Jake Merrell Can’t Lose
He learned how to win from a young age, then became an athlete who refused to lose. Can a small town hero finish his track and field career as one of the most accomplished athletes in Texas history?
Jake Merrell really wants to catch a fish.
Like seriously, you don’t even know. But nothing is biting at the moment, and it’s really bothering him, so the soon-to-be graduate of Turkey Valley High School, and arguably the greatest small school track and field athlete in Texas history, decides he needs a strategy.
The 18-year-old throws off his green long sleeve into a rickety old fishing boat he’s standing on and reveals nothing but lean, carved muscle and a tall runner’s frame.
After five minutes, a sense of foreboding lapses over him. Still nothing.
OK, now he’s getting anxious. This isn’t normal. Jake Merrell always catches fish!
“COME ON, NOW.”
“THIS IS RANK.”
“BY GOLLY, GIMME A SNAG.”
He’s moved on from his first shiny plastic bait, which wasn’t working, to another shiny plastic lure, which won’t submerge into the water.
“What’s wrong with this thing?” he says.
“I think that’s a topwater lure, dude,” says his friend, Parker, who supplied the boat and the tiny engine that’s powering them along, “I think it’s just supposed to sit on the water.”
Two minutes later, a miracle.
“I got one!” says their friend Dax, who’s paddling with his feet nearby on a styrofoam boat he brought. No one expected Dax to catch a fish.
“You’ve been fishing like twice in your life,” says Jake, who’s beside himself.
Dax just giggles, as does Parker. They both understand one crucial detail about Jake, the coveted Baylor University track recruit.
He’s the most competitive person they’ve ever seen. All-state in football, basketball. A one-time baseball recruit. State medalist in cross country. Competed at districts in tennis for Valley, his first time ever playing.
You name it, Jake will throw down in it.
Minutes later, Dax catches another, then so does Parker. It doesn’t take long after this outcome before Jake changes course. He looks out beyond the calm waters where the trio is fishing, a little dot among the massive Texas prairie that consumes this land. The sun is setting, and it’s like a painting dreamed up by Van Gogh. Jake plants his feet at the northernmost corner of the old aluminum boat and comes up with a plan.
“Who wants to race me to the other side?”
About 200 meters, on the other end of the pond, is where their trucks are parked. Parker and Dax don’t want any part of this.
Just a few hours earlier, they were at track practice, on their school’s dirt oval, hitting a series of fast 200 meter sprints that were set to prepare the team, nine boys in all, for the UIL Class 1A championships later that week. As always, Jake—who would soon vie for his fourth-straight state title in the 800m, third in the 1600m, and first in the 4x400—had won each and every one of them. Valley had won its first Texas state title in school history in 2017 and Jake and Co. wanted to make it two in a row.
Not long after, Jake and Parker followed with a four-mile tempo around the perimeter of the school. Parker stayed with him as long as he could, but come on, it was Jake. That last mile he had on his own. Afterward, he put in another 30 minutes on the treadmill at home.
So Parker and Dax just look at him, sort of the way friends do, and let him decide if he wants to go in. Only a crazy person would do all that, they know, and willingly subject himself to physical pain on a relaxing Friday night.
But here’s the thing: Jake has never been one for convention. All his life, he’s been motivated to compete with abandon, to reach for the unreachable, to run his guts out and strive for the absolute best. Sure, he’s come of age in a town of a little more than 400 and has developed into the best athlete Valley has ever seen, but look at him now: He’s a future Division I athlete, with a future so bright that some could see him compete for an NCAA championship one day.
“You hate to compare anybody to some of the legends in our sport, but when you’re 6-foot-4, there’s a very obvious guy who I happened to grow up with [and hear about],” said Baylor University track and field head coach Todd Harbour, who recruited Jake over the past three years. “He was my boyhood hero, that’s Jim Ryun. [Jake] is so tall and has a beautiful stride. You look at him and go, ‘Wow,’ God blessed him with a lot of natural ability.”
So, no, Jake didn’t think twice about the swim.
Jake is a competitor.
Jake wants to win.
A week before before the state championships, Jake’s in his grandfather Warren’s garage, taking his mind off his upcoming races.
No luck. In this family, there’s no escaping conversations about potential championships.
