After the warmest, driest week of the year, dark clouds and heavy rain moved in for the annual Panther Invite at Fishback Stadium on Friday, April 27.
Track and field athletes from eight area schools bundled up and huddled to stay as warm and dry as possible throughout the afternoon showers.
But even thunderstorms couldn’t dampen the excitement swirling around the Washougal track and field program. The Washougal boys are undefeated this season and the girls team has only lost one meet to its top rival, Columbia River.
Dave Hajek, head coach for both the boys and girls teams, attributes much of the Panthers’ success this season to a long-term effort to attract athletes from other sports. “Coaches in other sports have done a tremendous job of talking to their athletes about how track and field can make them better athletes,” Hajek said.
The boys track and field team has long attracted football players looking to become faster and stronger. Not much of a surprise, considering that Hajek also is Washougal’s head football coach.
“Our sell (is) come out for track, and it flat out makes you a better athlete because you are constantly working on speed and strength,” Hajek said.
Hajek’s theory seems to hold steady after a quick examination of his double-sport athletes. Running back Kade Coons, who will play football for Portland State University in the fall, has been dominating the competition in the long jump this season. State champion wrestler Tanner Lees is one of the top pole vaulters in the league — he vaulted over a 13-foot bar to win the Panther Invite.
On the girls’ side, several members of the state tournament girls basketball team have joined track and field this season. Point guard Kiara Cross quickly became one of the team’s top sprinters, finishing the Panther Invite in second place in both the 100-meter and 200-meter events.
However, for many Washougal athletes, track and field will always be the only sport that matters. Junior Kiersten De La Rocha went to state in the discus last season and this year she hopes to return and make it to the finals. She also throws the shot put — an event that proved challenging in the rainy weather at the Invite.
“This is it for me,” De La Rocha said of track and field. “I train for no other sports. I think it would be very cool to throw for a college someday.”
Panthers outdistance the competition
The Panthers distance program has, for many years, impressed distance coach Terry Howard. But this year, he says, feels extra special.
“In my 30 years of coaching our boys team, this is the best, the most well-rounded team I’ve ever been a part of,” Howard said.
Troy-Prince-Butterfield has been winning in the 800-meter and 1,600-meter events.
“I play on the basketball team and worked on distance training, but now my weight and speed programs in track are starting to pay off,” Butterfield said.
Gabriel Dinnel placed seventh last year in state in the 3,200 meters. Team USA recently selected Dinnel to represent the U.S. at an international trail-running event in Italy next summer.
Dinnel lives in the Columbia River Gorge, where he grew up running the steep trails near his home. His father, Eric Dinnel, was on the best cross country team in the history of Washougal High School.
“I was really shocked and floored when I found out I was selected,” Dinnel said of the Team USA selection. “Hopefully, it will get me in even better shape for my senior year and (for) a great cross country season in the fall.”
Coy Chaston, a former Washougal soccer player, is now a Panther distance runner.
“He’s a first-year athlete (who’s) really been excelling in the middle distances,” Howard said of Chaston. “He even made our 4×100 meter relay team, so he can sprint, too.”
That relay team won first place at the Panther Invite.
On the girls’ side, distance runner Amelia Pullen is having an outstanding season. She won both the 1,600 meters and 3,200 meters at the Washougal event, something she’s been doing all year.
“She has some of the best times in the entire state and has a good shot at winning,” Howard said.
Pullen said some of the credit really needs to go to her faithful labrador, named Sienna.
“I go on weekend runs with her and she is much better than I am,” Pullen said of her pet dog. “She keeps me going.”
Other standouts at the Panther Invite included Gracie Dolan, who was first in the long jump; Kiki Kallie, who won the 110 meters hurdles; Caden Lowman, who won the 800 meters; and Nathan Tofell, who was first in the javelin and had a personal-best performance.