By MICHAEL KELLY
Recorder Sports Staff
MIDDLETOWN — In the minutes leading up to his 400-meter dash final at Saturday’s New York State Public High School Athletic Association Outdoor Track and Field Championships at Faller Field, Amsterdam High School’s Izaiah Brown was a wreck.
Walking out onto the track’s infield, he looked nervous. As he laced up his sneakers, he appeared uncomfortable. Finally, after finishing some warm-up sprints, he sat down on a bench and was so zoned out that he could barely respond to a competitor that came over to offer him well wishes before the race.
Then, Brown took to the track and did his thing.
The sensational AHS sophomore won both the public school and federation titles in the event, while also breaking the Section II record in the 400-meter dash with a new personal-best time of 47.20 seconds.
“He was very, very nervous heading into the race and the reason he was nervous is because the expectations were so high for him,” said AHS boys head coach Kevin Wilary. “He came here and the expectations were so high for him. He came here and the expectation was to win. When you have that kind of pressure on you, it’s going to get you nervous.”
Brown said the nerves had started for him the night before the competition.
“I was getting cotton-mouthed sleeping, thinking about it,” he said.
“But, as soon as the gun went off and he started to run, you could tell he was going to be fine,” Wilary said.
For the first time this season, Brown had significant company in his lap around the course. Through 200 meters, the race’s top contenders all stayed together and Brown actually trailed a bit.
“I was a little behind and I could really just see their arms in front of me, swinging, as I was catching up,” said Brown. “I was thinking: ‘Let’s get those arms behind me.’ That was my main focus and once I got those arms behind me, I knew that if I kept it up I could probably win.”
At about the 200-meter mark was where Brown and the race’s top seed — Boys and Girls’ Richard Rose, who had just knocked Brown off the top of the state’s leaderboard in the event this past Sunday — separated themselves from the pack.
“Richard Rose stayed with Izaiah and I didn’t expect that,” said Wilary. “Or, excuse me: I did expect it, but I’d never seen that before, so it was like: ‘Wow.’”
After those tightly-contested first 200 meters, Rose temporarily inched out in front of Brown.
“But he wasn’t giving up,” Rose said of his Amsterdam foe. “He’s a very good athlete and we just fought all the way to the finish line.”
With about 100 meters left in the race, Brown sensed Rose was fatiguing.
“That’s my chance,” Brown said he thought at the time. “I’ve got to make my move.”
The AHS sophomore — who won an indoor track and field state title in the 300-meter dash this past winter — accelerated and Rose could not keep up; while a close finish, Brown’s victory was secure for the last 20-to-30 meters of the race, as Rose finished with a time of 47.51 seconds.
“He took the advantage and he just won the race over me,” said Rose. “Nothing could be done.”
Brown’s time shattered the previous Section II record of 47.51 seconds, which was set in 1994 by CBA’s Dave Byrd.
As has been Brown’s way during the past couple of years, there was no immediate response after his first-place finish. But after letting what had just happened sink in, Brown unleashed a fist pump.
“Once I came to, I was exhilarated,” he said. “I started running around to look for family, to look for coaches.”
Brown first encountered his relative, Krista Smith, who wrapped him up in a bear hug.
“I’m so proud of you. I had prayed to your daddy right before you ran,” said an emotional Smith, alluding to Brown’s father, Edward, who passed away when the now-16-year-old was 4 years old.
Next up, Wilary and assistant coach Jaime Julia took turns hugging Brown, before giving way to AHS girls head coach Stu Palczak.
“Super proud of you,” said Palczak, cupping Brown’s right cheek with his left hand.
Palczak said that Brown’s victory was symbolic of something even bigger than the sophomore’s individual success.
“For me, it’s not just about Izaiah,” said Palczak. “It’s about how good it is for the school, program and community. We’ve had a lot of kids work awful hard for a long time and now we have some kids who are at the top of the game. That makes me proud for everybody. I text [former AHS track and field athletes like] Jake Krong and Meghan [Mortenson], and Jaime is still here coaching, and those kids are very excited for how our kids are doing now — and Izaiah’s the top of that.”
Brown’s state championship was Amsterdam’s first in outdoor track and field since Israel Reyes won the 800-meter run in 1994. A year ago, the Rams had sent a pair of athletes to the state championships, with Matt White earning a second-place finish in the pentathlon and Brown taking a disappointing sixth-place finish after a mid-race injury to his left leg.
The day’s victory for Brown — who also contributed Saturday to the Rams’ third-place team in the 4x400-meter relay — came exactly one year to the day of 2012’s disappointment.
“But that’s in the past,” said Brown. “Things happen and you can’t judge them or change them. I didn’t let that weigh me down.”
Brown was talking about the lone 400-meter dash he has lost in his two years with the Rams’ varsity, but the sophomore could have been referring to himself, in general. While Brown’s past two years have been charmed, the ones before that were not always so easy; his first several forays into the Rams’ running programs ended without Brown finishing the season, as he battled maturity issues that got in the way of his talents.
Now, Brown’s got it together.
“I came out here ready to roll and to take the title,” he said. “Fortunately, I did.”
In the process, Brown may have found something he has lacked up until now: A true rival.
Rose, Brown’s main competition in the 400-meter dash, is also a sophomore and is a nationally-recognized runner like Brown. After the race, Rose found Brown for a congratulatory handshake that could be the first of many between the two standouts.
“It’s going to be fun,” said Brown. “It’s a rivalry I’m looking forward to.”