Once he’s done working on his custom grill, Jakes sits down next to his grandfather, who’s sipping a beer. Almost every day, Warren talks fondly of his grandson at his local morning coffee group at Four Seasons Irrigation. Now he has a few thoughts.
Jake knows his family loves him dearly, but he often gets uneasy when conversation comes up about him. Often, he just nods and says thank you, yes sir. He’s humble, after all.
But today, Warren wants to bring up the 1600 meter run from the Texas Relays. Jake finished fourth in one of the best fields he’s faced so far.
“Jake, let me tell you something,” Warren says, “Don’t feel like you have to go with 300 meters. Go when you feel like you have to go.”
Jake lets that thought sink in. At the Texas Relays, he went with 350 meters to go and looked good, leading all the way up through the final 50 meters. He feels like he went when his body told him to go.
But there’s nothing more he values than respect; he’s one to show it. On the other hand, he also knows how to execute on the track and is confident he can make it happen anytime, anywhere.
“If I can hang for 1100 meters, I can hurt for 500 meters,” he says.
Jake knows the state championships are the last place where he can prove it.
All good legends begin somewhere, and Jake’s began in the Dominican Republic.
Clay and Brandi Merrell were trying to usher the kids to sleep late one night during a family vacation with cousins, but their 9-year-old wouldn’t budge. Jake wanted one more game of foosball, another chance to win.
Clay remembers an easy solution.
“We solve a lot of family situations with bets,” he said, with Brandi adding, “We’re a big-bet family.”
Clay’s brother, Warren, had been a Division I runner for Sam Houston State in the late 80s and early 90s—he was the first athlete from Valley High, in fact, to compete on that level—and a treadmill was nearby, so it all made sense. Jake would run. Maybe there was a little ribbing, some fun family banter to see if the young Merrell was tough enough to throw down. But Clay made sure to set the goal high.
“I told him, ‘If you run this mile time, you can stay up for another 15 minutes,’” he said.
A few moments later, the belt was humming and Jake was off, feverishly competing for 15 more minutes of foosball.
What do you think happened? Even at 9, Jake wasn’t about to lose.
Nearly a decade later, Clay and Brandi still can’t agree on a time. Clay thinks Jake ran under five minutes. Brandi thinks it was closer to sub-six. For reference, the 9-year-old age group world record is 5:02.5, and it was set in 2017. But both Clay and Brandi will accept that there was something special about that run that night — because they had to double-check it.
“On the way home Brandi looked up his times, and before we even got back to the house, we put him on the track [in White Deer] to make sure the treadmill was right,” Clay said.
“It was right,” Clay added.
With summer right around the corner, Brandi enrolled Jake in a track club shortly after that.
The path to state is more than just one long journey to Austin. For Jake, it also represents time, sacrifice, and the dogged pursuit of greatness.
How will he be remembered? What will his final moments as a high school track and field athlete look like?
“Legacy is something you leave behind,” he says.
But the open road in Texas also leaves the mind to wander as the heat rises from the asphalt. With 400 miles of highway to cover between Quitaque and Austin, it’s a wild ride of emotions. Jamming with your teammates one minute, focusing the other.
This year’s squad from Valley hopped into a dungy white Chevy van and hit the gas. It was Jake’s fourth straight road trip.
“That first year I felt a lot of pressure,” Jake said. “It was just me.”
In time, he’s learned how to cope with all that time, about seven hours from start to finish. Ensuing years have afforded him teammates to hang with and time to bond.
“Every trip turns out crazy,” he said. “We start jamming out.”
Still, for every crazy carpool karaoke—this year’s memorable jam was Sir-Mix-A-Lots ‘Buttermilk Biscuits’—there’s also plenty of time to reminisce and focus on the mission ahead.
Jake puts his earbuds in and envisions the future.
“I put a lot on myself,” Jake said. “It’s me controlling what I do. You work out with the team and you have your coach there, but when you go to the line, they’re not coming with you. They’re not holding your hand through that race. You’re doing it.”
Jake was born in Sherman, Texas, a small enclave north of Dallas, on August 6, 1999.
While he’s lived in a number of places over his 18 years, nothing has felt closer to home than Quitaque, a town nearly 300 miles west of Sherman, population 411. There’s also Turkey, the neighboring town just 10 miles east with another 400 residents, which funnels more kids into Valley High, a K-12 school that has about 200 students — almost 50 in high school.
