COLUMBUS – For the first time since 1999, Mount Vernon High School has a state track champion.
His name is Sam Bethea, winner of this year’s Div. I 110-meter hurdles race with a time of 14.42 seconds. The senior came into the race seeded third overall, but by the time he cleared the final hurdle on Saturday afternoon, there was no one ahead of him.
GALLERY: Bethea, Berg earn state medals
Mount Vernon's Sam Bethea and Cory Berg earned medals at the 2019 OHSAA Track and Field Championships. Bethea won gold in the 110-meter hurdles, while Berg earned silver in the 300-meter hurdles. Bethea also placed 12th in long jump, while Berg placed 14th in high jump.
As he burst across the finish line, he let out a champion's roar before holding up his black-and-orange jersey for thousands at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium to see.
“We here!” he said as he galloped back toward the homestands. “We here!”
The goal, he said, was to put Mount Vernon on the map. He certainly did that.
“Nobody’s ever heard of little old Mount Vernon, you know? We’re just a little town. We’re not like a Pickerington or somewhere like that, we’re not a big school,” said Bethea, who competed in Columbus this weekend alongside teammate Cory Berg.
“So at the beginning I’m like, ‘Cory, we gotta make it into a big school. We gotta do something to put us on.’ We were like, let’s do it. We trained hard every day, came here, put ‘em on the map. Cory put ‘em on the map, I put ‘em on the map, and now we’re here.”
Berg finished second in the 300-meter hurdles, less than half a second behind the nation’s top-ranked hurdler, Evan Matthews of Pickerington Central. The two propelled Mount Vernon to a seventh-place team finish, right behind bluebloods like Dublin Coffman and Olentangy Orange.
“We talked about being 1-2 or somehow together and the only part is, it wasn’t the same event. But we still made it,” Berg said. “That was our goal all season and we did what we had to.”
Bethea credited his state title to an aggressive start. He felt confident that his start would determine his finish on Saturday – and sure enough, he was right.
“From the start, I’m thinking in my head, like, if I get a good block start, this race is mine,” said Bethea, who also won regionals last week. “I’ve been telling my coaches, my grandpa: ‘If you work on my block start, coach, at the state meet I’m gonna take it all.’ And I promised him that.”
After Bethea cleared the last hurdle, a look of shock and euphoria came across his face. He threw his arms back and broke through the line as if it were a brick wall, ending what had been a 20-year drought for Mount Vernon at the state meet.
“When I seen that there was no one next to me, left and right, I was like, ‘Oh, this race is mine,’” the senior explained. “And I don’t know, I think it was lane eight. Lane eight started catching up to me, going towards the last hurdle. In my head I was like, ‘I want it too bad.’ So the last hurdle, I just floored it straight to the finish line. Had to take the win, had to put us on the map.”
OHSAA officials pulled Bethea aside after the race to warn him about taunting – which the officials claimed he did when he showed the crowd his jersey after finishing. Bethea responded politely, but told reporters afterwards that his gestures were anything but inflammatory.
“I was just letting them know I’m a state champion,” the senior said. “What I’m doing now is I’m just saying, ‘Hey, I’m from Mount Vernon. Look, we here. We here this year.'"
If the OHSAA saw Bethea as rowdy, the young man had every right to be. According to Mount Vernon Athletic Director Justin Sanford, the last Yellow Jacket to win a state title was Brett Coffing in 1999, who won gold in discus throw.
While Berg finished second, he felt he performed well in the state final. He led through the first turn, but the lanky Matthews caught up to him down the home stretch.
“I felt like I held him pretty well at the start, throughout the first turn,” Berg said. “But coming off, I heard footsteps and saw him go by. I tried to kick it in, tried to kick it in, nothing. But second’s not too bad, so I’m not going to get too down about that.”
Berg felt less enthused about his 14th-place high jump finish, which may have spurred motivation for the hurdles. The junior came into Columbus with the state’s third-best high jump mark, but failed to clear 6’4” after three tries.
“I mean, I could come up with a thousand excuses. I just didn’t have a good jumping day,” he said. “I slipped, but I shouldn't have even done that in the start. I should have just cleared it on the first one, but I messed around. But you live and you learn, you know?”
The same could be said for Bethea’s first event, long jump, where he placed 12th after maxing out at 20 feet, 11 inches.
But those setbacks felt ancient and immaterial by the time Saturday evening rolled around, and both Yellow Jackets walked out of Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium with medals around their necks.
“It feels really good,” Berg said with a smile. “Representing Mount Vernon here is why we wear these colors, you know?”
Berg gave credit to his fellow MVHS student-athletes, including the state-bound boys volleyball team and regional final softball team, for pushing him and Bethea to live up to the standard they’d set this spring.
He vowed to be back at state next year. Next time, he said, he’ll walk away with gold instead of silver.
“Now I’m thinking, since I just did that when I was a junior, obviously I want to win state next year, just because that’s the main goal,” Berg said. “On my time, I just want to keep increasing and be more consistent in the 37/low range, and just hope this slingshots me forward to next season.”
For Bethea, his final high school track meet held a storybook ending. He grew up in a track family – his grandfather hurdled for Mansfield Senior back in the day, and his son went to state in the event – and Bethea’s mother, Berneice Woodson, said Sam’s been running since he was six years old.
Winning state for his hometown has been a lifelong goal, Woodson said. On Saturday, with thousands watching, Bethea made his dreams come true.
“He was determined to win state for Mount Vernon,” said Woodson, still shaking moments after her son stood atop the podium. “He was determined to win. It feels wonderful.”