At last week’s year-end athletics awards banquet for the college, Cuesta track and field head coach Brian Locher had to stop short of calling Devon Kelsey the best female Cougars runner of all time.
That honor is reserved for Kathryn Krieger, who won junior college state titles in the 1,500-meter and 3K races in 1989. Kelsey may make it an argument, though, when she performs in her final state meet.
A sophomore who took two years off from running after a standout prep career at Atascadero High, Kelsey will try to become Cuesta’s first female state meet dual winner since Krieger when she competes in the 1,500 and 5K at the California Community College Athletic Association Track and Field Championships at Cerritos College in Norwalk today and Saturday.
“It’s really exciting,” said Kelsey, who will head to Division II Humboldt State on scholarship next season. “I don’t want to jinx it, but just the fact that I have that opportunity is really great.”
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She leads a group of six Cougars, many of whom share similarly unlikely paths to collegiate success.
Because of her overwhelming success, Kelsey’s path from prep standout to non-athletic student at Hawaii who bounced back to Cuesta and joined the team on a whim has been documented.
Kelsey has the school record in the 5,000 (17 minutes, 34.18 seconds), and her 1,500-meter personal record ranks second all-time.
She had a second-place finish in last year’s state cross country championships. In the track championships, she’ll run the 1,500 and 5,000 about two hours apart Saturday night. Kelsey’s 1,500 time is the fastest in the state this year, and she’s coming off a title run in the Southern California regional 5,000.
“Given that she has the best time in the state in the 1,500,” Locher said, “I think she has a good shot at wining there, and in the 5K, there’s only two other girls that can even have a chance of beating Devon, and one of those girls is doing those same two events, so she’ll be just as tired.”
Some of Kelsey’s most heated competition in the 1,500 could come from teammate Kasey Urman, a former Templeton High standout who held the fastest time in the state at one point this season, too.
Urman didn’t have the rocky road that Kelsey did when she finished her Eagles career, but like Kelsey, she’s shaved nearly half a minute off her 1,500 time since high school, qualified twice for both the cross country and track state championships and parlayed that success into a partial scholarship to Cal Poly for next season.
The other two Cougars women picked up their events for the first time at Cuesta.
Freshman Corrine Evans, who will also run the 1,500, was a semi-elite gymnast from Hollister who eventually became disenchanted with her former sport.
At Cuesta, she used running after class as a pressure release. One day, Locher spotted her running around the school from afar and had one of his male runners catch up and recruit her to the team.
Having never previously run competitively, Evans placed 16th in the state cross country meet, has a personal-best 4:51.25 in the 1,500 and has a scholarship offer from NAIA University of Great Falls in Montana.
Pole vaulter Grace Mann, a sophomore from Arroyo Grande High, is making her second trip to the state meet after picking up the event for the first time last season. She placed second in Southern California with a height of 11 feet, 5 3⁄4 inches and resides squarely in a group of top vaulters competing for the state title.
“You don’t get to see that if you go straight to a four-year program,” Kelsey said. “Considering this is junior college, it’s a lot more welcoming. There’s a lot more opportunities for people to try new things and end up being really good at them.”
Patrick Clemons already knew what he was good at. The men’s javelin thrower from Ferndale High (Wash.) recruited himself to Cuesta, knowing exactly what he’d do. Though injuries have limited him recently, his 178-3 mark is sixth all-time for the Cougars and he made the state meet as a freshman.
Not a lot was expected out of distance runner Gordan Sturgess when he graduated from Paso Robles High. Coaches presumed he might have peaked by breaking the 10-minute mark in the 3,200 with the Bearcats.
Sturgess has proven any doubters wrong. His personal record in the 5,000, the event he will compete in Saturday, came last week in 15:08.82. Thanks to an unrivaled determination, the time lands him fifth on Cuesta’s all-time list and makes him a darkhorse at the state championships.
“He’s got more pain threshold than any athlete I’ve ever had and probably ever will,” Locher said. “He just doesn’t quit. He has an outside shot at finishing in the top six, but he could be one of the kids that does it if some of the others don’t run so well.”