Josh Balentine found himself in a hurry to check in for his first race of the day last Thursday at the 5A state track meet in Hot Springs.
“I got there kind of late because I rode with my mom,” he said. “When I got there, they were already doing the running events. When I just got sat down and just getting warmed up, they said ‘200.’ So I had to get down there, stretch out real quick and get to the line.”
The Watson Chapel senior didn’t place in the 200-meter dash, missing the top eight by 0.4 second.
But the preliminary run still served a purpose. It got Balentine stretched out for his best race, the 400-meter dash.
“At least in the 400, I had a break and they had to do all the other prelims,” Balentine said.
The only state qualifier from Watson Chapel, Balentine wouldn’t leave without a prize. He won the 400 for his school’s first state event victory in two years — and lowered his own 5A-best 400 time in the process.
Balentine’s 50.02-second run topped his 50.18 a week earlier in the 5A-South District meet at White Hall. He won the state race by 0.72 over Michael Lydon of Hot Springs Lakeside.
“Actually, in the final 100 meters, I had to catch somebody, too,” Balentine said. “When I finally crossed the finish line, it was exhilarating and fantastic that I caught him and I won. I had to catch him on the straightaway and the kid from Lakeside was right behind me.
“On that last homestretch, it was really tiring, I can tell you that, especially having to kick into another gear just to catch somebody. Then after I caught him, I had to hold someone off, still.”
Balentine didn’t go into the meet with the purpose of setting a new state-best record. He just wanted the win, and that itself didn’t come easy.
“Coach usually tells me to try to get out and lead a little bit in the beginning and see how everybody’s running and try to leave them when I get to the 200-meter mark,” Balentine said. “And then he always practices me on the 500s and 600s to work on maintaining speed down the home straightaway. That has a lot to do with it.”
Watson Chapel coach George Shelton said Balentine ran strong the whole race.
“He kept his composure and never panicked,” Shelton said. “He never looked weak the whole race. The race didn’t seem to break him. The pace didn’t seem to break him.”
Balentine went undefeated in the 400 this year, quite an accomplishment after placing in the top four in last year’s districts. His state victory has earned him a spot in Saturday’s Meet of Champs at Lake Hamilton.
“I guess being a lot more determined and knowing this is going to be my last high school track year, I was a lot more focused and more ready for the races,” he said.
He hasn’t landed an offer to race on the collegiate level yet, but he thinks a good run in the Meet of Champs will catch the eyes of recruiters.
“I want to show I have a chance to compete at the next level in collegiate track,” he said.
Holding the best time in 5A won’t hurt.