State's best ever?
Cabell Midland's Jacob Burcham has been out of sight for much of this year's track and field season, but he's likely on the minds of every boys Class AAA distance runner heading into this weekend's state meet.
After winning his second straight cross country state championship in the fall, setting state records while winning the 800, 1,600, and 3,200-meter runs and picking up a relay win in the 4x400 as a sophomore at last year's state track meet, Burcham has spent much of this season running at events being held out of state, including the prestigious Penn Relays a couple of weekends ago.
His list of accomplishments make him one of the best track athletes in state history, and his presence - or lack thereof - has loomed large over events in which he didn't even compete this year.
Among other things, Burcham is a two-time winner of the McCoy Award, honoring West Virginia's top track and field athlete.
But as imposing as his shadow has become within the boundaries of West Virginia, Midland coach Chris Parsons said it couldn't be cast by a more humble person.
"The thing about Jacob is, if you were to talk to him, unless you drag it out of him you'd never know he's the kind of athlete that he is," Parsons said. "Even a normal person that's done all that he's done would probably say something, but he'll be the last to bring anything like that up. He leads through his actions, he's a great kid, and he does everything you'd ask as a coach."
Parsons' prognosis rings true when having a conversation with Burcham, whose quiet demeanor makes it challenging to draw out much self praise. In fact, he often leads off with his shortcomings rather than accomplishments.
"It started out in the winter in Seattle and I ran a really good race," Burcham said, speaking of an indoor race in which he finished second. "I ran a really good race at 4:07 which was a PR [personal record] from last year, so I came in the same shape I finished last year which was good. But since that race I haven't done as well as I'd have liked too. It seems like in that last 10 meters I always get beat, so there's something going on."
One of those second-place finishes came at the aforementioned Penn Relays, where Burcham was just nipped at the finish line by Craig Engels of North Carolina. It was an experience Burcham admits was both painful and educational.
"It was bittersweet because I was ranked first going into it and I got beaten by someone who shouldn't have beaten me," Burcham said. "Honestly, I think it was a lack of motivation. Last year no one really knew who I was and I was trying to prove myself. This year I'm trying to keep up my record and it's a little harder. I never underestimate anyone now. The guy set a PR by 14 seconds and beat me at the line, so I don't take anything for granted."
That would be easy to do this weekend for a runner like Burcham. The junior has made as big a name for himself nationally and internationally as he has within the state.
Perhaps his biggest finish came in July of last year when he finished seventh in his age group at the World Youth Championships in Lille, France, setting a United States record for 16-17-year-olds with a time of 3:46 in the 1,500 while representing the Stars and Stripes.
So after running for the USA, how does Burcham stay motivated while wearing the red and gray of the Knights?
"It's still a big deal," Burcham said of the state meet. "A state championship is still a good title to have. It's really good locally to say you're a state champion because more people know what that is. If I tell someone I got second at the Penn Relays, not many know what that is, but if I say I'm a state champion, it means a little more."
Parsons agreed that state titles still carry weight with his runner.
"It's still a big deal for him," Parsons said. "If you look at what we did this season, we went to UK, then he was invited out to Seattle, then we went to a national indoor meet in New York and he finished third and was named an All-American there. Then he ran when we opened up at our place this season so the local people could see him run, then two weeks later we go to Columbia, S.C., to run in the Taco Bell Classic, then to Philadelphia, and we're just now back to our state. So the state meet is kind of a neat thing for him. He likes going to meet where he knows people and he wants to perform well.
"There are some great runners in our state so he can't be off, he has to be on his game. He's not overlooking anyone. He knows how fast he is but he doesn't put himself to where he looks at the state meet as if it's sub par. He doesn't look at it that way at all."
Burcham's athletic ability, combined with a 4.0 grade-point average, will open several doors at the next level. Parsons said an uncountable number of colleges and universities have been in contact, and while Burcham lists Stanford, Notre Dame, and Colorado as the early front-runners, he isn't ready to make a decision just yet.
There are also a couple of other things Burcham would like to accomplish, among them a sub-4-minute mile before he graduates high school and perhaps even earning a spot on the Olympic team in 2016 or 2020, something Parsons said isn't a stretch at all.
"It's not something that's way out there," Parsons said. "Will it happen? Time will tell. A lot of it will be how he's developed in college because you really don't develop as a distance runner until your mid-to-late 20s."
"If I have the opportunity, definitely," Burcham said. "It would be cool to run in the Olympics but I'm not training for that now. I'm still focused on other things."
Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him at twitter.com/RPritt.