much. After using his signature big kick to win a thrilling 800 final at state two years ago, Sam Jackson's bid to repeat last year was derailed by a nasty case of food poisoning the night before districts. Now, he's back in Eugene with the state's best PR (1:55.92) and second-best qualifying time (1:57.90).

"If it comes down to the last 200 meters and (Sam Jackson's) right there, it would be tough to be against him," Ashland distance coach Bob Julian Jr. said. "He's money with a half-lap to go."

Ben Jackson hasn't shown the same finishing prowess, but his improvement since his sophomore season has been startling. His best 800 time two years ago was 2:06.66, which he cut to 2:01.28 last year and to 1:57.25 on May 5 of this year. His 1:58.56 second-place mark at districts ranks as the fourth-best qualifying mark at state, where seven runners who have broke the 2-minute barrier will converge.

The strategy for both Jacksons will be to hang with the pack as long as possible, then break away late and use their greatest asset — pure speed — to pick off the other runners down the stretch. Can give improve their chances by working together? Probably not.

"There's not really enough time to think about teaming up," Julian said.

But a first-second twin finish is a distinct possibility. Challengers who may nix that result include Wilsonville's Grant McNeil (1:57.74 qualifying time), Sandy's Collin Bates (1:57.96) and Corvallis' Nolan Sekermestrovich (1:58.61).

"I think they have a really good shot at it [finishing first and second]," Julian said, "but if everything was on paper we wouldn't have to run the meet."

The same could be said of Ashland's 4x400 team, which includes the Jacksons, Wurfl, Franklin LimeMa, Brenton Wileman and Nick McKernan. Who will run in the prelims and finals, should they make it, remains to be seen, but Ashland is expected to contend for a top-three medal after placing third (3:24.97) in the hotly-contested District 1 meet, which produced the state's top three qualifying times.

Summit, which won the District 1 meet in 3:23.43, is the favorite, but Mountain View (3:23.87) and Ashland should make it a close race.

"We're all just really going to have to run our hardest and maybe work on our handoffs a little more," said Sam Jackson, who usually runs the anchor leg but did not at districts. "One of our handoffs [at districts] was kind of sloppy. It could use a little improvement."

Wurfl, a senior, enters state with the third-best qualifying time (40.04) behind Summit's Michael Wilson (39.64) and Silverton's Julian Canda (39.81).

McKelvey, the only freshman to qualify for the state in the javelin, is seeded ninth with a 117-foot, 7-inch toss. The favorite in that event is Sandy's Makena Schroder, who enters with a 139-2 qualifying mark.

McKelvey formerly competed in the pole vault, hurdles and high jump before taking on the javelin this season. She's proven to be a quick study, breaking 100 feet in her seventh meet of the year and placing second at districts while setting a PR.

"The moment I realized I'm going to state, I'm a freshman, butterflies went through my stomach and I just became super happy," McKelvey said.

As far as state goes, McKelvey just wants to enjoy the experience.

"I'm not too worried about placing," she said. "I'm not expecting to win, I'm not expecting to beat my PR by a landslide. I'm just going to figure out the experience. "… It's a really special place and I'm very excited."