Two Homewood High School runners and 800 meters separated Opelika senior Ben Garner from victory in the 1,600 meters, a victory that would put his team in pole position for their second-straight state indoor track and field title during the AHSAA State Indoor Track and Field Championships Feb. 3 and 4.
Using only a minimal amount of energy at the race’s start, Garner watched several runners blaze ahead, waiting for the perfect time to make his charge to first.
“My goal was to make my move with 300 meters to go in the race … it’s a 200-meter track and when they ring a bell when you get to the final lap, that’s when everybody takes off. I knew that if I were in the lead before the bell, that I’d be in good shape and that I wouldn’t have to work around anybody on the last lap,” Garner said.
His plan worked to perfection, and propelled him ahead of the field to a two-second victory over second-place finisher Hunter Nails of South Side High School, and finished with a final time of 4:22.39.
This win, paired with his victory in Friday’s 3,200-meter race and teammate Will Boler’s triple jump victory, helped Opelika clinch the 6A state title, beating runner-up Homewood 89-73.
The odds of victory looked slim after an overall poor team showing Friday and the disqualification of the team’s number-one hurdler Antanavious Butler due to jersey issues, and Garner said he knew that he would have to push himself in order for his team to defend its title.
“After all that happened that day, we were like, ‘we gotta show up on Saturday. You got to score here, you got to score there … Ben we need you in the mile,’’’ Garner said. “I told myself before the weekend, ‘I’m going to win the mile.’ But I realized Friday night that I had to win the mile in order for us to win.”
Opelika’s chances of making noise at state this year looked bleak after the graduation of star hurdler Kacey Spinks and All-American runner Nate Huggins from last year’s team, but Garner, Boler and fellow senior Braden Holloway picked up where they left off, and performed far better than Garner could even have imagined.
“Going in, I didn’t think we’d be that good, and then we came out did really good in all our meets … it really surprised me,” Garner said.
Championship celebrations did not last long, however, as Garner and his teammates hit the ground running the next day, putting in long mileage in preparation for the spring’s outdoor track season.
Garner’s outdoor track specialties are the 3,200, 1,600 and 800 meters, and said he hopes to add on to his already illustrious Opelika career in his final track season.
“My goals for this spring season are just to improve timewise … win state and win the triple crown, which is to win the 3,200, 1,600 and 800 meters,” Garner said.
With his final season ahead and graduation looming in May, Garner said he has had time to think about the legacy he will leave behind, which includes four track and field titles, as well as last year’s preseason 6A Runner of the Year recognition, but hopes people know him best for his strong work ethic and leadership by example.
“I’ve been thinking about this (his legacy) for a long time, and I hope when people talk about me, they say that I led by example. That’s a big thing to me,” Garner said. “Instead of yelling or screaming if somebody’s not doing something right, I think it makes a bigger impact if kids see me working … it makes a different input I think. I think my ultimate gift was leading by example, where I didn’t have to use my words, but people watched what I did and that motivated them to do better.”
Following his graduation in May, Garner will continue competing and preparing for his collegiate cross country and track and field career at Samford University in Birmingham.