NEW YORK – There is one thing you can say about Maddy Berkson. No matter what event and no matter what type of competition, she always comes to race.
Competing on high school track and field’s biggest stage this past weekend at the New Balance Nationals, the Classical junior demonstrated the mental toughness and unmatched talent that has garnered her much success on the oval. On Saturday, Berkson set a state mark of 56.3 seconds in the 400-meter run by placing second in her heat.
But it was her performance on Sunday in the 800 that could be listed as one of the best in her three years wearing the purple of Classical. Berkson tried to steal the show in her specialty at the Armory in New York City, leading for the first 400 at a blistering pace before eventually finishing a still-outstanding third overall.
The Classical standout’s time – a state and New England mark of 2:06.67! Berkson broke the previous R.I. mark of 2:08.46 by Westerly great Samantha Gawrych in 2006 and the NE record (hand-held) of 2:07.9 by Falmouth’s Johanna Forman in 1976. Her time was also faster than Gawyrch’s outdoor record of 2:09.72, set in 2005.
“It feels great because the 800 is kind of my favorite event and it’s kind of the record I have been going after for a while,” Berkson said, just a few minutes after accepting her third-place medal. “It feels really great to have that time.”
Sabrina Southerland of Benjamin Cardozo in New York captured the race with a nation-leading time of 2:03.59, a clocking that ranks No. 2 all-time for the 800. Sophomore Kailee Sawyer of Laurel Creek in Canada was second at 2:05.94.
Berkson went into the race with every intention to place high and possibly pull out the win. She took the pace out hard by leading through a 29-second opening 200 and hitting the 400 just a shade under 59 seconds. It was only Southerland who could match her pace, hanging just a stride behind.
Berkson learned from her previous races, such as the New England Championships on March 2 where she dipped under her old meet mark in the 1,000 with a winning time of 2:49.32, that if you really want to produce an eye-popper on the track the pace has to veer away from your comfort zone.
She had it in her head that she would have to be close to a minute after the first two laps on the banked oval.
“That was pretty much the plan,” Berkson said. “The past few races, like the New England’s and the Brooks PR (Invitational), I went out kind of slowly. Especially for the New England’s, I went out too slowly and had a big kick at the end. I didn’t want that to happen because I knew I could get a better time if I went out harder and tried to hang. That was pretty much the plan to go out that fast.”
Classical head coach Mike Green agreed that Berkson wasn’t running sub-60 by accident.
“That was pretty much the plan. Just go out and run about a minute or 59 (seconds) and that would have been great. That was fine,” he said. “The night before she ran 56 and set a state record (in the 400). She knew she was capable of running a good quarter. That was the plan all along. She did great.”
Berkson was still up front until just before the 600 when Southerland, who anchored her school’s winning DMR team on Friday with a 4:44 mile, bolted to the front and cruised to the victory. The Classical star realized at that point a win was not meant to be.
“I think right before the 600 when she passed me, not only did she pass me but she blew by me in a whole (different) gear,” Berkson said. “With one lap to go I was just trying to hang on. I was just trying to hold to second.”
“Everything worked out as she planned it,” Green said. “She ran great. I am happy for her. It’s a great finish to the end of the year.”
Besides Berkson, also earning All-American status on Sunday by placing among the top six was weight-throwers Marthline Cooper of Classical (third, 55 feet, 8.25 inches) and Narragansett’s Leia Mistowski (sixth, 53-7)in the girls’ 20-pound weight and Central’s Carlos Mangum (third, 75-5.5) and Barrington’s Charlie Ionata (sixth, 73-2) in the boys’ 25-pound weight.
Ionata was ranked third nationwide before the competition.
“I didn’t do so well in the qualifying rounds,” he said. “I made it to the finals by a half an inch, I think. It wasn’t my best day ever but I came home All-American.”
Other notable performances turned in by R.I. athletes on Sunday included North Kingstown junior Zach Emrich in the 800 (13th overall, 1:54.40), Chariho Regional senior Bryce Kelley in the mile (12th, 4:15.37) and Cumberland senior Trevor Crawley in the two mile (18th, 9:21.83).
After a slow first few laps, Kelley surged to the front after 600 meters before placing third in his late-morning heat.
“It went out slow and I knew I had to take the pace to make it a reasonable time,” said the Chariho runner, the R.I. state champion for the 1,500 meters. “That’s just the price I pay for taking it at 600, kids are going to follow me. Obviously I would have liked to run faster, but I can’t complain.”
La Salle Academy’s 4x800 and distance medley relays earned a pair of All-American finishes in the three-day meet. The 4x800 squad took sixth (9:10.19) on Saturday and the DMR team was third (12:02.05) on Friday. Both squads were comprised of freshman Eliza Rego, junior Alicia DeCastro, senior Caitlin Marino and sophomore Sheridan Wilbur.