Lighthall cruises to victory in the 800 to qualify for State Meet
The expectations that family, friends and coaches have for Joe Lighthall will never be any higher than he has for himself. That’s as true in the classroom – where Lighthall tied for the second-highest grade-point average among his Hughson High Class of 2023 peers – as well as the track – where Lighthall is ranked as one of the fastest 800-meter runners for his age in California and the country.
Ever since he finished seventh as a junior last year, Lighthall and his supporters have been pointing to this week’s State Meet and earning a title as the fitting culmination to his remarkable high school career.
“This is what I’ve been looking forward to for the past year,” Lighthall admitted. “If I’m feeling really good, I’m confident I can get there and win.”
Even if he’s not “feeling it,” Lighthall will still be among the favorites during Friday’s heats and Saturday’s final at Buchanan High in Clovis. His personal record of 1 minute, 51.95 seconds, set April 22 at the Meet of Champions in Sacramento, is faster than any of the winning times from the nine other CIF section meets in California last week. It also broke a 63-year-old record for the fastest time by any high school runner in Stanislaus County.
Lighthall wasn’t pushed at the Masters Meet in Davis last Friday and Saturday, but he didn’t really expect to be. He coasted in his qualifying race to a 1:58.44 and then led start to finish in the finals to win in 1:53.41, more than 2 seconds in front of the runner-up.
A 12-mph wind on Saturday negated any chance Lighthall had of lowering his PR.
“We wanted to get a good time and qualify, really,” he said when asked about last week’s race strategy. “When I got to the track and saw the wind, I thought, ‘Man, this winds sucks. I’m not ready to throw down a good time.’ I definitely was not ready to break 1:50.”
Hughson assistant coach Joel Bernard, who works with Lighthall, admitted the Masters Meet was just a stepping stone to this week.
“His PR is 4 seconds better than the next guy,” Bernard said. “There was little chance he wasn’t going to win.”
Added Lighthall: “No one thought I wouldn’t win unless my quad came detached from my knee. It’s hard to get psyched up when you know you’re going to win. I just wanted to get out there, don’t mess around and don’t get tripped.”
The competition figures to be much stiffer this weekend.
Ambodai Liggins of Cathedral High in Los Angeles is the top seed with a PR of 1:51.15. He ran 1:51.96 – one one-hundreth of a second behind Lighthall’s PR – to win his Masters Meet last week. Liggins will be favored against eight other runners in the first of three 800-meter preliminaries Friday.
Lighthall will be in the third heat. His top competition should be Taj Clark of San Clemente and Aidan Ransom of Edison in Fresno. Clark ran 1:52.84 last week and Ransom 1:52.88. Another runner in the same heat, Angel Cordero of Olympian in Los Angeles, has a best of 1:53.43.
“I feel like Joe got the best possible draw,” Bernard said. “Heat one has three of the top guys and they will probably end up going pretty hard. The guys in Joe’s heat are good, obviously, but don’t have the same body of work throughout the season. Kids that pop one fast time at their Masters Meet often have a hard time backing it up the next week.
“Clark is solid, but the second guy in the heat, Ransom, doesn’t have one other time even close to what he ran at his Section Meet; plus, his 400 time is not that good, so he’ll struggle with a very fast early pace. The guy seeded right behind Joe in his heat, Cordero, only broke 1:55 for the first time last week. So, Cordero and Ransom are potentially hot right now, but it’s far from certain they’ll be able to repeat what they did at their Section Meets.”
The top three finishers in each heat, plus the next three fastest times, qualify for Saturday’s finals.
Unlike last year, when Lighthall and his family made the four-hour round trip between Hughson and Clovis, this year they will stay in a hotel on Friday night. That will allow Lighthall to take his customary ice bath in his room after the race rather than have his legs get stiff on the ride home.
Friday’s heats in the 800 begin at 7:50 p.m. – about the time Lighthall would be receiving his diploma from his father (Hughson High Principal Loren Lighthall) at Husky Stadium. The family has known for months that the graduation ceremony conflicted with the State Meet, so Joe Lighthall has had plenty of time to come to terms with it.
“Though I would love to get my diploma from my dad and be with my friends, I’ve worked too hard to skip the State Meet,” he said. “And it’s not really that big of an accomplishment to graduate from high school. It’s a rite of passage to be sure and I wish it was on a different night, but I’m at peace with my decision.”
The State Meet is just the first of three big events Lighthall will compete in over the next two months. In mid-June, he will run in the Nike Invitational in Eugene, Ore. He’ll return to the same historic Hayward Field track in early July to race in the U.S. Junior Nationals, which brings together the top athletes under 20 years old.
“I think Joe understands that the State finals for us is just the beginning of the peak season,” Bernard said.
Next year, Lighthall will be running at BYU, which offered him a scholarship after he set his PRs in the 800 and 400 (47.85) less than a week apart last month.
Hughson qualified seven other athletes for the Masters Meet. Here is how they did:
·**Larkin Meyer:**The junior qualified second in his heat of the 110-meter high hurdles in 14.81, then finished in sixth place in the finals at 14.75. Only the top three made it to the State Meet.
·**4x800 relay team:**Hudson Connors, Nathan Horton, Dominic Haupt and Owen Bullock finished 12th in 8:42.92.
·**Ivan Flores:**The junior finished seventh in the discus with a throw of 131-7, less than 7 feet out of second place.
·**Liliana Silva:**The sophomore pole vaulter missed all her three attempts at the opening height.