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2018 Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year: Central’s Clanton takes ‘major step forward’ during phenomenal junior season

Central's Kyle Clanton won three VHSL Class 2 state track and field titles in 2018, becoming the first Central boy to accomplish the feat since the 1970s. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – Shortly after a stellar 2017 high school football season, Central junior Kyle Clanton made a remark in December about how he felt like he had grown a step or two faster on the gridiron over the past year, adding that he hoped the same rang true when track and field season rolled around a few months later. The comment stuck with longtime Falcons track coach Rick Lytton.

Nearly six full months since Clanton made that statement, and a little over a week after the junior sprinter rode his blistering speed to a trio of state titles on June 2, Lytton pointed back to that remark and how it set the tone for what will go down as one of the school’s all-time great track and field performances.

“We knew he was gonna be good. I didn’t really know he was gonna be as good as he was,” Lytton said. “He made a major step forward, and you could see it in his races. There were some races he dominated, and when you dominate the 100 meters, a short race like that, that shows that you have some speed.”

Clanton’s speed was no secret by the time the 2018 track season arrived, but what that speed accomplished this past spring was truly extraordinary.

On a rainy day at the VHSL Class 2 state championships at East Rockingham High School, Clanton tied for the 100-meter dash title and won the gold outright in the 200- and 400-meter races. He became the first Falcon to win three individual boys track and field state titles in the same season since the 1970s, according to Lytton.

Even a week later, the magnitude of what he accomplished still hadn’t fully rooted itself in Clanton’s mind.

“I don’t know, it’s still kind of still surprising to me,” Clanton, the Northern Virginia Daily’s 2018 Boys Track Athlete of the Year, said. “You know, three times is a lot. I wasn’t expecting that, I can tell you that much. Doing that, especially on a day like that, it was a long day but God blessed me with it.”

By itself, Clanton’s feat – he set new personal records in the first two of his three title-winning events, the 100 (10.96 seconds) and the 400 (49.88) – at the state meet is impressive. To fully appreciate his achievements, though, requires a look at the whole picture.

A year ago, Clanton was seeded third in the boys 100-meter dash at the 2017 state championships and entered the season’s final meet with gold-medal aspirations, but he jumped the gun in the prelims and was disqualified for a false start.

Though he’d go on to earn three all-state medals in 2017 – including gold in the 4×100 relay – Clanton carried that disappointment with him long after his sophomore season ended. The conditions surrounding the 2018 100-meter dash state championship caused him further apprehension.

Rain had just begun to fall, Clanton said, as he and the rest of the field prepared for the event, which had already been reduced to three heats with no finals due to the poor weather. And once they got to the start line, he added, the gun failed to go off, forcing the group to reset.

Clanton would go on to run his best race ever in the 100, tying Martinsville’s Nigal Davis for the gold medal and getting redemption for his misstep in 2017.

“That’s all I thought about,” Clanton said in reference to his false start. “I talked to (teammate Coy Jimenez) about it at the time, I said ‘I can’t get it out of my mind.’ He was just calming me down about it. It was a lot to take on.”

Clanton also suffered what could’ve been an untimely hamstring strain about midway through the 2018 season, and he didn’t return to full speed until right before the Bull Run District Championships on May 20.

He said last week he was “very worried” about what the injury meant for the rest of his junior season. Looking back on it, the two weeks Clanton was sidelined – a layoff filled with cold laser therapy, acupuncture and massages on his injured hamstring – was likely a blessing.

“I think it was a good break, got me off the track a little bit, let me rest up,” Clanton said. “It’s hard having practice five days a week and a meet somewhere in there, trying to run fast all them days. And then having tougher practices this year really helped me get back in shape.”

Clanton received a big boost in terms of maintaining his health when Aaron Heishman, a former Central athlete who graduated from the school in 2010, visited his alma mater in the days leading up to the postseason. Heishman, whom Lytton said is pursuing a doctorate in neuromuscular development from the University of Oklahoma, taught Clanton and Jimenez stretching and breathing exercises to keep their bodies in prime condition for the weeks ahead.

Clanton went on to win three district titles (in the 100, 200 and long jump) and three regional titles (100, 200 and high jump) in addition to his state gold and set four personal records over his final two meets of the season. He earned the Region 2B’s male athlete of the year award after amassing 46 points in the meet.

“I think it helped a lot, actually,” Clanton said of his interaction with Heishman. “My hamstring got looser. … I could never touch my toes. It’s been a long journey just to touch my toes, but I mean I was touching the floor. I had my palms on the floor after he taught us that and I kept doing it and doing it. Even when we didn’t have practice I’d do it at home. Whatever it took to not pull my muscle, because it sucked.”

Clanton’s newfound stretches complemented the worked he’d already been doing with Rich Shockey, one of Central’s assistant football coaches who joined the Falcons’ track and field staff for the first time this spring. With Shockey, Clanton said, the junior combined weightlifting with plyometrics and dynamic stretches to increase explosiveness.

“I’ve always been kind of quick out of the blocks but I could feel the difference this year,” said Clanton, who added that he cut back on soda to limit his sugar intake in order to make himself faster.

Once he got to the state meet, Clanton ¬- who earned 35 points to lead Central to a runner-up finish – simply rode the momentum from one event to the next.

“I guess you could say I won the first one and I just wanted a piece of the others. I just gave it all I had, final meet, especially with Coy,” he said, referring to the Central senior and good friend who finished second behind Clanton in the 400 and the 200. “I mean I love running with him. I about cried at the end of the last race with him.”

Clanton figures to be even more seasoned as a senior next year. Asked how he can top his stellar 2018 campaign, he replied, with a laugh, “I guess go for four or five” state titles. Clanton added that he likely would add the triple jump to his list of events in 2019.

“Right now I would say unless some young kid comes along, he should be ranked right there where he was in the state last year,” Lytton said. “He has in the 100, the kid from Martinsville that tied him, that kid is back again next year, so he’ll see him again somewhere along the line. But I anticipate him having a really good year in football and then having a very good year in track.”