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Cougle, Walker guide St. Mary’s into 3A state meet

From the very beginning of the 2022 high school track and field season, St. Mary’s seniors Gavin Cougle and Mackenzie Walker have been the ones that those in Class 3A have been trying to chase down.

They’ve certainly tried.

Actually making it happen has been another matter.

Cougle, the Crusaders’ standout sprinter, and Walker, one of the top pole vaulters in the state regardless of classification, enter this week’s 3A state meet — set today and Friday at Hayward Field in Eugene — with eyes on making the most out of their final steps in a track season that has provided plenty of positive moments so far.

“I think, for me since it’s my senior year, it’s more about just enjoying the moment,” said Walker. “I’m going to be in amazing facilities with my teammates, so I just want to make some good memories.”

The two leading Crusaders certainly have set the bar high during their respective senior seasons.

They are both school record holders in their best events. Cougle holds the top time in 3A in the 100-meter dash (10.74) and 200 (21.84), while Walker is second in the state regardless of classification at 12 feet, 5 inches in the pole vault.

And when one sees what the other is doing, the mutual respect is certainly palpable.

“First off, her drive is beyond anybody I know and her ability to put her head down and get to work is something that’s quite unmatched,” said Cougle of Walker. “I think the one big thing that sets her apart is this notion that she understands what it takes to get to the next level and the sacrifices you need to make, whether that’s in the classroom or in athletics. That’s the one big thing that sets her apart from the rest.”

Game recognize game, right?

“His competition mentality is something that I strive for,” said Walker of Cougle, who transferred to St. Mary’s from Grants Pass for his senior year. “He knows how to get to that focused headspace where he can be in his own world and run his own race. That’s been really impressive to see these last few months.”

The duo, along with St. Mary’s state champion swimmer Asa Frisbee, started what they hope will be an exciting week by making their college choices official, as Cougle signed with Butler University and Walker signed with Washington University in St. Louis.

Frisbee, who won three state titles this past winter, signed with Cal Baptist University.

Now full focus is on the trip to Hayward.

Longtime St. Mary’s coach Joe Volk is optimistic that Cougle and Walker can be the next names added to the lengthy list of state champions he’s coached over the last 3 1/2 decades with the Crusaders.

“At state, it will be a real shining star time and give Gavin the chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor,” said Volk. “Mackenzie’s been the top 3A vaulter since last year. She’s learned the sport in a very quick amount of time. It’s been a real delight to watch a kid who’s such a nice person take ownership of that and be that role model and example for girls coming up who come watch her jump.”

Cougle will be arguably the busiest St. Mary’s athlete in Eugene, running the 100, 200 and anchoring the Crusaders’ 4x400 relay team that captured a district title this past weekend.

Cougle put himself on the map in his first two runnings of the 100 this spring, finishing second behind South Medford’s Andrew Walker and then North Medford’s Nathan Rider. In those two races, Cougle posted times of 10.99 and his school-record 10.74 in finishing behind his fellow Medford sprinters.

“I think it passed all of my expectations,” said Cougle of breaking the school record in that kind of fashion at the Medford Rotary Relays on April 2. “I came into the season thinking I was going to run real fast, but that time just came out of nowhere and I think it was a surprise to me as well as everyone else.”

He set the bar high, and that hasn’t always been easy to replicate when he takes to the track.

“It’s been tough,” said Cougle. “I’ve struggled a little bit with injury, coming out of it every now and again. Hopefully state is something that I can get a piece of and hopefully be healthy coming into the meet and hopefully run even faster times and show no matter if it’s 1A, 2A, 3A, 4A, 5A or 6A — it doesn’t matter wherever you are — you can still run fast times.”

Cougle enters the state meet as the only sprinter in 3A to post a sub-11.00 in the 100 and go sub-22.60 in the 200.

“He’s come in pretty under-raced and just gotten a few spots here and there,” said Volk of Cougle. “I think his development as a sprinter bodes well for this coming week in that he’s ready to run fast and he’s going to be in the Carnegie Hall of track and field, so he’s got a great opportunity.”

Walker’s development as a pole vaulter has been quick and impressive, said Volk.

Thanks to her background in gymnastics, Walker — who first specialized in hurdles and relays at St. Mary’s during the Crusaders’ title-winning season in 2019 — took up the pole vault the summer after her freshman year of high school.

“I needed a new outlet and I missed that feeling of flying,” said Walker. “You can really only get that with a few sports. Once I got into it, it gave me the air awareness, it gave me the work ethic and I just needed the coaches to help support me.”

With no season in 2020 due to the pandemic, Walker was forced to wait until last spring to attempt the pole vault for the first time at a competitive meet.

She had a rough start during the COVID-shortened spring season 12 months ago, but it ended with her winning the title in the pole vault at the Class 3A culminating week meet.

Walker is the only girls pole vaulter in 3A to record a mark above 10 feet this season. She set the school-record mark of 12-5 on April 26, the week after she was unable to clear any heights at the Oregon Relays at Hayward Field.

Walker will also be competing in the 400 as well as the 300 hurdles. Walker’s time of 48.92 in the 300 hurdles ranks third in Class 3A and her time in the 400 (1:02.41) is seventh, with both being set at last weekend’s district meet.

“I’m excited to go back to Hayward and perhaps have a better meet there than my last appearance there,” she said.

Added Volk: “Knowing Mackenzie as a student, as a person, as a track athlete, I’m not surprised by her success. But it’s so exciting to see how well she’s done with it. The neat thing is she’s going to go on to college and continue at a level that I think is going to be pretty exciting for her in the future.”

Also headlining the Crusaders’ contingent at state this week will be district champs Cody Arnold (boys 3,000), Kyan Hidde (boys shot put), Sidney DeBoer (girls triple jump) and Kelsey Dunn (girls discus).

DeBoer will also run in the 100 and 200, while Dunn is also competing in the shot put and Emma Johnston and T.J. Flowers are in the girls and boys triple jump, respectively.

Cascade Christian’s Jake Sorani, who won a pair of district titles, will lead the Challengers into the state meet and will be one of the favorites in the boys 800 and 1,500. Autumn Murray and Sierra Samhammer will both compete in the girls 100, 300 hurdles and long jump, as well as run on the Challengers’ 4x100 relay team.

Two other Challengers, Matthew Moses (shot put) and Saige Griffin (3,000) will also be in Eugene, while the Challengers will also send their 4x400 relay team.

At the 2A level, Rogue River sprinters James Jones and Susan Smith earned automatic qualifiers in the boys 100 and the girls 200, respectively, after second-place finishes at districts last weekend. Same goes for high jumper Nova McWillie and long jumper Ayrica Hansen.

Rogue River will also have a team participating in both of the 4x100 relays.

Reach reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneSt. Mary's sprinter Gavin Cougle and pole vaulter Mackenzie Walker will be ones to watch at this week's Class 3A state meet in Eugene.