It’s one big-small community. It’s a place that still celebrates Bob Wills, the region’s famed resident who helped found western swing in the 40s and 50s, with a festival every April. Nearly 7,000 people tear into the area, some anchoring their airstream trailers, others funneling into the local lodge, Hotel Turkey, owned by Parker’s parents.
Like most, Jake goes with the flow, checks out the local gigs, and eats the hotel’s to-die-for steak. He gets a sense of community from Quitaque, even though it’s the very definition of small-town living: One stop light, one gas station, one grocery story. Turkey isn’t far behind, though it at least has a BBQ and Mexican restaurant.
On each town’s main street, storefronts are shut down, a few buildings condemned.
These two places may seem like a forgotten part of Texas, far removed from oil-rich Dallas and tech-hip Austin and Houston. Heck, nearby Floyd County even has a sense of growth, with massive wind turbines dotting the landscape.
But in Quitaque and Turkey you can’t mistake it: These communities are as strong as rope.
Families have learned to farm and live off the land. The Merrells are in fact one of a few families with generational history in Quitaque. The family owns nearly 1,000 acres nearby, on long stretches of prairie, up through the high hills.
Jake knows much of it, after years of driving four-wheelers up and down its ridges. He’s hunted hogs through the night with night-vision goggles, run single-track trails, and killed venomous snakes. He’s never met an adventure he couldn’t handle. This place is his oasis.
Jake’s grandfather, Warren, leases out a percentage of his land to farmers, who in turn pay him a percentage to maintain and crop. Jake’s father Clay travels to Lubbock on weekdays and says he will literally go anywhere for a job with his insulation business.
“Got wheels, will travel,” he says.
Quitaque is a place where Jake’s great, great ancestors tailored the land long ago on horseback, back when the idea of a Cowboy wasn’t what you saw in the movies but rather a stark reality: a hardened, dirt-caked man who clawed for his family’s livelihood.
Clay graduated from Valley, as did his brother. Clay eventually met Brandi, they married and eventually started a family—Brandi became a tech in a surgeon’s office. They had a daughter, Elizabeth, then added Jake to the family about five years later.
When Jake was 2, the Merrell’s moved to Florida for a time, then moved back to Texas. Clay started up a business in Groom and Jake was there from about kindergarten to his seventh-grade year.
Jake never really saw running as an interest at a young age. Over the course of his adolescence, it was more of a proxy. By virtue of his legs, he found success elsewhere.
There was baseball, basketball, at times football. For as long as Brandi could remember, Jake was throwing fastballs, tipping curves and two-seaming splitters. He joined a club in Amarillo, the Titans, and trained with them with the hopes of someday playing college ball.
For a minute, the family thought Jake had what it took. He threw in the mid-80s at one point--and at certain points between track in high school, he played baseball and then summer ball.
“We were hot and heavy into baseball then,” Brandi said.
But when Jake was about 13, after playing through pain for multiple weeks, he fractured his growth plate while trying to turn a double play in a game. He brushed it off and asked if he could play right field, but coaches and Brandi insisted. He was visiting the ER.
“Our surgeon said he had never seen a kid that age have that injury,” Brandi said. “He said they would have stopped long before due to pain.”
Soon enough, while nursing back from a screw being put in his elbow, Jake was running.
Welcome to Austin.
Jake walks inside Mike Myers Stadium for what feels like the millionth time.
He came here as a freshman for the first time—wide eyed and enamored—but has returned every year since.
He’s also made two straight showings at the Texas Relays, where he’s had some of his best outings as a high schooler. He was sixth in the 1600m as a junior, going 4:19.46, then returned as a senior and manned up in the final lap, sprawling out for a personal record of 4:11.81. It included the biggest move, and longest-feeling, kick of his career.
Harbour watched on from a distance, giddy. He walked over to his recruit and dad a few minutes later--Jake lying there exhausted on the pavement--and gushed about his ridiculously gutsy surge.
“That was bold,” Harbour said of Jake’s move at 350 meters with about 3:10 on the clock.
Sure, but Jake knew he had at least a few more left.
“In a perfect world, I’ve been a gold winner all three years in the 800, so I expect to walk away with a gold,” he says a a little over a week before state.
