LA CROSSE, Wis. — Hurley's Mark Saari may not have a favorable seed at the WIAA Division 3 state meet, but he didn't have a high seed during the last two sectionals either — and he advanced to state both times.
Saari is competing in the 300-meter state preliminary hurdles race at La Crosse today at around noon. He's seeded 16th with eight runners advancing to Saturday's final.
Saari was seeded eighth at sectionals and finished fourth to take the last qualifying spot last week.
"He knew it had to be done. We always said Mark's a gamer," Hurley coach Dan Rye said.
This year's sectional was the perfect example of that.
Teammate Geno Vokolek beat Saari in every race this year, in both the 110 and the 300 hurdles, in his goal to make it to state. The 110 race at sectionals went even worse: Saari jumped the starting gun in the 110s and he was disqualified.
"You've got to think that's in the back of your head a little bit," Rye said. "What a gut check."
"I knew it was my only hope," Saari said of the 300s.
Saari said he usually saves it for later in the 300 race.
"I just had to run hard," he said. "I came out of the box harder than I usually do."
The end was so close, no one knew who qualified for state.
"I'm looking over at the last 10 meters, seeing Geno right next to me," Saari said. "I didn't really know what I should do. I tried to get a little ahead of Geno.
"It was unbelievable how close it was. I had no idea who won."
Both leaned to the finish, Rye said.
"It was a lean to the point they both hit the dirt," he said. "They were at the finish line. They left nothing. They had nothing left in the tank."
Saari beat Vokolek by .03 second.
"I felt horrible for Geno," Saari said. "He's been doing it for years and years. I snuck by at the end. But what are you going to do?"
Saari's time of 43.42 was better than last year's sectional time of 43.58. He was a second faster at sectionals than the regional three days earlier. At times during this shortened season, Saari was five seconds slower.
"I'm happy to be back (at state) with the shortened season," he said. "I'm happy to make an improvement. I've been working hard this week and have been improving. I'm hoping to gain a second, second and a half, maybe make finals. Hopefully that burst of adrenaline will kick in and get me to the finish."
Defending champion Tyler Schwartzman of Tri-County returns. He won last year with a 39.94.
"I think he's keeping some realistic goals," Rye said. "He wants to do better than he did last year (46.06) and get a personal best out of it. Getting down to the state track meet is all about the experience for him.
"It wouldn't surprise me to see him make the finals. A lot of guys are running 42s, 41s, 39s. He'll have to run a great race."
The 300 has been the better hurdle race for Saari, a physically strong junior.
"I don't think he's one of the fastest guys running the 100s," Rye said. "As far as I'm concerned, that's the toughest race you can run. He is so strong between hurdles and I think that's an advantage. His work ethic is tremendous. In the 300s, his strength is what carries him."
Saari has hurdles to practice with at home.
"He always tells me, it's the race he loves to hate," Rye said. "At the end, he always asks, 'Why do I run this?,’ because it's so hard. But he loves it."
Saari will have plenty of fans Friday. Most of the Hurley hurdle runners made the trip, as did his family and friends.
The starter for the race will be just like home — Mike Jahn of Maple, Wis ., who works nearly all the local and regional meets.
"I think Mark will be relieved to see a familiar face because we can't be inside there with him," Rye said. "That's a good thing."
It's fun to see the full stands, and see how fast the Division 1 kids are at Wisconsin's huge state meet, Saari said.
"I'm really excited," he said.