Heading into last weekend’s Boys’ State Indoor Track Championships in Gillette, Evanston thrower Payton Vernon was feeling confident about his chances in the shot put.
After all, the Red Devil junior’s heave of 56 feet in Casper the week before had broken a school record that stood for over two decades, and his throws before that were consistently landing in the 53-54+ range. Vernon was peaking at the right time, though his competitive nature almost derailed his chances in the week leading up to state.
“Payton was throwing with an injured elbow — he had sat down with the missionaries here in town, and decided to challenge one of them to an arm-wrestling match,” said EHS throwing coach Mike Fackrell, chuckling at the memory. “He told me, ‘He was a big guy, but I won.’ I told him ‘Congratulations Payton, I’m glad you won your arm-wrestling match, but you may have just messed up your chances at winning a state title.’ Every time he threw in Gillette, you could see him grimacing in pain. But he gutted it out for four throws.”
Vernon said the arm-wrestling match was closer than his coach lets on.
“I’m right-handed, and so is he [the missionary],” Vernon clarified. “He barely beat me right-handed; I needed redemption, so we went left-handed, and he lost super-fast. But I hurt my elbow pretty good.”
Competing through the pain, Vernon won the state championship on his second throw, beating Lovell’s Quinn Lindsay by over a foot.
“It felt pretty good,” he said. “We all had four throws — my first throw was 53 feet, and my next one was 54 feet, 11 1/2 inches, which ended up winning the meet. I led the whole time, which was cool.”
EHS head track coach Roy Barker said he wasn’t surprised by Vernon’s performance; the junior has been putting in the work, and has shown a willingness and desire to improve with every practice and meet.
“We knew Payton was going to get there — we knew he was going to be tough,” Barker said. “We knew he was going to get over that 52-54 feet mark. But for him to hit 56 feet in Casper the week before state, it was like ‘Wow!’ He beat a school record that was set in 1997, and he’s only a junior.”
Barker is also impressed with the bond that has formed between Vernon and coach Fackrell, and he’s challenged his young athlete to set his sights high.
“To his credit, Payton has really committed himself to the weight room, and he’s a great athlete,” Barker said. “He and coach Mike Fackrell have done a great job connecting with each other. I think — by the end of his senior year — he has the potential to be one of the top throwers in the nation.”
For his part, Vernon credits both coaches with instilling in him a desire to be the best he can be.
“I love working with these coaches,” he said. “They both always push you to work harder and get better, and make it clear that you decide if you wanna be a dominating athlete or not. They also care about our health, and do everything they can to make sure we are healthy and competing well.”
Off the track, Fackrell said Vernon is a “goofy, fun kid,” who is quickly emerging as a leader and role model to his younger teammates.
“Payton has really stepped up as a leader, he really helps the other kids,” Fackrell said. “He’s grown up so much this past year, shown so much maturity. He was just exuding confidence when he was there [in Gillette], which was really neat to see. He helps shuttle the younger kids to practice, and is always there to lend a hand, keeping things fun. He’s just become a really good leader.”
With the indoor track season in the books, Vernon said he’s excited for the start of the outdoor season in a couple of weeks — especially since he missed out on a spring season last year due to COVID cancellations.
“I’m excited to be able to compete with a bunch more kids, and go to a bunch more meets,” he said.
Although he’ll most likely have to put his arm-wrestling career on hold, at least until summer.
“Exactly,” coach Fackrell said. “I’m gonna have to tell him, ‘Hey, at the end of the season — when you really have to start to throw big — no arm wrestling big missionaries.’ But that’s who he is, he’s just a goofy kid like that. He has fun with everything.”
4x400, 4x800 relay teams finish sixth; sprint medley relay eighth
While Vernon may have been the Red Devils’ only individual qualifier for the state meet, Evanston was well-represented in the relay events; a total of 10 athletes made the trip to Gillette, and finished 10th in the team standings.
“It went well — the kids who were able to qualify went up there and performed nicely,” said EHS head coach Roy Barker.
“We had a couple of kids that were close to qualifying individually — Cade Francom in the hurdles, and Logan Dean in the 400; Siler Weaver, as well. But our relay teams really performed well.
The 4x400 meter relay team of Logan Dean, Cade Francom, Joey Leon and Gabe Hutchinson finished sixth, with a time of 3:43.35.
It was a nice return to form for Francom — the senior captain’s football season was cut short last fall due to a leg injury, and there were questions early on as to whether he was back to 100 percent.
“Cade has healed up really nicely, and he’s running well right now,” Barker said. “He got a little sore here and there, but he’s looking strong. He and Logan Dean actually look really strong,;they’re good captains for us.”
Degory Day, Zack Wirick, Hyrum Baxter and Braezden Mecham placed sixth as well in the 4x800 meter relay, posting a time of 9:10.22.
“The 4x800 relay was a group of young kids we put together to try and qualify, and they did,” Barker said. “Degory Day was the lone senior in that group, and they really did a nice job.”
Evanston also competed in the 1600 meter sprint medley, with the team of Francom, Hutchinson, Dean and Zeke Walton finishing eighth, in a time of 3:58.46. “The kids have been training hard — they’ve been running in the hallways at EHS, and they really turned in some nice times,” Barker said. “The girls are up this week, so we’ll see how it goes.”
The Lady Devils have qualified six for this weekend’s state meet in Gillette, led by Shelyse Ellingford, who’s qualified in two individual events — the 400 meter dash, and the pole vault.
The team of Ellie Horrocks, Tia Nelson, Courtney Sims and Lilly Williams is qualified in the 1600 sprint medley relay, while Shelyse Ellingford, Seanna Ellingford, Tia Nelson and Courtney Sims will compete in the 4x400 meter relay.
“I think our relays will really perform well — I think the girls are really focused,” Barker said. “They don’t have a lot of individual events, so they’re going to be fresh and ready to go.
“Shelyse kind of squeaked in as the eighth person in the 400 meter dash, and she could end up moving up — her times are right in line with the rest of the field. In the pole vault, she’s been vaulting well. She can place pretty high.”