Jake has spent much of his high school track and field career out on a familiar oval, the wind criss-crossing down from the hills, the cows turning their heads ever so often to look at this long-limbed wunderkind do quarter repeats.
It’s been his home.
The Valley High School track certainly has character. It’s about as country as you’ll find in today’s modern landscape of Mondo surfaces and eight- and nine-lane perimeters. Just beyond the scoreboard is farmland occupied by cattle, and beyond that is a worn-down old drive-in movie theater, once a beacon of entertainment in the town.
Valley doesn’t need all that, Jake says. It’s just 400 yards of dirt, some rocks, a hard-as-nails rail on the curves. It was built in 1972, the same year as the school, back when the school districts of Quitaque and Turkey decided to merge.
The grandstands are one big metal rig. White paint is chipping after years of use. No one ever expected to have a national-class runner on their hands here. This being Texas, the stadium has a certain feel to it, like it was built for football, for six-man games out on the crabgrass.
“Football is what they breathe here,” Jake says.
Valley does in fact have a rich history in football. The Patriots have been to the playoffs 19 straight years. They’ve made the state finals twice. Every year, Valley’s student body gets ready for games on Friday in school; cheerleaders paint banners, the school holds pep rallies. Nearly every high school boy in the school plays on the team. Fans park their trucks alongside the perimeter, watching from their pickup beds.
Merrell used to play football—he was a wideout and tight end—and even made all-state as a sophomore. But when an injury derailed his junior season, it stoked a little fear in him. Would all this talent go to waste?
Most everyone understood what he had to do.
“If it had been any other kid, people would have been up in arms about it,” said Guy Young, a Baylor alumni who manages the local bank. “But the community as a whole was like, ‘I wouldn’t let my kid play football if he had that talent. You don’t want to take any chances of him blowing up his scholarship opportunity.”
Jake’s talent has been unique for Valley in a lot of ways. You don’t often see someone with so much ability come through a school of this size. He’s just the second athlete in the school’s history to sign with Division I and its first to earn a full athletic scholarship--his uncle, Warren, ultimately ran Division I, but did not receive a full ride.
“Jake has accomplished lots of feats in athletics that are unheard of from this area,” said Bobby Phillips, who runs an irrigation company out of Quitaque. “But it means a lot to the community.”
Valley held a huge pep rally honoring the occasion. They blew up large green and gold balloons everywhere. Jake—fourth in his class at Valley with a 3.91 GPA—and his family wore Baylor green as young kids from kindergarten and first and second grades looked on in awe. It was a special moment.
“He’s a great kid,” said Jackie Jenkins, Turkey-Quitaque ISD’s superintendent. “I always tease him, ‘You’re a decent kid!’ I think the quality I like most in him is that he could be cocky, but if someone sticks a mic in his face, generally he talks about the team. He wants everyone to do well.”
And yet, all those congratulations put a small ounce of pressure on Jake. There’s a sense that some at Valley are hoping he turns this talent into gold. Some believe what he’s done is already enough, though others believe his talent could lead to success at the collegiate level. A select few hope for Jake to break records at Baylor, to compete for NCAA titles, and one day to become an Olympian. No one from this town has ever accomplished a feat so great.
In collegiate track and and field, however, and in distance running, in particular, nothing is ever guaranteed, which means the margins between wins and losses at the Division I level will be much, much smaller.
“I think his mindset always is, ‘I’ll show you,’” Brandi said. “A lot of people don’t realize the scale he’s running at; they just see he’s getting first place. But when he has a bad day at school or something’s been said or something negative happens, he’ll just go out and work three times harder that next day. That’s how he deals with stuff.”
Jake will never say it deliberately, that he feels any pressure. But you can see it. He’s owned that feeling ever since won his first state championship as a freshman, running 1:57.05 in the 800m. Back then nobody knew much. Jake was still high jumping, helping his team in sprint relays.
His sophomore year really changed things. He opened with a 1:54.03 in the 800 at the Jesuit-Sheaner Relays—with Baylor’s Harbour watching on—and then came back with a 1:53.26 less than a week later. Those times alone would be shocking for a Class 1A athlete. But then Merrell’s true breakout moment came.
Funny story about that. It was the result of a perceived slight. After a long bus ride to the District 1A-2 Meet, Jake was groggy and nervous to get on the line. He peered out of the back of the bus and, to his amazement, saw his eventual competitor from Lefors High School wearing these ridiculous DC Universe socks, red with the yellow Flash symbol sticking right out. Catch me if you can.
