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Sonoma County high school track athletes face graduation conflict

As life events go, it’s hard to get much bigger than walking across the stage at high school graduation. Unless you’re an athlete, in which case competing at the state track meet might be just as significant. But what if you had to choose between the two?

Unfortunately, several local seniors will have to do just that in early June. The CIF State Track and Field Championships fall on June 5-6 this year, conflicting with most Sonoma County graduation ceremonies, including all of the Santa Rosa City Schools campuses as well as Rancho Cotate, Casa Grande, Petaluma, Sonoma Valley and Healdsburg high schools.

Accept your diploma in front of proud family members, or prove yourself against the best high school athletes in the state? Major educational milestone, or prep-sports pinnacle? Needless to say, few kids would feel good about leaving one of those boxes unchecked.

“It’s an incredible inconvenience, because you’re missing something that can only come once in everyone’s life,” Maria Carrillo hurdler Alex Netherda said of graduation, an event he has decided to skip should he qualify for state, a strong likelihood. “It’s a pretty big deal for most kids, because it’s your day of becoming, essentially, your own adult. And you get to share it with people you’ve spent four years with - or like with me and some of my friends, 12 years of life. It’s tough not to go through with it.”

Parents can weigh in with advice. But the decision is so difficult that even members of the same family might reach different conclusions.

When Adam Lundquist, another top hurdler, was a senior at Casa Grande three years ago, the conflict was not with the CIF meet in Clovis, but - as is often the case - with the North Coast Section Meet of Champions, the state qualifier in Berkeley. He chose to skip graduation and run in preliminary heats that Friday.

Two years later, Adam’s younger brother, Caleb, qualified for the state championship in the discus as a Casa senior. He chose to attend graduation instead of the CIF meet.

“I looked at what I had accomplished through my high school career, and I seemed to have put greater effort and achieved more as a student than as an athlete,” Caleb Lundquist said. “I wanted to celebrate that. On top of that, I knew I’d be going to college to compete in track. It wasn’t like it would be the last meet I’d ever compete in, whereas it would be my only high school graduation.”

For the older brother, the distinction of running in the state championships had been too strong to ignore.

“Having sat through other ceremonies, I thought, would I rather be sitting in the sun for three hours waiting for my name to be called, or at a track meet doing what I love?” explained Adam Lundquist, who now competes, along with Caleb, for North Central College in Illinois. “As I like to say, it was the novelty. No, I didn’t walk at graduation, but if you think of how many kids every year graduate high school, it’s thousands. And how many get to compete for a state title? Not many.”

Because the Meet of Champions was only 40 miles away, Lundquist hoped he could double-dip. He ran the 4x100-meter relay, the 110 hurdles and the 300 hurdles at UC Berkeley, and his coach strongly urged him to run a leg of the 4x400, the final event of the day, too. But Lundquist decided to save his strength for the races in Clovis. He then hopped in a car with his parents, an older sister and his grandmother at about 4:30 p.m. and raced back to Petaluma - if “raced” could possibly describe Bay Area traffic on a Friday afternoon.

Lundquist had thrown a gown over his track uniform, and he jogged into the Casa Grande football stadium as soon as he arrived. But the stadium was empty and silent by then. He reached inside a box that had been left behind, grabbed a decorative diploma holder and slowly walked back to the car, his own understated graduation ceremony.

Adam Lundquist’s experience is common among local high school seniors in years when it’s the Meet of Champions, and not the CIF meet, that begins on the last day of the school year. Most of them have a good chance of getting back for graduation ceremonies - especially if the school lends a hand.

“We’ve always attempted to position them in the ceremony so they can at least get here, and we can welcome them as they cross the stage,” Maria Carrillo Principal Rand Van Dyke said. “We have a space out in front for them, so they don’t have to worry about parking, and we can get ’em in their chair.”

Carrillo’s pomp and circumstance is from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., allowing for some wiggle room.

The situation is tougher for middle-distance runners. Traditionally, the 4x400-meter relays are the final MOC preliminary events on Friday, with the 4x800 relays run just before them. The 4x400 boys run last, and have no real chance of publicly receiving their diplomas. For those other relays, it’s tricky.

