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Track: Holy Family’s Willis on track to be among the best in hurdles

Ryan Willis set the bar in designing his first run to the Class 3A state championship.

The Holy Family sophomore aimed to nab a state place — any state place — in both the 300 intermediate hurdles and the 110 high hurdles. It would be a heck of a way to kick off a career in technical events dominated by upperclassmen. But there have already been snags in Willis meeting those sky-high goals.

Each are way below his skill level.

“We figured Ryan would be a state placer,” Holy Family coach Steve Blair said. “But at this point, there might be a lot more in store for him.”

Willis has turned in times proving he is among his classification’s and the state’s elite hurdlers.

His time of 39.80 at Platte Valley’s Bronco Stampede in the 300 hurdles is the fastest in 3A and has him ranked 13th in any classification of Colorado competition. And while he lags a bit behind in the 110 hurdles, Willis has hardly stumbled in the event. The sophomore has run a 15.59 in the sprint hurdles, making him the fifth-fastest in his classification and 42nd in the state.

His fleet feet have come surprise no one more than they do Willis.

“My goals were top 18 this year, I’ve definitely done a lot better than that,” he said. “I’m 5 seconds faster than my PR from last year (in the 300). I’m really happy, because I was never expecting this.”

Willis’ inaugural high school season showed sparks of brilliance. As a freshman he was on the cusp of being ranked in the top eight in the 300 hurdles. But his season was cut short, with Willis hanging up his cleats two-thirds of the way through the year because to shin splints and jumper’s knee.

Pain is something with which Willis still contends. He wears knee straps to help control his jumper’s knee. And he keeps close tabs on his training schedule to make sure his shin splints do not flare up.

Willis has good reason to play it safe, he still has plenty to prove.

He has already ingrained himself into his high school’s record books. The sophomore’s time at the Bronco Invitational was the first time a Holy Family hurdler broke the 40-second mark in the 300. And at the April 26 home meet, he was just off his school’s record in the 110 hurdles by around two-tenths of a second.

Those showings put him in some pretty prestigious company, given the Tigers have had their share of respectable hurdlers. Most recently Matt and Sean Clyncke collected three fifth-place finishes in the events during the 2005, 2007 and 2009 state meets.

Younger runners knocking down top hurdle times is not unheard of, but it is a game dominated by juniors and seniors.

“There is probably no more technical race in track than the 110 hurdles,” Blair said. “And as far as stamina is concerned, the 300 pushes everything out of a runner.”

Developing the rhythm to run full tilt through a race, without second guessing or clipping a hurdle is mastered through repetition. Much of Willis’ physical advantage in the races, from Blair’s point of view, comes from the sophomore’s flexibility.

The mechanical ability to throw his body fully over the hurdles in near perfect form is secondary in his coach’s opinion, though. Willis’ true weapon is a wholly less tangibly asset.

“For a lot of people, there is a fear factor in running the hurdles,” Blair said. “They are afraid of falling or clipping a hurdle. But Ryan is absolutely fearless in the way he runs his races.”

The right mentality or not, the sophomore himself has a practical take on his success and what he needs to continue to excel.

“Just continuing to increase my flexibility,” Willis said. “And take care of my injuries … lots of ice.”

Willis hitting his stride early in his career has the potential for big payoffs. He stands to break new ground for his team. But for the runner there is more than the top of the podium fueling his run.

“When I come to the last leg of the race and everyone is cheering, that’s the best part,” he said. “I love that, everyone cheering me when I’ve won.”

And the way he is moving, Willis might have only begun to hear the crowds call his name.

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