With his coaches and teammates lined outside the fence just a few feet away, Westlake High School junior Gonzie Gray crossed the finish line and all but collapsed from exhaustion. His run in the anchor leg of the team's 4x400 relay -- an event he has not run all season -- was not exactly pretty. But it was exactly what the Wolverines had hoped for.
The 4x400 relay squad, which needed to place in just the top six to give Westlake's boys track team the Maryland 3A state track and field title, finished fourth as the Wolverines edged out Woodlawn, 71-66, at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. It is the first state title for Westlake in any sport.
"Track is a different kind of team sport, like wrestling, because it is part individual," said Coach Ryan Gick, in his first year with the Wolverines. "I was a part of a state championship football team when I was in high school, and it is a different feeling. But once that state championships banner gets hung up in the gym and those guys can come back and say, `I was a part of that,' that right there is what it's all about."
Westlake was leading by nine points headed into the final event, but the team was without senior Cross Thompson, a member of the 4x400 unit who missed the second day of the meet because of a death in the family. Consequently, the Wolverines' coaches turned to Gray, who had already captured gold in the 200-meter dash and silver -- by the slightest of margins -- in the 100, to fill in.
"We knew going into the race that Woodlawn had a good relay team and had a chance to win that event," Gick said. "We were up by nine, so that meant we had to place or we could lose the state title by one point. It was way too close."
The coaches had planned for Gray to run the third leg of the race and have senior Jason Wilkins, who captured second in the 300 hurdles, run the anchor. But the names were reversed on the entry card, so Gray lined up for the anchor leg.
"I had run it once last year, but that seemed like such a long time ago," Gray said. "When they asked me to do it, I knew I wanted to do it for the team, but I was nervous."
When Gray took the baton, lead runners D'Ron Baldwin, Quincy Wilson and Wilkins had done their job: Westlake was in the hunt in a close fourth place. Gray eased through the first 100 meters, but decided coming out of the turn to catch the leaders. And he did.
With about 100 meters to go, Gray had sped past everyone to take the lead, and the Westlake contingent waiting at the finish line was going berserk. But Gray, who had no practice judging the right moment to start his sprint, ran out of gas over the final 50 meters, struggling to a fourth-place finish on the steamy track. He found himself unable to stand and laboring for every breath.
Still, the crowd continued to go crazy. Westlake had placed and Woodlawn had finished second -- in the race, and in the team standings.
"We were really excited, but also very tired," said Gray, who already has several offers to play Division I football after his senior season. "To be the first to win a state title . . . we'll always be remembered for that."
There's something else, though, that Gray hopes his coaches, especially, remember.
"I told them this before the race, and I think it was the first thing I whispered when I got off the track," Gray said, laughing. "I know I ran a 40-something. Great. But, please, don't ask me to do it again."
CAPTION: Westlake's Gonzie Gray runs neck and neck with Joel Brown of Woodlawn on his way to victory in the 200-meter dash. Later he anchored the 4X400 relay team.