"I'm just happy to be running," said Gradiska. "I'm just looking at it as a fun experience."
Gradiska, who is headed to Stanford in the fall, suffered an arch injury in her left foot earlier in the season and missed two months of running.
"It caused me a great deal of pain to run on it," she said. So, Gradiska spent that time off the track in physical therapy and in the pool to keep her fitness up. There was a point in the rehab where she believed her season might be over.
Gradiska spoke with Stanford head coach Edrick Floreal, who told her to be ready in September.
"This is not a key year," Gradiska said. "I don't have to prove myself. I don't have to run great races."
She did that last season while sweeping the 100 and 200 at the Central Coast Section championships before taking second in the 200 (23.85) and fourth in the 100 (11.74) at the state meet. Both times were among the fastest in the nation.
Gradiska did get back on the track this season in time for her West Bay Athletic League finals before progressing through the CCS semifinals and finals.
"I just kept getting faster each week," she said.
At the CCS finals last Friday in Gilroy, Gradiska swept the 100 (11.92) and 200 (24.60) titles again, both in season bests that impressed her — although a little slower than in 2009.
"The (100) time was awesome," she said. "At 50 meters, I was able to kick it into the next gear. I didn't know I had that. It was really pleasing."
In the 200, Gradiska was coming off a 25.00 in the semifinals and wasn't sure how much faster she could go. Again, she beat an impressive field with an impressive time to set her up for this weekend.
"This is my last state meet," she said. "I'm going to try and run my fastest. But, I'm two months away from peaking (based on her two months off the track). I'd like to final in both. That's a good goal. But, just to come back and run at state is awesome."
Palo Alto's MacQuitty is also happy to be back. This time, however, he'll be running the 1,600 instead of the 3,200.
"It's a new experience," said MacQuitty, who earlier this season ran the nation's fastest time in the 800 (1:52.37), broke the school record in the mile (converted to 4:12.45 for the 1600) and ran 9:16.06 in the 3,200, an event he ran in the state meet as a freshman and junior.
MacQuitty dropped the 800 and 3,200 to focus on the 1,600, which combined the best of the other two races — speed and endurance.
"I like the mile more," said MacQuitty, who ran 4:12.97 while finishing second at the CCS finals last Friday. That time makes him the No. 4 seed going into Friday's prelims, where Chris Brewer of Rancho Buena (San Diego) is the No. 1 qualifier in 4:11.29.
"I think I can go under 4:10," MacQuitty said. "I've been closing in around 57 seconds, and not too many others are doing that."
MacQuitty just wants to qualify for the final on Saturday and take it from there. One thing he won't do is run a 66-second third lap, which he did at CCS. That forced him to race from behind while chasing Pioneer's Wes Strum to the finish line.
"Underestimating people isn't good," MacQuitty said. "I'm not going to do that Friday . . . you just have to compete."
That's the plan for seven other local athletes who finished among the top three at CCS to earn state meet berths. Of that group, two already are ticketed to Saturday's finals — Gunn junior Erin Robinson and senior teammate Paul Summers. Both will run in the 3,200 finals.
Robinson is the No. 15 seed (10:48.79) and Summers has the 21st-fastest qualifying time (9:20.08).
Robinson has perhaps the most untapped potential in her field. She ran the 1,600 in her first state meet last season, which was her first season ever on the track. She moved up to the 3,200 after running cross country for the first time this past fall. That gave her the distance base she lacked a year earlier when she "wasn't ready" to run the metric two-miler.
Robinson, however, didn't run her first 3,200 until April 22, the team's final dual meet against Palo Alto. She won that in 11:08.01 and hasn't run slower in the four races since while improving 20 seconds during that time. Robinson currently ranks No. 3 in school history after making up seven seconds over the final six laps of the CCS 3,200 final.
"Erin ran a tactically perfect race," Gunn coach Ernie Lee said. "After a quick opening lap, her splits were basically even until the kick, which she timed perfectly."
Robinson hopes to use that experience this weekend.
"I want to try and get 10:40," she said. "A top 10 (finish) would be really good. That's what we've been aiming for."
Summers would like to get a personal record, as well, which would mean something faster than the 9:13.68 that he ran at the 2009 CCS finals while finishing sixth. Last week's section finale was a different kind of race, as it went out slow and Summers was forced to push the pace after the opening 1,600. Eventual winner Wes Strum of Pioneer actually made the first move and Summers went with him while everyone else hung back.
