May 20—For anyone who watched Andrew Walker compete athletically from his elementary school days on up, there really was no question that he was special.
Walker just had an innate ability to break free, be it on the football field or just goofing around with his peers, and never get caught.
The split second you thought someone might have him cornered, he was gone in a flash.
But if you ask Walker these days when he first considered he may be faster than most, the answer might surprise you.
"Probably this year, honestly," said the 17-year-old sprint star. "Last year my times were OK, but there's been a big jump from last year to this year."
Always full of promise given his natural athleticism, the South Medford junior is reaping the rewards of an increase in workouts and training to enter this week's Class 6A track and field state championships as one of the main athletes to watch at Hayward Field in Eugene.
"Andrew's a guy that's put in the work," said first-year Panthers head coach David Kirkpatrick. "He's followed through and basically done everything he said he was going to do. Now here we are and he gets to reap the benefits of all that hard work and all of that consistency that he's put in since December. I'm glad that it's all panned out so well for him."
Walker's time of 21.27 seconds in the 200-meter dash at the Oregon Relays on April 23 — a meet record — put the rest of the state on notice, and his 10.70 personal record in the 100 slates him an eyelash off the best entry times for the two-day event, which kicks off Friday and concludes Saturday.
With Walker serving as the anchor leg in the 4x100 and 4x400 relays, South Medford also enters the 6A meet ranked ninth and 12th, respectively, with room to improve thanks to a lighter workload for all involved beyond Walker.
The Class 5A and 4A state meets also run Friday and Saturday, with a host of local stars from Crater, Ashland, Eagle Point and Phoenix high schools expected to highlight those events at what could be considered the mecca of track and field locations.
"It's just crazy to be up there, honestly," Walker said of competing at the renovated Hayward Field. "There's no other place like that in the world, so it's nice that it's in Oregon and we can go up there and use it. It's crazy in pictures, but in person it's even better."
The last time he was on that track, the 6-foot-1, 175-pounder blistered an elite field to win the 200 and was a close third in the 100 and short relay.
When asked about how long it took to not be overwhelmed by his environment, Walker was as honest as they come: "I don't even know if I did adjust."
This time around, Walker may be a little more grounded but will be equally as tested in all four of his events.
"The last time I had a good 200 — it's a nice curve — so I'm feeling pretty confident," he said of his favorite race.
In the 100, a familiar foe in Roseburg senior Landyn Dupper (10.67) and Central Catholic senior Xavier Simpson (10.73) will provide prime competition in a season that has also seen Walker primed by the challenges from North Medford senior Nathan Rider (10.69), who was third in the district meet and will not be running the 100 at state.
"They're all super fast and dedicated so I can't mess around this weekend," said Walker. "It should be a good time."
Walker's time in general on the track has been limited in recent years. He ran track in seventh grade at Hedrick Middle School but not as an eighth grader. His freshman year was wiped out entirely by the pandemic and last spring offered a brief taste of activity in a six-week regional season.
That's possibly why his barometer for how fast he may be was a little thrown off until this year.
"Kids fall off so I just had to wait and see what it was going to be like in high school," Walker said of his self-evaluation.
A year ago, all of his 100 times were in the 11-second range and his best 200 came during his last race at 22.04. This year, however, has been an entirely different story as Walker has been able to put it all together for the Panthers.
"The stride length, combined with the foot speed and the turnover, really makes him stand out," said Kirkpatrick. "He has really powerful legs and a really strong explosion out of the blocks as well. For his size, he has turnover that's uncommon in athletes that tall. That's kind of the recipe for his success there."
Walker has also been able to add a dash of competitive fire to provide for a blue chip blend that was born on the football field and now has him weighing options of whether he wants to play football or run track in college — if not both.
This past football season, Walker led South Medford with 26 catches for 630 yards and scored three touchdowns on offense and one on a school-record 95-yard interception return against Grants Pass.
"Football has always been my passion," said Walker, "but this year track has been really fun, so as of right now, I don't really have a favorite."
That football mentality was certainly apparent during offseason workouts.
"The thing that really stands out about Andrew — especially early in the season when we were doing a high volume of work — he can handle those workouts better than any athlete I've ever seen," said Kirkpatrick. "The repeat 200s that he was able to turn over in 24 seconds flat with 2 1/2 minutes rest? He was able to crank out eight of those and at times it was like he was getting faster as those repetitions were occurring."
