On Friday and Saturday at the state track meet, senior Gilbert Olivas will carry the banner one last time for Cactus distance running - and really, distance running in metro Phoenix.
This far-flung division traditionally has elite runners from Page, plus several schools on the Navajo reservation, as well as Rio Rico and metro Tucson. Olivas is one of the few top contenders putting on for the Valley in the meet at Desert Vista High School.
He finished second behind Rio Rico's Roshan Tinoco-Miranda at the cross country Division III finals in November. Olivas enters the state track meet, as the Division III favorite in the 1,600 and with the No. 2 time in the 800 and No. 3 in the 3,200.
"Rio Rico has an amazing coach and Samantha Scahdler came from there. She runs at Duke now. Page has multiple state champions," Olivas said. "For a kid from central Phoenix, running with them and making a name forhimself, that means a lot. It would mean a lot if I won in the 1,600 and set the school record."
That school record in the 4:16 range was set in 1992 and belongs to current Centennial track coach Steve Ybarra, who went on to a career at the University of Arizona.
The 800 and 1,600 are on Friday, with the 3,200 Saturday. Because of a scheduling quirk, Olivas may miss competing against two of his friends Friday.
Trent Holiday and Rex Martin of Page had their graduation ceremony Friday and may miss the two distance races that day. Olivas said he hopes they both get a chance because over the years the Division III distance runners have become like family.
His statewide competition comes from different backgrounds, which Olivas said also is cool.
"The one thing I've noticed about Division III is there are a lot of minority athletes. Kids up in Page have a remarkable work ethic. Roshan is amazing. In Tucson you have the Salpointe runners and kids like Abraham (Valunzuela of Palo Verde High School), who doesn't run a lot of meets but every time he does, he pours his heart into the race," Olivas said. "In Division III it's hard to predict some of the runners."
His coach, Rich Levan, also hesitates to make predictions. But he feels good about Olivas' chances going into the 1,600 with a time 2 seconds better than Holiday and 4.5 seconds above Valenzuela's best.
"The 3,200 is going to be an interesting field because he ran the Valley of the Sun 3,200 in December and ran a 9:26, which would either put him #1 or #2 also," Levan said. "To handicap it I would say Gilbert is the clear favorite for the 1,600. In the 800, Pierce (Vittone) is No. 1. Gilbert ran the 800 at the last chance meet and he led the last 300 by a lot and run a 1:56."
Vittone is the lone other Valley resident atop the leader board. The Phoenix St. Mary's Catholic senior is more of a middle-distance powerhouse, with the division's top time in the 400 and 800.
Olivas would like to see what he can do against Vittone, since he has not had much competition in the 800 this year, other than Holliday and Division II Sunrise Mountain's Justin Pace.
He has felt good all school year, finishing his best cross country season under the cloud of COVID.
"At state I was really excited. I ran my smartest race to date. I'm proud of that because nothing that season was guaranteed," Olivas said.
Plus, Olivas is one of many track athletes trying to make up for a lost 2020 season.
Olivas' 2020 season ended even before COVID-19 caused the formal cancellation of spring sports.
"I ran a 50 flat for 4X400, which isn't my event. But that showed how much stronger I'd gotten. I was excited to see what I could run. And then while I was doing one of my long runs I broke my big toe so that ended my season," he said.
Levan agreed with him.
"Losing that season last year really hurt," Levan said.
Olivas won the 1,600 at the 81st NIKE Chandler Rotary in April in a personal record of 4:19.77. Casteel's Dayton Carlson and some other skipped Chandler to compete in a club race.
His coach hopes he can add more gold at state.
Olivas is the second elite runner Levan has coached at Cactus, after 2019 graduate Maggie Gibbs.
"It would be really cool to see him do that. He deserves it," Levan said. "I've actually not coached a state champion and Maggie said she was going to be the first. She didn't. Then she said, 'I guess Gilbert will be the first.'"
As Olivas points out, Levan has a great history with local runners.
He's enjoyed working with coach Levan, who also coaches at Frontier Elementary School in Peoria.
"A lot of the top runners end up going to Sunrise. He coaches at Frontier and they're a feeder school of Sunrise. So he builds these strong runners and hands them off to Sunrise," Olivas said. "In the past four years we worked really well together. I had no idea what a tempo was or critical velocity before he brought them up."
Levan said he has never worked with a runner that invested more time or study into the sport.
"He's really a student of running. I've really not had somebody that really studies it like that. He knows all of the top runners and gets in contact with some of them, even kids in college," Levan said. "We were doing a workout one day during cross country. So he texts Claudia Lane, who was Foot Locker nationalchampion and goes to Stanford now. She texted him right back and we modified her workout for him."
So it's hard to believe that Olivas ran in distance events throughout elementary school, but saw himself as a basketball player entering Cactus.
"I focused on basketball. I had high hopes and was tall in elementary school but stopped growing in my freshman year," Olivas said. "I think I started taking running seriously in my sophomore year. That year I learned a lot. I got third in the 3,200 and learned I could break mental barriers."
Levan said Olivas did not practice or go many meets his freshman year.
But glimpses of his ability were everywhere.
"We didn't really know what he could do. When he finally did run his freshman year in cross country it was like, 'Whoa.' Then he went into sectionals and threw down this time and qualified for state," Levan said. "All four years he has hit a personal record almost every time he steps on the track."
Olivas said he wants to have a major in the computer science field in college. But right now he is one of many high school seniors stuck in the worst possible college recruiting conditions.
Olivas lives in a single-parent household and even with a partial scholarship for track and field and cross country, four years at a university would be cost-prohibitive.
Plus, college seniors can come back next year with an extra season of eligibility since 2020 was wiped out by COVID-19. And there has been bad luck or bad recruiting. Levan said some friends of Olivas' signed with Grand Canyon University and have slower times than him.
"For me it's been kind of dry. I didn't reach out a lot. Dayton Carlson is the number 1 runner in the state and he's got scholarship and still has to pay 30K. Plus now that college seniors can come back, there's no money for incoming freshmen," Olivas said. "I'll either go to GCC because I live like three minutes away from there and coach Espinoza is amazing. Or Paradise Valley, which has the deeper team and a bigger pack to run with."