"I was just kind of winging it," Summers explained. "I didn't have much of a plan."
While Summers prefers to run even splits, the field for the state finals will be loaded and he'll be forced to run whatever pace is presented if he wants to head off to Stanford with the momentum of a lifetime best in the state finals.
Gunn sophomore Kieran Gallagher hopes to be running on Saturday night, as well. She's actually listed among the favorites in the girls' 800 despite the 2:13.36 she ran while taking second at the CCS finals. Her 2:11.36, a school record, is the fastest in the section this season and ranks her No. 3 in the state among all sophomores. Those faster, however include state leader Amy Weissenbach (2:08.34) and Savannah Camacho (2:09.70). They rank No. 3 and 10 nationally.
This will be Gallagher's first appearance in the state meet. Like Robinson, her improvement has been huge but she's still lacking in experience and race strategy.
"I get nervous, especially at the beginning of big races, and go out too fast," Gallagher said.
Gallagher went out fast at CCS because several of the runners had faster 400 PRs. Lee figured it would take someone running the race of their life to beat Gallagher and that's what happened.
Gallagher, however, prefers running from the front and has the mid-race strength from cross country season to carry her through. She'd be surprised, however, if she's leading early on Friday.
"It'll be a very different kind of race," she said of the state prelims. "There'll be more kickers and more competition. I'd like to try to make it to the finals."
Menlo-Atherton's Jason McGhee (800), Palo Alto's Maurice Williams (triple jump) and Tyler Nigro (high jump), plus Gunn's Alison Ang (pole vault) likely have less-lofty goals. Only Williams and Ang have been in the state meet before, Williams on the 400 relay two years ago and Ang last season. Ang is seeded No. 18 after taking second at CCS with an 11-foot clearance; Williams is No. 19 after taking second at CCS with a personal best of 46-1 1/2; Nigro is 24th after taking second in the section finals with a career-best 6-4; and McGhee comes in 28th after taking third at CCS with a 1:55.93.
All four, of course, have the potential for better marks and that's what everyone is shooting for in Clovis.
"I don't see any reason why I shouldn't PR," said McGhee, a junior who broke the school record twice this season with a best of 1:53.70. He didn't get involved in the sport until after running cross country last November. Previously, he had played lacrosse in the spring.
McGhee started off wanting to run the mile, but after running a 2:07 in the 800 in practice, he found his event. He ran a 1:58.1 at the indoor Simplot Games in Idaho, broke the school record with a 1:54.2 at the CCS Top 8 in May and then lowered that at the Meet of Champions in Sacramento.
McGhee said the CCS finals were a disappointment, because he was two seconds off his PR. The state meet prelims, however, should be a different story.
"I feel like the better the competition, the better I do," he said. "I will give it everything I've got."
The same goes for Paly's Williams and Nigro plus Gunn's Ang.
Williams has been improving by leaps and bounds in the triple jump since taking up the event just seven weeks ago. He has gone from 35 fee in his first meet to 46-1 1/2. His next big goal is the school record of 47-2 1/4 by current jumps coach Tolu Wusu, who believes Williams has a 50-footer in his future.
"I've got big goals," Williams said.
"Every time things click," Wusu explained, "even a little bit, it's a six-inch improvement."
Williams said his 46-foot jump at CCS felt good, but that he hasn't even learned how to land in the pit yet.
"Once he (Willliams) gets the jumping aspect down and puts the speed to it, it'll be amazing," Wusu said.
"The state meet will be a goal, but I want it to be a positive stepping stone," Wusu added. "I don't want to put too much on it because he's been doing it for only seven weeks."
Still, said Williams, "A PR at state would be great."
Nigro is hoping for one, too, with perhaps a 6-6 clearance in the high jump. That still might not get him to the finals. The top qualifying mark coming in is 6-10.
Nigro spent his freshman and sophomore seasons at Paly, but his family moved to La Jolla last season. Another job change brought the family back to Palo Alto. Due to the transfer and paper work, Nigro missed playing basketball and became eligible only in time for track.
He cleared 6-2 last season and still was stuck on that mark until clearing 6-4 on his first attempt at CCS.
"It wasn't really a surprise," he said. "It was more of a relief."
Nigro said he has improved due to more speed in his run up and by having more consistency with his steps.
The state meet is more of a reward for Nigro than anything else. A clearance of anything over 6-4 will make it even better.
This story contains 1797 words.
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