LAKEWOOD - The showdown between Silver Creek's James Lee and Niwot's Cruz Culpepper in the 800-meter run was supposed to be one of the highlights of the Class 4A state track and field meet.
Hopes of an epic finish between the two, however, came crashing down. Literally.
Just after the mid-point of the race Friday at Jefferson County Stadium, Culpepper and Pine Creek's Derek Ashby got tangled up and both fell.
While Culpepper recovered to finish and placed in the 18th and final spot, Lee used a strong kick in the final 100 meters to take the title for the second year in a row.
"It feels really good," said Lee, who posted a winning time of 1 minute, 54.25 seconds. "This year has kind of been a roller coaster season, with all these new kids coming on the scene, like Cruz, that really bump the competition up, and it's been really fun. It feels good to go out here and win, but I feel bad that he fell. That's really too bad for him."
Lee and Culpepper, who came in with the top two times in the state, both ran with the pack for the first 400 meters, pacing themselves for the finish.
Lee began the second lap a couple spots ahead of Culpepper and didn't see the crash, but said he knew it happened. Unaware of who fell, Lee expected Culpepper to make his usual move heading into the final 200 meters.
"In the back straight, when I didn't feel Cruz coming behind me, I thought he might have been the kid that fell," Lee said. "I felt people behind me fall. At that point, I realized that and I was like, 'I've got to go. I have a really good chance of winning now."
Lee was just behind Air Academy's Cal Banta going into the final 100 and then passed him down the stretch to win by .36 of a second.
"It definitely felt like I've been lacking that (kick) lately, so it felt good to be able to do that," Lee said.
Niwot's Oskar Wells (fifth, 1:56.44) and Mead's Hunter Payne (sixth, 1:57.41) also medaled.
Despite the win, Lee said it was "definitely" bittersweet that it came without the chance to battle Culpepper. He, too, was eager for that duel.
"I wanted it, of course," he said. "It's good, tough competition. Cal and I still really duked it out; that was still a good race. Even if Cruz was in it, Cal would have been right there with us battling for first."
Lee and Culpepper have battled throughout the season. Lee often won early in the season, but in April at the Arcadia Invitational in Los Angeles, Culpepper had an impressive final lap to beat Lee in the mile.
"That was the first time he blew past me in the last 200," Lee said. "He did that the rest of the season. I'm incredibly impressed with the season he is having."
That's what made Friday's race bittersweet for Lee, but the two will have one more competition before this meet is over. In the 1,600 meters, scheduled for Saturday, Culpepper is the top seed, while Lee is No. 3. Valor Christian's Cole Sprout is a top contender, as well.
Lee, who will run collegiately at the University of Pennsylvania, was third in the 1,600 a year ago.