Tigers' eyes on the prize

Young Hayden runners confident heading to state meet

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All season, Jesse Drennan, Tyson Letlow, Kenny Gehrman and Evan Hilling have known they would be racing in this weekend's Class 2A State Track Meet in Pueblo.

The quartet pre-qualified in the 400-meter relay early in the season. Hilling pre-qualified in the 100 and 200 meters early on, as well.

But something was missing. The season didn't feel right. They wanted another teammate to join them. They wanted Lauren Branstetter to come along.

"They pushed me all season," Branstetter said. "I had to qualify somehow. They wanted me to come. They said they didn't want it to be all boys, so that was nice."

In Saturday's regional event finals, Branstetter pulled through, taking third in the 400 meters and second in the 200. The top three place-winners advanced to state.

Branstetter heads to Dutch Clark Stadium as one of the top sprinters in Class 2A, but she has gotten more than enough looks at one of the favorites to win both the 200 and 400 crowns -- Vail Christian's Leslie Peterson.

"My best time of the season was at the league meet, and I chased Leslie the entire way," Branstetter said. "My goal was to stay a certain distance behind her, and that pushed me to stay with her."

Branstetter, a three-time state qualifier, ran a sub-62 second 400 for the first time all season at the May 8 meet, so she knows she is capable of putting up good times. She will likely have to finish the 400 in 61 seconds or less to advance to the finals.

"I'm right in there somewhere," she said.

While Branstetter has hopes of placing in her two events, Hilling would be disappointed if he didn't finish among the top eight in the 100 and 200 meters.

Like Branstetter, Hilling got a good look at the possible state champion in the 100 and 200 meters at the regional meet in Grand Junction during the weekend. Telluride's Kevin Ludwig and Soroco's Andy deGanahl are two of the favorites; both beat Hilling in the regional finals Saturday.

"I'm going to do as best as I can," Hilling said. "If I chase Ludwig, I might get him. I've been getting closer and closer to Andy every meet."

Hilling and his 400-meter-relay teammates aren't shy about sharing their goals for that event. Hayden heads to state having run a 44.90 in the regional final, one of the fastest times in 2A this season, but coach Kevin Kleckler doesn't send the team's times to Front Range newspapers.

"I like coming as the underdog," Drennan said.

But Gehrman admits it would be a shock if the Tigers, with one sophomore and three juniors, didn't place, considering they are expecting a No. 2 seed in the preliminaries based on times. Telluride, which has developed a rivalry with Hayden, will likely grab the top seed.

"We are the youngest, or one of the youngest teams, to have done as well as we've done," Kleckler said of the 400-meter relay team. "They have nothing to lose, really. At state you have to run for broke. If they don't get the championship this year, there is always next year."

The boys would prefer to just do it now and break the school record in the process. The quartet of Kevin Miller, Jacques Denker, Glenn Frentress and Derek Stephenson ran a 44.16 en route to winning the 2002 state title in the 400-meter relay for Hayden.

Hilling was just a freshman when the boys won both the 400 and 800-meter relay titles. "I never thought we could put together a team that compared to that," Hilling said after the regional meet on Saturday.

But Kleckler said all five of his athletes going to state have certainly earned the right to be in Pueblo this weekend.

"They have worked extremely hard all season long," Kleckler said. "These athletes that we are taking represent the hard work and dedication it takes."

-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208 or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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