Jake was furious. It was some deep-rooted anger, how could he even?
He hardly remembers the race. He just remembers his heart beating a 100 miles per minute, his blood boiling on the inside. He shot out like a canon in the first 400m, dropping a 52-second first lap. The next 200 meters were a blur.
“And that last 200, I didn’t feel like I was going anymore,” Jake remembers. “I had so much acid in me, I crossed the finish, my dad’s on the other side of the gate, and old men are looking at me. What did I just run?”
The official time was 1:51.68. He was 18 seconds faster than his opponent on this day.
Jake went on to race well his next few meets—though he was blitzing opponents by more than 10 seconds in almost all of his races. Then he hit 1:51 once more at regions and by state was contributing to his team’s success by scoring as many points as he could.
He ended up winning the state 800m again, his first 1600m title, and then he contributed to his team’s second-place 4x400 finish at UIL. It was his most successful outing ever. His team finished second in Class 1A. But throughout his sophomore run, he barely faced anyone that could match him.
And then on May 21, he finally found some competition.
“That’s where Jake has done an amazing job,” Harbour said. “It’s hard to overcome not having competition all the time. Not having anyone to train with, nothing anyone to race against.”
Put up against Midland’s Bryce Hoppel and New Braunfels’ Sam Worley in the 800, Jake was finally in a league of his own. Still, he raced extremely well, sticking with Hoppel—who finished fourth in the 800m at NCAAs this year—and Worley until the very end.
He was third in a race of Gladiators. Then, for good measure, he ran a PR of 4:13.00 in the 1600m.
Jake was one of the top sophomores in the country. There was no doubt.
“He’s very head-strong,” Clay said. “If someone tells him he can’t do something, he finds a way to do it.”
Jake knows the first race of the day is the most important.
While he already has the Class 1A state record of 1:54.10 from 2017, he’s eying up a sub-1:50 attempt this time.
“When I stepped to the line, I was just counting over the splits,” he said.
13. 26. 39. 53.
He knows he needs to rush through his first 400 in a quick enough manner to give himself a shot at 1:49. He listens for the gun, and then he’s off.
“I really tried to get out and get myself out,” he said. “That second 200, I used the wind on the homestretch.
He comes through in about 53, but Priddy High School’s Chandler Hurst is already seven seconds back, so Jake quickly realizes he’s doing it alone.
At the 600 meter mark he peeks behind—and sees no one—and starts to churn the arms. The legs follow. As much as he has left, he’s giving it.
“Give it all I got,” he said.
He finishes in 1:51.71, a class record and the fifth-fastest time of his career. It’s not 1:49, but he feels it’s one of his best efforts overall.
“I feel like I ran my best today.”
Jake isn’t one to avoid contact. He’s going to lean in.
Growing up in a small town, that’s just what you do. You don’t cower, you hit. You say, ‘Yes, can I please have another?’—corporal punishment is still used at Valley, by the way.
But after a few healthy years, Jake finally met a few injuries he couldn’t shake. There were small issues with his collar bone, which he hurt a few times early in the football season. Then an especially difficult injury followed: Achilles tendinitis, which he dealt with for much of his junior year. He was out for the rest of the football season, then all of basketball.
When track started, he was way behind.
Then came the races. He didn’t run as fast has did as a sophomore, putting down a couple 1:55s, a few 1:56s, a 1:57, even two efforts at 2:00 or more, which led to a few colleges backing off. The recruiting letters from powerhouses like Ohio State and Michigan slowed. Some may have even questioned whether those 1:51s were really legit.
But Jake being Jake, he was having none of that. It forced him to dig in more, to work to get back to where he was. He wanted to prove the doubters wrong, to run those fast times again. He didn’t lose a single Class 1A race, but he was a tad behind in invitationals--fourth at Jesuit-Sheaner, fifth at Great Southwest, ninth at New Balance.
“I’m not afraid of losing,” said Jake, who had a massive blister that split open his big toe at Great Southwest but ran through it anyway. “But I hate to lose. I hate to go out there and not give it everything you got. Everybody bleeds red and if I cut you, you bleed red. We’re not superheroes. When you get beat, that means I wasn’t mentally tougher. …when I lose, that’s what I feel like.”
