When the OHSAA drew up the game plan to welcome two extra runners into the state ranks by allowing fifth-place finishers from regionals whose times were better than top-four qualifiers from other regionals, they may have had Brayden Gray in mind.
Facing a rugged Div. III Perry regional that featured all kinds of great talent in the 300-meter hurdles, Gray ran fifth, which would normally relegate him to that dreaded fifth-place finish that means a runner was one spot away from a state berth.
But with the new rules in place, Gray had to watch and wait as other times from around the state’s regionals came in, and lo and behold, when the numbers were crunched, the Hiland junior had found himself one of the two runners invited to run in lane nine at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium at the state meet.
Hiland head coach Mark Fowler said the idea behind the rule played out perfectly for the OHSAA and for Gray.
“I think it worked the way it was supposed to work,” Fowler said. “Brady ran in a tough regional and was rewarded, and by filling that ninth empty lane at state, the OHSAA has brought more runners and more fans to the stadium.”
Fowler said he heard from a lot of people who said they were making the trip to Columbus to watch Gray run, people who otherwise would not have invested their time and money to do so. Therefore, economically the state has made a wise decision in expanding the field by two runners in the running events.
“With the way this thing played out, Brady should make a commercial for the benefits of what they did,” Fowler said.
Gray’s effort in the 300 hurdles at the Perry regionals was fantastic. He nearly set a PR time of 40.60 in the finals, where he almost tracked down East Canton star Joel Berger for the final spot. After the finish it was a waiting game for Gray, but a game he was more than willing to play. It turns out he took full advantage of the opportunity. Now Gray is basically playing with house money, which means he has nothing to lose.
“This is very nerve-racking because I think my time is right there in the mix for getting one of those fifth-place spots that move on to state, so I am anxious to get a chance to see the other times from around the state,” Gray said immediately after the run. “I thought I ran well, and this is a big field with a lot of really good runners, so I feel like by competing with this kind of talent I have put myself in a good place, whether I make it or not.”
Gray said he didn’t get out of the blocks well at regionals, so he knows he can do better at state. With the invitation to the big show in hand, he can now turn his full attention to the one race that he likes the best.
“I like the 300 a lot,” Gray said. “It’s my best race, and I feel pretty good about how far I’ve come in a short time.”
Fowler said the plan at state is to fire out hard and fast early and try to put pressure on the other runners, hopefully creating a panic. The 300 hurdles is one of those races in which weird things can happen, so Fowler said he can see Gray making the finals despite being a late-entry invite.
Regardless of what happens, the experience of running at state will inevitably pay off for Gray, who will enter his senior season having gotten that nerve-racking moment of a first appearance at state pushed aside.
In addition, out of the eighteen 300-meter hurdle runners at state, 14 of them are seniors who will graduate, and Gray has the second-best time of the remaining four, which leaves the door wide open for great things next season.
“I told Brady that come Sunday he will be the second-fastest guy in the 300s in Div. III,” Fowler said.
That will be fine for Gray, but for now he will focus on the here and now and see where his second chance takes him.
The rest of the Hawks’ performers at regionals didn’t fare as well as Gray, but the experience for the underclassmen was important in showing them what they have to do to get where they want to be.
One such underclassman was junior Declan Howell, who was disappointed with both his effort in the long jump, where he flew 19-01.5 to place 11th, and in the high jump, where his effort of 5-10 was sub-par and left him in 10th place. That high jump effort was especially disappointing for Howell, who qualified for regionals in the event as a sophomore too.
“I expected more,” Howell said. “But I now know what I have to do in order to go farther next year. I’ve got another shot at this, so this disappointment will only drive me harder for next year.”
Hiland’s 4-by-200 relay team also didn’t quite finish where it was hoping. The team of Gray, Evan Casey, Cordell Hershey and Jadon Miller ended up 14th in 1:36.36, a time that was a PR for them. With Casey the lone senior, it serves as good experience for the young group.