“One year we had a girl on the relay team leave, and we were tracking it on our phones and GPS,” Santa Rosa track coach Doug Courtemarche said. “We had to guide her through all the different alternate routes because of the backup on (Highway) 101. She literally ran into the stadium as her name was announced.”

The NCS schedules all of its preliminary running events for Friday, its finals for Saturday - and that creates another complication. Many athletes return home for graduation and spend the evening at grad-night celebrations. Some show up for the MOC without having slept a wink.

“That was actually a tougher decision for me,” Adam Lundquist said. “I knew I had to do certain recovery things, ice and get a lot of rest and food.”

The Meet of Champions may be a lot closer to home than the state meet, but it also involves many more local seniors. It can, therefore, be more disruptive of graduation, and vice versa.

“I can’t speak for all schools, but we’ve had to drop relay teams,” Courtemarche said. “It’s a major, major conflict.”

Most of the students torn by that conflict, whether the track meet is in Berkeley or Clovis, wind up choosing to compete. But Caleb Lundquist isn’t the only exception. In 2008, Montgomery’s Corinne Rich won the section shot put title and qualified in the discus, too, but opted out of the state meet in favor of graduation.

Either way, they can end up feeling unfulfilled, at least initially.

“I recall my father informing me of the (CIF) results,” Caleb Lundquist said. “It turned out if I had thrown my personal best of 163 feet in the discus, I would have gotten 13th place. And if I could have thrown a little farther, I possibly could have been in the top 10 or 12, which would have been a significant victory and capped off my high school career very well. But that thought only remained with me for perhaps a day after he told me.”

The kids who choose Lycra over gowns and mortarboards are no less conflicted.

“Should I be running at state, I probably won’t think about graduation much during the race,” Netherda said. “But after, in the hotel, I’ll see friends posting pictures and this and that. Hopefully if I run well I’ll be excited about that, but I’ll still be disappointed not to be at graduation.”

The adults sympathize with these frustrated student-athletes, but say there simply isn’t much to be done about the double booking.

Moving the state championships forward or backward on the calendar offers no solution, because the timing of high school graduations up and down the state is so varied. Cardinal Newman’s ceremony is May 24 this year. For many Southern California schools, graduation doesn’t happen until late June.

Some local schools skirt the conflict by holding their ceremonies on, say, a Thursday (like Analy and El Molino) or a Monday (like Ukiah). But Van Dyke insists that academic and administrative requirements limit the options in a larger school district.

“There just really isn’t any magical date where everybody gets to do everything,” he said.

Some of the athletes find it hard to believe there’s no solution out there.

“I think if school administrators really put their minds to it, they could make it work,” Netherda said. “Because it all depends on when you start school. A couple months ago, we had those two days when it flooded and we had no school. I was really excited because I thought they had to make the school year two days longer and we’d graduate on a Monday or a Tuesday.”

Alas, Santa Rosa City Schools decided not to add instructional days.

And so the elite track and field athletes of the Redwood Empire must devise their own graduation rituals. Netherda heard that a couple years ago, Maria Carrillo High honored a few track athletes during graduation practice; he’d welcome a chance to do that, especially if his parents could attend. Courtemarche, the Santa Rosa coach, said he had a couple of kids who staged a mini-ceremony in the principal’s office; they put on their graduation garb and cut into a cake.

“I still ordered my cap and gown,” said Allison Scranton, a senior and top thrower at Petaluma High who will skip graduation if faced with the choice. “Maybe if I go to state I’ll take a few pictures there.”

Scranton’s older brother, Teddy, has been through this process. He qualified for CIF as a senior two years ago and opted to compete. He failed to make it out of qualifying in Clovis that Friday, though, and was home by 2 a.m. Because Petaluma’s graduation was on Saturday, that gave Teddy Scranton a chance to walk across the stage.

Tidy as that scenario may have been for her brother, Allison is aiming for the Saturday state finals.

“I’m definitely hoping I will miss graduation, as weird as it sounds,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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