He ended up going 1:53.88 in the 800 at New Balance Nationals Outdoor, his best of the season, and went 4:15.17 at the TTFCA Meet of Champions in the 1600. Still, to him, it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t quite those national-level efforts in 2017.
And now it was recruiting visit time.
Jake had been a University of Texas fan his entire life. One of his bedrooms in the house his family owns in Lubbock was completely burnt orange, Longhorn memorabilia everywhere.
But while Texas was interested, they never quite made play for Jake in the way he would have wanted. Harbour was different.
From the very beginning, he believed.
Harbour was a small town guy, too. He grew up in Port Isabel, a small inlet east of Brownsville, just a few miles from the Mexico border.
To this day, Harbour still remembers racing at Memorial Stadium in Austin as a high school sophomore, being DQ’d for bumping elbows with his competitor at the line.
He came back the very next year, won a title, set a state record. After later starring at Baylor and setting school records in the 1500m (3:33.99) and mile (3:50.3), he went on to coach both football and track at Riesel High School for over a decade.
“I understand where he’s coming from,” Harbour said.
And yet, that first meeting was just supposed to be a handshake and a quick conversation. It came after a long day of discussions with potential athletes about college athletics at Baylor.
Harbour simply wanted to introduce himself, to invite Jake back at some point. But then Jake and his parents walked to his office. Thirty minutes became an hour; an hour became two.
By the time Jake walked out of Harbour’s office, a lot had gone down. Jake and coach Harbour had gone over the dynamics of racing, strategy, mental approach, physical approach, and heart. Hell, they had even talked about small-town living, their best catches on the hunt. Clay and Brandi walked out of the room having gotten maybe two words in.
“It was evident by the time he left that that was where he wanted to go,” Brandi said.
Harbour wasn’t far behind. A few days later, he called Jake and offered the junior a full scholarship, Baylor’s only full ride for the class of 2018.
In time, that rapport only strengthened when Harbour stood by Jake when he struggled his junior year. He wasn’t backing off of that full scholarship — even after the Bears struck gold and got the signature of one of the best pole vaulters in the country, KC Lightfoot, for the class of 2018, too.
“Even way back then, I told him, ‘Jake, if you want to come to Baylor, we can make it happen.’ I think he knew and understood then. I think he was a little surprised,” Harbour said.
“‘Coach, is it still a full?’ I remember Jake asking me,” Harbour added. “I said, ‘Yeah Jake, it’s still a full and we only have one next year. You’re getting it. That’s how much I believe in you.”
Two more races are left and the heat is spiking. Jake’s day is just beginning.
But he hardly feels any pressure.
He spies his coach in the stands. A part of him senses that Brandon Smith is pulling his hair out wondering whether he can double up in the next hour to help Valley win its second straight state title.
But Jake isn’t worried. A little over a week earlier, he had run 300 meter repeats on Valley’s dirt track, training for this very moment. He trusts that he has the kick to make it happen.
“I knew I was mentally tough enough to tag on and get it,” he later said.
The gun goes off and Jake hugs the hip of Medina’s Austin Zirkel—who ran a career best 4:24.17 mile to qualify for the state finals—through the first 1200 meters.
It almost feels like autopilot. Then, with 300 meters to go, he turns it on and drops a hammer. Zoom. Jake wins in 4:24.19, just two seconds off his record from 2016.
“I knew I could take the rest,” Jake said.
One more race to go.
Jake is a doer.
He likes to go out and accomplish things, to make his dreams a reality. And while running is in his life now, he knows it’s something that won’t define him.
Jake stepped foot inside his first single-engine plane when he was 11, when his uncle Warren used to take him to baseball practices in Lubbock with his cousin. All the men in the Merrell family have flown at one time or another; Clay had his license in college and contracted some work for a local chiropractor. His great grandfather flew.
He often stops on the side of the road with his truck—and sometimes skipped first period at Valley—to watch pilots crop fields. He studies the way they swoop down 100 miles per hour, less than 10 feet from the ground, blitzing acres of crops in a flash.
It’s a rush, he says, because it’s something he can picture himself doing years from now. It’s nothing like racing, he adds, though his mother admits, “He’s an adrenaline junkie, and it’s hard to think someone like him doesn’t get adrenaline out of both.”