Kirkpatrick said Walker has what it takes to be an NCAA-level sprinter in the 200 as well as the 400, which he has run sparingly due to a lack of team need this season.
"They never feel good, no matter how in shape you are," Walker said with a laugh of his 400 training.
What did feel good was anchoring South Medford's 4x400 relay team to victory last weekend to clinch the Southwest Conference boys team title.
"We knew it was going to be close but we didn't know it was going to come down to that last race," Walker said of the battle for SWC supremacy. "It was awesome just to do that for everyone and have everyone win along with us."
The same sort of scenario could potentially play out this weekend if all the stars align for the Panthers, who will be among the teams to watch with Central Catholic, Jesuit, Lincoln and Tualatin.
"Once you're in that top-4 range, anything can happen," said Kirkpatrick.
South Medford's last team track and field title came on the girls side in 1998 after a runner-up showing in 1997.
Providing a boost for South Medford's boys team will be senior Michael Maiorano, who ranks fourth in the state at the 6A level in the 1,500 meters (3:49.89) as well as the 3,000 (8:14.91); senior pole vaulter Hayden Powell, who has been clearing 13 feet consistently in practice; and hopeful boosts from senior Connor Singer in the 800, senior Asher Johnson in the 110 hurdles and junior Benjamin Krebs, who was a leading scorer with his versatility in the district meet but will get to focus on relay efforts.
"That 1,500 boys race might be the race of the whole state meet," said Kirkpatrick. "All of those runners are nationally ranked in their classes and all time at 3 minutes, 49 seconds. Anything can happen in that state final, it's going to be an incredible race to watch."
Besides expected assaults on potential state titles by Rider in the 200 and 400 for North Medford — the Logos Charter School senior ranks second in 6A to Walker at 21.57 in the former and is sixth in 6A in the latter (49.74) — the Black Tornado expects to get big boosts on the boys side from junior David Fuiava (discus) and sophomore Terrell Kim (shot put, discus) and its 4x400 relay team.
South Medford's girls contingent will have Katie Clevenger in the high jump and Amara Collins in the javelin, while the Black Tornado girls advanced Eleanor Nichol (800), Paije Carpenter (javelin) and Audrey Yechout (triple jump) to state.
Crater looks to be a title contender in the 5A boys meet thanks to the championship-caliber efforts from distance runners Tyrone Gorze and Josiah Tostenson in the 1,500 and 3,000 and Jeffrey Hellman in the 800, as well as versatile field abilities from Carson Le Bel (high jump, pole vault) and Gabriel Williams (discus, shot put) and jump standouts Scott Price (triple jump) and Gabriel Grant (long jump).
Gorze boasts the top 5A times in the 1,500 (3:50.31) and 3,000 (8:11.60) this season and could challenge for meet records in each event at Hayward Field.
The Comet girls expect to be led by distance runners Lindsay Siebert (1,500, 800) and Emma West (3,000, 800) as well as field event contenders Clara Bennett (high jump) and Erin Bechtold (pole vault). Freshmen Kate Harnois (300 hurdles) and Addison Dippel (200) will also be making their state debuts.
Ashland's 4x400 boys relay team holds the best 5A time in the state at 3:26.56, with Vincent Senn and Caden Negra also strong hopefuls in the open 400 and Nathan Stein a top challenger in the 1,500 and 3,000.
The Grizzlies will also be looking for big things in the boys 300 hurdles from Patrick Allan Latham, in the girls 1,500 and 3,000 from Grace Yaconelli and the girls high jump from Flannery Lundgren.
Eagle Point girls discus thrower Ana Avila and boys 200 sprinter John Shawnego will be joined by a girls 4x400 relay squad at state.
In the 4A meet, Phoenix expects to pin its medal hopes on distance runners Elwood Hosking, Sophia Stubblefield and Kyla Potratz as well as discus and shot put thrower Zyan Shull-Bain. Hosking will compete in the boys 800 and 3,000, while Stubblefield and Potratz team up in the girls 1,500 and 3,000.
Long jumpers Alan Cortez and Madelyn Mayer will be joined by pole vaulter Laurelin Jansen and triple jumper Diego Hernandez in also helping pace the Pirates.