Now, Cal Duke can strut. In high school trackdom, he has more reason than most to puff out his chest, walk with a swagger, decide if he’ll allow others an audience.
That isn’t remotely who he is, it turns out. But with a state championship under his belt and the best time, by far, in Oregon in his signature event, the 300-meter hurdles, the Crater senior could gloat. He could look disparagingly upon those who have done so to him.
“Last year,” says D.J. Bransom, who coaches the Comets’ hurdlers, “he angered other kids with how he beat them. He wore Big Baller shorts and a T-shirt that was just hanging off him. All the other kids were decked out in their streamlined gear.”
Duke doesn’t offer an imposing presence, until he races. He’s a shade under 6 feet, 145 pounds.
Imagine two years ago then, as a sophomore, how little of a threat he appeared to be when he put up times nearly 8 seconds faster than the previous year and left his coaches doing double takes.
“I was kind of like the goofy one in the race,” says Duke, “and ended up beating everybody.”
No matter how often he wins, or by how much, Duke remains true to his character. He doesn’t whoop and holler. He doesn’t announce his achievements on social media. He’s low-key, personable, respectful.
“That’s when people say, ‘Now, which one is Cal?’” says Bransom. “‘Him?’”
They will see him at center stage this weekend for the state track and field championships at Hayward Field in Eugene.
In the intermediate hurdles, Duke is among the heaviest of favorites in the Class 5A ranks. His best time this spring is 37.80 seconds — which ranks 13th all-time in the state — and no one else at his level has eclipsed 40.
The time, set in a high-powered meet in Arcadia, California, in early April, prompted an email from University of Oregon head coach Robert Johnson indicating that Duke, at the least, is on the Ducks’ radar.
Duke also is expected to provide big points and potential victory in the 110 high hurdles, as well as in the 100 and the 4x400 relay. He’s No. 2 in 5A in the highs and No. 3 in the 100. The relay unit is third as well.
Duke and Co. would like to go out with a bang.
Last year, he won the 300 hurdles in 38.21 seconds. The 5A state-meet record is 38.15, set in 2007 by Corvallis’ Andrew Hastings.
“We really want to see what we can do, leave with an exclamation point at the end of the year,” says Bransom. “There you go, beat that, somebody.”
That the Duke conversation has taken this turn is boggling.
Duke was part of a large freshman hurdles contingent when Bransom started at Crater in 2015. Ability-wise, he was toward the back of the pack.
“I barely even knew him, but he was not good,” says Bransom, himself a Crater alum who had the 400 school record at one time and was on a state-champion short relay team before graduating in 1982. “He was small and barely weighed anything.”
Duke, who had been competitive in middle school, didn’t even make the junior varsity district meet.
“My freshman year was just kind of an off season,” he says.
Duke played football and baseball as a youth, but he wasn’t consumed by organized team sports. He also found time to ride his dirt bike and work.
“I didn’t eat, drink and sleep sports when I was little,” he says. “It was kind of a like a hobby.”
When his sophomore track season rolled around, Duke remained an afterthought. He was placed in a hurdles event in the Medford Rotary Relays only after a spot unexpectedly opened, and that’s when heads turned.
His time of 16-plus seconds was a marked improvement.
Bransom thought he messed up while clocking the race.
As the year progressed, Duke continued to “knock it out of the park,” says Bransom.
Others asked the coach what program he had Duke on in the offseason to produce such results, particularly in the 300 hurdles. Duke went from 47.15 as a freshman to 39.50 and fourth place at state as a sophomore.
The coach was at a loss, so he asked Duke about his training.
“Nothing, not really,” Duke answered.
“Well,” said Bransom, “we have to do nothing, not really again. If you improve 7 seconds again, we’re looking good.”
“It was just a growth, maturity thing, I think,” says Bransom, “that he just genetically blossomed in one year.”
With Duke’s evolution, other assistants on head coach Kierra Huggins’ staff sought him for their events. He’s run each distance up to the 400 and has pole-vaulted 13 feet in his career.
Jack Galpin, another former Comet who is an assistant, has helped immensely with speedwork. Galpin set the 5A state-meet record in the 400 of 48.93 in 2010.
As Duke entered this, his senior season, it was time to splurge. He finally got training shoes that weren’t in disrepair.
“I said, ‘Dude, come on, buddy, you’re a state champion,’” recalls Bransom. “Let’s get some shoes you haven’t been wearing all summer working on the farm.”
The Arcadia meet in Southern California annually features some of the nation’s top talent.
James Smith of Mesa, Arizona, won the 300 hurdles in 36.83. He’s since lowered that time by a few 10ths and is ranked fourth in the country by athletic.net.
Arcadia was Duke’s debut meet for both hurdle events, and the highs didn’t go as well as he’d hoped. His time was well off the personal best of 14.68 he would run at the Midwestern League championships.
“My steps coming out of the blocks were short, so they were off,” he says. “I kind of wanted to redeem myself for that.”
In the intermediates, he popped the 37.80, which now ranks 53rd nationally. At the time, it was in the top 15.
“Part of it was being at a race with kids setting national records,” says Duke. “I kind of wanted to prove myself and show that some kid from little Central Point could compete with the best.”
He placed fourth.
“I was kind of getting back in the groove and was a little more conservative at the start,” he says. “My steps and technique were pretty good.”
It was that race that elicited the email from Oregon’s Johnson to Bransom. It said the Ducks look for times of at least 36.3 in the 300 hurdles and 13.6 in the highs. Athletic.net shows only two boys nationally who have met that 300 time.
Johnson asked that Bransom keep him posted regarding any other PRs.
“It’s cool,” says Duke, that Oregon reached out, even if it doesn’t go further.
Given Duke’s versatility, and with district and state meets approaching, he was placed in the 400 at the Grants Pass Rotary meet just to see what he could do. All he did was rip off a 5A state-best 48.41 — a half-second faster than Galpin’s state-meet record.
However, it took a decided toll on his two hurdle races that day, and the idea of him attempting the grueling double at state was in question.
There was debate in the coaches’ room prior to last week’s Midwestern League championships about which events Duke should enter; and they would determine his state events.
The 400 was tempting because he had the No. 1 time. But it would be taxing.
The 100 wasn’t so appealing because he’d run it once with a pedestrian result of 11.44 seconds.
Bransom lobbied for the short sprint, noting that that’s what Duke preferred, and it carried.
Then the coach lobbied Duke to make him look good with a strong showing at district. Duke did, running a 10.9, good for second place and the No. 3 time in 5A.
The stage is set.
Duke’s goal in the 300 hurdles is purely time-based. If he has a clean trip and can maintain 15 steps between hurdles, as he did last year at state, the 5A record will be in reach.
If he throws in a couple 14-step segments, says Bransom, the low 37s or better are possible.
It’ll be more difficult if Duke runs by himself, but the atmosphere will help.
“Being at Hayward, it’s such a recognized track,” says Duke. “Then having that many people watching you, you get a lot of adrenaline from it. Just the mentality of being there is enough.”
His goal in the high hurdles is place-based. He wants to win.
Last year, Duke finished third behind Hermiston’s Tyler Rohrman. They’re the top two returners.
After the state meet, Duke will decide on college. He’s made some visits and is considering a handful of them.
Bransom is convinced that some school is going to get a steal.
“He’s still got a ton of potential and upside he really hasn’t tapped into,” says Bransom.
And he’s anything but an afterthought.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or firstname.lastname@example.org