From left, St. Mary's Harrison Leep, Joe Delgado, Noah Kotler and Jeff Reeder make up the 4x400 relay team, which owns the state's top 2A time. - Jamie Lusch

Coming into their own

Joe Delgado knows what people are thinking when it comes to him and his 4x400-meter relay peers at St. Mary's High, and it's not usually flattering.

"When you see us, we're not that intimidating," admits the senior, who's the biggest of the bunch at 6-foot-1, 165 pounds. "It's really funny, we're just a bunch of really skinny kids."

It's become so commonplace to dismiss the group, especially at big meets, that the boys often get overlooked. Most recently during the 44-team Grants Pass Rotary Invitational Track and Field Meet, Delgado and his teammates got another taste of that when they were approached with a question.

"We were walking around and these guys asked us, 'Do you know who won the 4x400?'" recalls Delgado. "And we said, 'Yeah, we did,' and they just laughed and said, 'Are you serious?'"

Such is the life of the Crusaders boys' long relay squad. But whether they meet your ideal visual isn't nearly as important as the results generated, and those are as rock solid as any in the state.

St. Mary's enters this weekend's Class 2A state meet with a top-seeded time of 3 minutes, 27.90 seconds. That mark was secured at the Grants Pass meet by Delgado, Jeff Reeder, Noah Kotler and Harrison Leep, and served notice statewide that the Crusaders are to be taken serious.

In that meet, St. Mary's outshined long relay teams from 6A South Medford (3:28.40) and 5A Crater (3:28.50), as well as Klamath Union, North Medford and South Eugene.

"It was kind of nice to see that, when faced with potentially getting beat by bigger teams, we responded to that," says St. Mary's head coach Joe Volk. "We really shouldn't have beaten some of those teams that we faced in Grants Pass on paper. It was a nice thing to go out and compete with people who are supposed to be better than you. That gave those guys a boost of confidence and shot in the arm."

So much so, in fact, that the Crusader boys will be vying for a little history in Monmouth when they take to the track Friday and Saturday at Western Oregon University.

"They've come along really well in the last couple weeks to a point now where they are threatening to break a long-standing school record in the 4x400," adds Volk. "It's pretty exciting."

That record not only goes for the school, it's for the 2A state meet itself. The St. Mary's quartet of Bob Holt, Kevin Sullivan, Jeff Wiltsey and Mike Wisnovsky sprinted to a finish of 3:25.97 in 1985.

"We've started getting close to state and school record time and that's been really cool," says Delgado, who also boasts the state's third-best 2A time in the 800 at 2:03.35. "It's been within the last few weeks we realized that's within our grasp because everyone's just improving so much."

Delgado, Reeder and Leep were part of last year's 1,600 relay that placed third at the state meet, so the notion of challenging for a state title wasn't far-fetched entering this season. Still, the group has tended to exceed even the loftiest of expectations at every turn.

As the best pure sprinter of the group, Reeder gets things off to a good start thanks to his experience in the blocks and pure speed. The 5-7 senior's time of 51.24 in the 400 ranks third at the 2A level.

"He was kind of the go-to guy from the beginning," says Volk.

The 5-10 Kotler is typically given a lead to play with after that, and Volk says the sophomore has been solid at making a break with the three-turn stagger to hold off his opponents.

Delgado then provides an unconventional third leg.

"Typically a third leg is often a weaker leg and sometimes you bury your weakest runner there," says Volk, "but what we like to do with Joe, because of his half-mile experience, is use his incredible strength and experience to set up Harrison."

And when that final baton pass is made, there isn't anyone the Crusaders have more faith in than the sophomore Leep. He's turned in split times under 50 seconds in his last few meets, including in the aforementioned GP meet when he held off South Medford's Josh Milhollin down the stretch with a 49.8 split.

"We were just kinda like, 'Wow, that's amazing,' when he did that," says Volk of Leep's emergence. "He's one that runs well against competitors so having him anchor was a nice choice because if there's somebody to catch or somebody to hold off, Harrison's going to do it. He's not going to yield to anybody."

Delgado credits Leep's increased desire to improve on the track as a main reason the long relay is in the position it's in. For his part, Leep has been pretty blown away by what he and the group have accomplished in recent weeks.

"I'm like extremely shocked because I definitely didn't think I'd run sub-50s and we'd be beating Crater and South Medford and all the 6A and 5A teams we've gone against," says the 5-8, 130-pounder.

Something that should be shouted from the rooftops, however, often is silenced thanks to equally dominating efforts by the Crusader girls. St. Mary's High has enjoyed an enormous amount of female talent roaming through its hallways the past few years, culminating in state titles in cross country and track and reaching out to sports like basketball, soccer, volleyball and softball.

In the Rotary Invitational, the St. Mary's girls 4x400 relay team of Morgan Martin, Mackenzie Krieser, Abby Steinsiek and Sarah Bennion torched the field with a 4:01.90 to finish six seconds ahead of its nearest competitor.

"The boys have competed for so many years in the shadow of a successful girls team," admits Volk. "The last couple years we've just had a lot of outstanding girls coming through. The boys, I think, respect that and they see the hard work and effort that the girls have put forth to get to that point. They'd like to get their own board up on the wall (of state champions in the St. Mary's gymnasium) with their names on it just like the girls."

That's definitely the ultimate goal, according to Delgado, who insists there's nothing but support between the Crusader boys and girls.

"They're incredible," Delgado says of the St. Mary's girls. "There's not a lot more you can say on that. They've been dominating for the past few years and this time we're actually getting the chance to possibly dominate, so that would be cool for us to do that as well."

The girls return the bulk of last year's squad that tied a 2A meet record in winning their first state title with 95 points. The Crusaders won six of the meet's 17 events to beat Nestucca by 30 points, and will have 12 athletes in 15 events this time around.

"They're looking pretty good," says Volk.

The boys boast 12 competitors in 11 events, with first-place seeds in the short and long relays and from senior pole vaulter Sean Igelman. St. Mary's placed sixth last year and the boys last earned a state trophy with a third-place finish in 2007. That year, the 4x400 relay team of Dash Hillgartner, David Delgado, Michael Seus and Max Miller won in 3:26.64 to finish one second shy of the school record.

The Class 3A and 1A meets also will take place Friday and Saturday in Monmouth, with Rogue River senior Cole Watson capping his remarkable run in high school by taking on the state records in the 1,500 and 3,000. Watson won the 400, 800 and 1,500 last year to lead the Chieftain boys to a fifth-place showing.

The Cascade Christian boys placed fourth a year ago and feature the No. 2-seeded 4x100 relay team of Tyler Stickler, Joshua Muswieck, Jordan Brown and Brandon Grissom (44.64).

At the 1A level, Butte Falls senior Chase Ellis will be vying for a state title in the 200. He's seeded second at 23.05, just three-hundredths of a second behind Life Christian's Jordan Baeza. Ellis placed third in the 100 and fifth in the 200 and 400 last year for the Loggers.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or e-mail

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