The road to the state track meet in all classes is littered with junior and senior girls who peaked early in their careers as high school distance runners. The phenomenon is widely recognized by running coaches as one of the great tragedies of track and field. The maturation of young female athletes is simply not conducive to the demands of distance running, and the senior girl who dominates in events from 800 meters and beyond is a rarity.
Rarer still is the female upperclassman who improves dramatically from her previous seasons.
Purdy senior Audrey Patton, a member of the Lady Eagles state championship basketball team, certainly had nothing to prove to anyone this track season. A skilled performer on the court, Patton signed to play college ball at Central Methodist. After failing to qualify for the Class 2 state track meet in three seasons, Patton had to wonder if her spring would be better spent in the gym.
But some kids are just driven. Patton had personal demons to exorcize, including the two frustrating fifth place finishes in the 3,200-meter run at the 2009 and 2010 sectionals. She dedicated herself to qualifying for the Class 2 state meet. She challenged Coach Stephanie Ray to push her harder. She enlisted a personal trainer. She poured her soul into her workouts.
"I knew something was different the night at Ash Grove when she ran the 3,200 in the rain all by herself," recalled Pierce City's Brad Hocker. "They called the meet off after the 200-meter dash, and then there was Audrey out on the track running all by herself. She made a statement to everyone with that run."
Patton reeled off three straight silver medal performances in the 3,200 meters at Pierce City, Lamar and Monett, and then won all the distance events at the Ozark 7 Conference meet. At the Class 2 District 5 meet in Ash Grove, she placed third and qualified to the sectional round.
At sectional competition in Hollister on Saturday, Patton was seeded sixth in the 3,200 meter run in a field of eight girls. In her final pre-race strategy session, she repeated her race mantra, "Whatever it takes."
Then she ran the race of her life. After setting a Purdy school record of 12:58.22 the week before, Audrey challenged a field that included five girls who had run 12:55 or better. The cold north wind seemed to have no effect on her 5'10" frame as she rolled through lap after lap, staying comfortably in sixth position throughout most of the first mile.
On lap five, she made her move.
Patton swept past Colleen Gladden, of College Heights, on the backstretch and pushed all the way into third. She led briefly on lap six and then tucked in behind Plato's Shaylyn Barton as the race entered the gun lap. While she could not retake the lead, her drive from 300 meters out guaranteed that none of the other runners would catch her down the stretch.
Audrey hit the finish line in 12:43.27, shattering her own school record while finishing second and clinching a berth in the Class 2 state meet on Friday. She defeated both the District 5 and District 6 champions in the race.
"We were crying the whole last few minutes of her race," said Linda Patton, Audrey's mother.
While Audrey has one more race remaining, she has already attained her main goal: to walk into the stadium at Lincoln University as a competitor in the state track meet. The Purdy senior will be seeded 11th in the field of 16 girls on Friday afternoon at Jefferson City.