By ANDREW WILLIAMS
Athletics, by nature, are rooted in the idea of competition.
Whether that means facing off against another team, individual, or even oneself to score more points, receive higher marks or record a faster time, there is always someone or something to chase.
While competing against familiar foes regularly could make for contentious meetings, Bluffton’s Noah Stratton and Ada’s Matthew Wilcox have turned their time together on the track as opponents into a mutually beneficial relationship.
The seniors will have at least one more meeting today at the Division III regional track and field meet at Tiffin’s Frost/Kalnow Stadium.
Stratton will be looking for a return trip to state in the 400, where he finished seventh a year ago, as well as advance in the 200, 800 relay and 1,600 relay. Wilcox, also a returning state qualifier in the 400, will be eying another trip to Columbus as he competes in the 100, 200 and 400 semifinals today.
The Northwest Conference rivals have become quite familiar with each other throughout the years as competitors in many of the same events. While they are constantly trying to beat each other on the track, that doesn’t affect how they see each other off of it.
“We’ve been duking it out the past three years,” Wilcox said. “Every meet that we had together in the 400, 100, 200, whatever it is, we’re always right there pushing each other. Last year in the 400 we pushed each other all the way to the state finals. So that’s awesome having him there at the beginning of the season and throughout the whole season to the end.”
The familiarity has even gotten to the point where the duo shares insights and information with each other prior to races in which they are both trying to win a title.
After finishing 1-2 at the NWC meet two weeks ago and qualifying for the finals of the 400 at last week’s Liberty-Benton district, Stratton and Wilcox talked before that race about how they planned on approaching it.
“We did talk a little race strategy right before this 400,” Wilcox said. “I used some of his stuff, he probably used some of mine.”
Said Stratton: “We were talking race strategy before (the 400) so that’s always fun. I was talking to him and I said, ‘That last 100 if I knew I was in the top four I’d try to save some.’ But I think I pushed pretty hard. I had Wilcox on my outside so I knew that he was going to be able to push me and he ran a great race.”
Stratton won the event in 49.89 seconds, while Wilcox finished third with a mark of 50.93.
It isn’t only at meets where the physical presence of Wilcox pushes him to his limits either, Stratton said. While training, he said the Ada senior is never far from his mind because he knows just 12 miles down the road, he has a worthy adversary who is working hard to get better himself.
“During practice, I just always keep him in mind, that he’s a great runner and he’s pushing just as hard as I am and we’re both working toward the same goal,” Stratton said. “It helps just because we know week in and week out we’re going to have a solid, good competitor running against us.”
Both runners like their chances of advancing at the regional meet, having competed in one of the more difficult Division III districts at Liberty-Benton last week. Along with each other, they will be racing opponents they have seen many times.
“I feel like it’s a repeat of state right here,” Wilcox said at the L-B district. “The competition is just so high at this district. Going into regionals, I feel like I’m going to have the exact same competition.”
It would be easy for two individuals striving toward the same goal to be bitter toward one another, given there are only four spots available for advancement in each event.
That hasn’t been the case between Stratton and Wilcox, who were second and third, respectively, in the 400 at last year’s regional meet. The one who beat them, Sherwood Fairview’s Matt Tobin, went on to capture the state title in the event just a week later.
Tobin has since graduated, which leaves the pair as the top returning finishers in the event. Don’t expect them to be trash talking or gloating after the results are in, though. They will both be as happy with their own performance as they will be about where the other one finishes.
“You’ve just got to make friends with the guys you’re racing with,” Wilcox said. “We’ve had these four years together. Plus, he’s only like 10 minutes away so we kind of hang out outside of track as well. I think that’s what makes this sport so much fun is that we can go out and compete with everything we’ve got and then slap hands, laugh about it afterwards, still talk race strategies and get better for next week.”
Said Stratton: “I think just seeing him week after week and knowing that you’re both working toward the same thing, you gain respect for one another. I think you get to the point where that respect just turns into friendship.
“Last year (at regionals) I got second behind Matt Tobin, who ended up winning state, and Matt got third. So hopefully we can make top two. That would be awesome.”
By ANDREW WILLIAMS