By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
When most best friends hang out, they plan fun activities like playing video games, going to the movies or grabbing a bite to eat.
When Cullman's Matthew Huddleston, Mark Gomez, Devan Hall and Stephen McNeal get together, though, they like to run — and they're pretty good at it, too.
The crowd on hand at the Birmingham Crossplex for the final day of the state indoor track and field championship found that out in a hurry on Saturday, as the Bearcat bunch of best friends combined for an exhilarating gold-medal run in the Class 5A boys 4x800-meter relay.
The senior foursome crushed the field with a season-best time of 8:28.45. The next closest school was Homewood almost four seconds back.
“We're all best friends,” an elated Huddleston said shortly after the victory. “We all hang out with each other. This is what we do as friends.”
Huddleston was the boy who put the title performance in motion, sprinting to the front of the pack on his third of four laps as the team's first runner. Cullman and Homewood were practically dead even when he handed the baton off to Gomez, who had one goal in mind for the second leg — give Hall and McNeal more distance to work with.
He proceeded to do just that, quickly pulling out to a comfortable lead that Hall only farther extended when it was his turn to carry the load.
“I just wanted to pull away from Homewood and let Stephen go to work,” Hall said.
And work McNeal did, widening the distance between him and the pack so that there was never a chance any team other than the Bearcats would be standing at the top of the podium.
Huddleston, Gomez and Hall soaked in the fact they were state champions as McNeal crossed the finish line and bee-lined to the fence nearby to catch his breath.
“I was just trying to run as fast as I could,” McNeal said. “I had no idea how far they were behind me. It was awesome.”
Huddleston, Gomez and McNeal have competed together in the 4x800 relay since their sophomore years, while Hall, who Huddleston referred to as a “great new member,” hopped aboard just this season.
Cullman coach Trent Dean distinctly remembers the quartet talking about this specific race since early on in the cross country season this past fall.
“That's really not something that culminated this past year,” the coach said. “That group of guys has been together for a long time. This is something that they obviously think about a lot, so to come out, lay it down and get exactly what they've been working for, that's special.”
Gomez and Hall were also hard at work earlier in the day, finishing fourth (4:40.56) and seventh (4:46.90), respectively, in the 1,600-meter run.
Gomez came just a half-second short of wrapping another medal around his neck. The senior grabbed bronze in the 3,200-meter run on Friday.
The Black and Gold boys wound up tied for seventh as a team in the 5A boys division, which Hall and Co. were ecstatic about considering the Bearcats had never really been a contender before at this particular meet. Cullman's 38 points were only 10 behind Scottsboro in third.
“It feels good to see some progress,” Hall said. “We've been training really, really hard for this. It pays off.”
Tyler Boland went home with a state championship on the opening day of the competition and nearly walked away with another on Day 2.
Not much more than 24 hours after cruising to the crown in the 1A-4A triple jump, the Vinemont track star posted an identical 20'8.75” distance as St. Clair County's Josh Hardrick in the long jump. That left the top spot to be settled by the duo's second-best jumps, giving Hardrick the edge at 20'8” compared to Boland's mark of 20'3.5”.
Acquiring gold and silver medals wasn't exactly Boland's idea of a bad weekend, though, especially considering the way he was pushed all the way through the finals in his last competition.
The Eagle concluded the preliminaries with the lead but quickly lost it when Hardrick had his second-best flight on his fourth of six attempts. Boland responded, however, with a personal record on his fifth jump, only for Hardrick to match it and grab the gold for himself.
“In my head, I just couldn't lose,” Boland said of what pushed him to reach for his best on his second-to-last attempt. “It wasn't one of those one-and-done things. I had to keep going.”
Trey Guthery put an exclamation point on an impressive outing for Vinemont, taking fourth in the high jump (5'4”) and 13th in the long jump (17'2.5”).
With a pair of silvers from Friday's 1A-4A 800- and 3,200-meter runs already to his credit, St. Bernard's Will Faulk added another on the closing day with a time of 4:36.48 in the 1,600-meter run.
Cold Springs' Kramer Crider won his section of the same race with a time of 4:54.80 and landed in 11th once the third heat exited the course. Eagle coach Clay Campbell couldn't have been prouder to see the freshman finish the mile in under five minutes at such an early stage in his prep career.
“We've had some great runners at Cold Springs, but he's following in some good footsteps,” the coach said of Crider. “We were shooting for this today, and he responded.”
Cullman standout Emma Doss put the perfect finishing touches on a successful day in the finals of the 5A girls 60-meter hurdles. The senior had the fourth-best time in preliminaries one day prior but picked off another competitor in the championship race with a personal-best time of 10.55 to earn a coveted spot on the podium.
“I was nervous, but I worked hard, so it feels really good,” Doss said between breaths following the triumph.
As the speedster's coach, Dean watched Doss improve her times each and every week throughout the season.
“We knew going into the season that Emma was going to be a stalwart for us in the hurdles,” the Bearcat coach said. “To come out today here in the state finals, I'm really not surprised she scored points for us, but to get on the podium is just a little bit extra. It was amazing to see her do that.”
Doss hopped, skipped and jumped to eighth (30'11.5”) in the triple jump earlier on Saturday, while fellow Cullman hurdler Julia Masters also came through with her best result (10:82) in a seventh-place finish in the 60-meter race.
Other notable Day 2 results from The Times' coverage area are as follows: Kelsey Wren, Cullman, eighth in the 5A high jump, 4'6”; Hillary Crider, Cullman, 11th in the 1,600-meter run, 6:09.12; Logan Ayers, St. Bernard, 13th in the 1A-4A 1,600-meter run, 5:55.85; Jeremy Odom, Cullman, 13th in the triple jump, 34'8”; Michael Bentley, Cullman, 14th in the triple jump, 34'7.5”; Marisa Franklin, Cullman, 14th in the 1,600-meter run, 6:17.74; and Ayleana Mami, St. Bernard, 15th in the 1,600-meter run, 5:57.72.
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at email@example.com.