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State track: Gonzaga Prep’s Nick Johnson a decathlete in the making

If time and high school rules permitted, Gonzaga Prep junior Nick Johnson would do more events in track and field other than his two favorites.

“I love track. I’d do every event if I could,” Johnson said.

He’s tried many, but none surpass his love for the 110-meter hurdles and high jump.

A burgeoning decathlete, the 6-foot-2 Johnson is also a speedy wingback for the Bullpups’ football team. In a limited role last year, he rushed for 379 yards and caught nine passes for 78 yards while scoring 11 touchdowns.

His role will expand this fall. He will be one of the top returning offensive weapons in the Greater Spokane League.

And he’ll surely net recruiting interest. But he sees his ticket to college in track as a decathlete.

Johnson heads to Star Track XXXIII as the top 4A seed in the hurdles with a classification-leading 14.11 seconds. He’ll also contend in the high jump where he has cleared 6 feet, 6 inches.

A week later, Johnson will attend the 44th annual Combined Events championships at Lake Stevens High School where he finished fifth out of 50 last year.

After Johnson posted 14.11, his personal best, while winning at the Pasco Invitational last month, Gonzaga Prep teacher Tony Maucicone, the Bullpups’ former track coach, handed Johnson a yellowed newspaper clipping that featured a picture of Mike Periera, the previous school record holder.

Periera ran 14.21 at the state meet in 1985. That record stood until Johnson broke it last month.

If Johnson has his way, the former record will be well in his rear-view mirror by the time he finishes his career at G-Prep.

He thinks he can reach his season goal of cracking 14. Shin splints in his left leg slowed him down in late April.

Johnson had an MRI, and it revealed a hairline fracture. His doctor said a little rest would do wonders.

He backed off of training for a week. His leg responded favorably.

Johnson has twice ran 14.15 since the time off, an encouraging sign going to state.

“I get shin splints every year but they were the worst they’ve been,” Johnson said of the recent flare-up.

He aggravates his shins because his left leg is his lead leg over the hurdles and takes much pounding. And it is his plant leg for the high jump.

“The rest helped a ton,” he said.

Johnson has hit 6-6 twice this year including at regionals last week and three times last year. The school record is 6-8, set in 1994 by Matt Shaw.

“I was this close,” Johnson said, fingers pinched close together, about three attempts at 6-8 last week. “That was my best performance in the high jump all year. I was well over the bar but I hit it with my left hip. That’s the most height I’ve ever had.”

He wants to jump over 7-0 by next year.

His chief competiton at state will come from University’s Noah Martin, who jumped 6-11 last month. Martin also plans to compete in the multi-events competition next week.

It’s entertaining to watch Johnson prepare to high jump. As he begins his pre-jump routine, he wiggles his arms downward as if he’s shaking some bad mojo out.

Then he looks as if he’s playing the drums and hitting the cymbals, finishing with a high reach with his right arm – as if he’s shooting a jump shot. But he’s actually practicing his finish when he arches his back and goes over the bar.

Former Central Valley standout Brent Harkin, who set the 4A state-meet record (7-1) in 1980, officiated the event at regionals. As soon as the competition was over, Johnson asked Harkin for some tips.

“He suggested that I arch my back and get away from the bar and drive my left leg up to the bar,” Johnson said.

Johnson spends a lot of time watching Aries Merritt, the world record holder in the 110s (12.80). He won the gold medal for the U.S. in the 2012 Olympics.

“I watch video every race day,” Johnson said.

At regionals, Johnson finished second behind Ben Craig of CV. Bryan Anderson of Mead also qualified for state by meeting the minimum qualifying time.

Johnson said he hit seemingly every hurdle and still managed to clock 14.56 last week.

“I thought for sure my time was going to be about 15,” he said.

The difference between a record time like 14.11 and 14.56 is razor thin. Every hurdle he hits cost him about a tenth of a second.

“To run the hurdles right, you are skimming the top of them,” Johnson said. “You literally feel the top of the hurdles from your lead leg to your butt. To run a perfect race there’s no room for error.”

The improvement Johnson has made in the hurdles this year is measurable.

In 19 races last year, Johnson averaged 15.07. In 16 races this spring, he’s averaged 14.46.

Last year, his times bounced around like a yo-yo. This year all of his times have been in the 14s.

G-Prep track coach Stephen Manfred has as much appreciation for Johnson’s enthusiasm as his athleticism.

“His pure youthful joy is so much fun for everyone to be around,” Manfred said.

When a sophomore teammate qualified for state in the 300 hurdles last Saturday, the first to greet him was Johnson.

Johnson ran from the high jump area and lifted his friend on his shoulders.

Johnson is looking forward to doing the decathlon next weekend. He’ll do the hurdles, 400, shot put, long jump and discus the first day followed by the 100, javelin, high jump, pole vault and 1,500 the second day.

Next spring, he wants to spend time doing the 400 and a couple other field events. The hurdles and high jump, though, will continue to be his go-to events.

Manfred has no doubt that Johnson will have many collegiate opportunities to choose from.

“He’s grown so much this year,” Manfred said. “It’s a matter of confidence, relaxing and going out and being true to his ability. His confidence has grown through competition. It’s not a magic elixir.”

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