In watching Connor Eaton run on four school-record breaking relays for Mount Ayr at the Coed State Track and Field Meet 12 days ago at Drake Stadium, there were a lot of intertwined story lines in Creston track history for me.
Connor ran with sophomore Payton Weehler and fellow seniors Hunter Arends and Hunter Haveman on the 4x200 relay that took fourth place in Class 2A in a time of 1:31.14, which broke their own record from the state qualifying meet.
Sitting in the stands at Drake Stadium were his father, Chris Eaton, and Dennis Shaw, a Winterset coach. In 1988 I stood in the same spot on the Drake stadium infield watching Creston’s 4x200 team at state. Shaw led that relay off as the only sophomore in the group, handing off to seniors Ty Schrock and twin brothers Corey and Chris Eaton.
At state that year they took second in 1:31.74. It was a time that, when converted to the old 4x220 yards relay and stop watch timing, came within .02 of the standing Creston record from 1969 of 1:32.2. A year earlier the Panther foursome of Ed Ide, John Taylor, Chris and Corey Eaton also came close with a time of 1:32.19 before conversion added time.)
Yep, this is the 50th anniversary of when the Panther foursome of Daryl Roberts, Rick Robinson, Ken Ketter and Rich Johannes ran the 880-yard relay in 1:32.2 at the state meet. (They did not place.)
Also, Roberts, Ketter, Johannes and Allen Vettrick formed the group known as DKAR (for their first names) in a 440-yard relay that held up for several years as a school record. Back then batons were short pieces of pole vault poles, and that foursome had a brown-colored baton they named Super Brown.
Johannes still has the plaque with a piece of that baton attached as a tribute to the DKAR club, handed down from assistant coach Dave Koos several years ago when Koos, longtime Harlan school administrator, was downsizing homes and it got to Johannes from his cousin, current Creston track coach Pat Schlapia.
The thing those two Panther groups had in common was Dick Skarda as the head coach. His approach to track training was as thorough and measured as current Mount Ayr coach Brad Elliott, who orchestrated the 2014 Class 1A state championship.
Having run for Skarda and watching his son run on four of the seven state-qualifying relays from Mount Ayr this year, Chris Eaton spoke about the similarities last week from his office at First National Bank in Creston.
“The workouts we did with coach Skarda, he was way ahead of his time and they compared to what coach Elliott is doing now,” Eaton said. “Coach Skarda was all about building leaders and teams, and Brad is the same way. Coach Elliott could have sent a lot of guys in individual events, but he put his (best) guys together and sent seven relays to state for the first time ever in Mount Ayr history, hoping to do some great things as a team.”
And that they did, as five of the seven relays broke school records either at the state qualifier, prelims or state finals. That includes the 1:31.14 fourth-place 4x200 team. The 4x400 unit shaved seconds off their state qualifying time at state, led by Haveman’s 48.9 anchor.
As a team Mount Ayr placed 11th among 96 Class 2A teams with 21 points at the state meet.
“Yep, he’s officially the fastest Eaton now,” Chris said, smiling. “It makes you really proud to see them work as a team like we did, doing everything together as a unit. Dennis Shaw was sitting about six rows behind me, and he agreed they’ll never forget that experience because we haven’t. Dennis said, ‘I love you brother.’ You’ll always have that bond and carry those memories with you.”
Shaw’s son Kaden also ran in many of those same events for Winterset, including a second-place and school record 4x100 relay.
Eaton has a ton of respect for what that 1969 foursome did a half century ago, still holding a sprint record in a Class 3A high school.
“They had to be four horses,” Eaton said. “We thought we had run our perfect race at state, and we were hundreths of a second behind them. We were a close second to South Tama in that race.”
I recently spoke with the 1969 leadoff man, Roberts, and Johannes the anchor man. They were a bit surprised their 4x200 record still stands. (Shaw, Lowell Hoff, Chad Briley and Ryan Woods now hold the 4x100 record from 1990.)
“We had all of them for awhile — the 4x100, the 4x220 and 4x440, but one by one they fell off,” Roberts said. “But for some reason the 4x2 hung in there.”
Johannes remains proud of the accomplishment.
“I was of the opinion the 440 relay would last longer, so I was kind of surprised when the 880 relay held up,” Johannes said. “Our goal was to beat 44.9 in the 440 and we ended up with 44.5. It seemed like we were perpetually second to Atlantic, though. I had a drawer full of silver medals even though we were setting school records.”
Skarda and Koos coached what was then a progressive style of sprint relay baton handoffs that did not require any of the runners to switch hands while running. It was passed to an alternate hand, designed to keep it on the inside of the track during the sharp curve exchanges.
Being innovative and creative in designing workouts and lineups is also a strength of coach Elliott, Eaton said, so it’s been fun watching his son run in the same type of experience he had in Creston 31 years ago.
“I’m probably more nervous than he was running,” Eaton said, “but it sure was fun.”
There were multiple family generations in the stadium. Chris’s grandmother, Vaughn Seckington, now 100, got to watch Connor run at state.
Likewise, it was pretty cool for an old sportswriter to see kids like Connor Eaton and Kaden Shaw running in the state event, when I had covered their fathers in some special Panther moments in the same stadium.
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