It’s hard not to see the parallels: the can’t-lose athlete who races with his gut and the single-engine pilot who wants to dart across the sky as fast as he possibly can some day. Are they not the same person?
Some see Jake as a potential star in college, an athlete capable of going after big records at Baylor, someone who could potentially run post-collegiately. But that backs up against his dreams of getting out in the world and being a pilot. He wrestles with that notion often.
Imagine trying to come to terms with all of that as a teenager. Somehow, Jake managed, almost on instinct alone.
And it went by in a flash. Cross country came and went in the fall and he grabbed a fifth-place medal in Class 1A. Then came basketball. Jake saw himself as a rebounder, an energy guy. The team was 18-2. He added a few dunks to his career tally, mostly on breakaways. The team made the playoffs, he was all-state.
More than that, he added a few 800m races indoors, covering 200 meter banked ovals for the first time in his career. He went 1:55.14 in Colorado at altitude, then traveled to New York in March for New Balance Nationals Indoor. He ran out of the slow heat, but still finished with an All-American place in the 800, scoring a time of 1:52.33.
His spring was calculated, with a massive effort at the Texas Relays (4:11.81 in the 1600) and another big run at the Jayton Rolling Plains Relays (1:52.96 in the 800). He gave it all he had at the District 7-8 meet (1:52.53).
It all paled in comparison, though, to his final meet.
Jake isn’t thinking about winning anymore.
He’s not even thinking about himself.
At this point, after two hard races and two state titles, all his concerns have carried over to Valley, the program that’s been a part of his life for the last four years.
He’s a little balmy; it’s hot as hell in Austin. It’s been just 30 minutes since his last race. But none of that matters.
Jake wants this last moment in a Valley uniform to mean something.
Before he heads out to that line, and before he takes that stick and anchor’s Valley’s 4x400, he needs a second to compose himself and ask a question. What do I have left?
He knows once it’s over, it’s over. He can’t get these moments back.
His senior season has been everything he’s asked for. He ran 1:50.45 at regions in the 800m, a personal record and—at the time—the country’s second-fastest time at the distance.
He PR’d in the 1600 at the Texas Relays, and that’s when he made the biggest move of his career, taking off with 350 meters to go. He knew everyone else was waiting or too scared to go, but he went anyway.
Lessons from the track? If nothing else, he knew that he was tough, but proved it over and over again in 2018.
Now it was time to finish.
Just a few minutes before his last race. He calmly makes a mental note of everything, then gets his thoughts in order: Walk to the to the line, hear the gun, watch Valley take the lead.
The Patriots steadily build more and more of a cushion. Jake sees Dax take the lead near the finish of the opener, watches Juan take control on leg two, gets emotional as Jayton brings it home on the third quarter.
He finally gets the baton and it’s now or never. He rockets around the first curve, then down the backstretch he goes. The final 200 meters goes in a flash.
Thousands are in the crowd; Jake knows they’re going crazy, but some part of him doesn’t hear or see it. All he’s focused on is the line.
He tells himself this is it, only a few steps left. He leans, and falls to the ground.
Valley has done it, a new state Class 1A record, a school record of 3:25.49.
Jake splits a 48.7-second quarter, the fastest of his career. It’s his ninth state title overall.
“They put it out on the line and I didn’t want to let them down,” he said of his team’s efforts. “First thing that goes through my head, ‘Get it and go. Run fast and turn left.’ To finish strong.”
Hours later, Valley holds up the Class 1A state trophy, their second straight.
Career finished, his season done. With it, he leaves with one last win.
Jake added two more races to his high school docket after the season finished. He was seventh in a stacked Brooks PR 800m field in Seattle, finishing in 1:53.23, then followed at the USA Junior Championships in Bloomington, Indiana, hoping to qualify for the U20 Championships.
Jake was in contention the entire way, sticking with national-leader Josh Hoey for 700 meters. But after a rabid finish, Jake crossed the line in fourth, just outside the automatic bids. His solace? That 1:51.30 was the second fastest time of his career.
“What you have to do after a race is ask yourself, ‘What advantages can I take away from it?’” Jake said recently. “If you mentally break yourself down after every race you won’t ever enjoy it. So I try to get over that and move forward. I have to race for the positives. I feel like I competed well.”