QUEEN CREEK — Regent Benedict ran the final stretch of his 1600-meter race Friday with his next closest competition barely in view behind. It’s not his ideal arrangement, as he prefers a closer competition, as evidenced by his final time of 4:55:49 being a full 11 seconds off his personal best. But this kind of success is something the boys track and field team at Combs is having to get used to.

“We’re surrounded by the best coaches in the state,” Benedict said. “All our friends and family are coming out to support us, and it’s become a whole big family.”

Benedict is the main distance runner — he is also ranked 11th in the 3200-meter, in which he finished third Friday — for the boys team, which is starting to make waves as they head closer to the state championship. At last week’s Friday Night Invitational at Benjamin Franklin High School, the team finished second among 13 schools competing, trailing Chandler Valley Christian by only four points.

In addition to Benedict’s victory, Chris Diaz won the 400-meter, Taniela “Bubba” Taunima won the shot put and Levi Tuckfield won the high jump. Hunter Clare (triple jump), Taunima (discus), Brodee Tucker (shot put) and Mack Beach (800-meter) also contributed to the score by having top-three finishes. Meanwhile, the 4x400-meter relay of Diaz, Clare, Gage Theabald and Isaac Nelson came in second.

“My boys team is phenomenal,” said Combs head coach Stacy Johnson. “I expect to see a dozen of them qualify for state, and probably 10 of them medal at state. That’s what I’d like to see. This could be one of the best years we’ve had.”

Taunima knows all about succeeding at the state level. He is coming off a dominant wrestling season where he won the championship in the 285-pound division. Now, he has his eyes set on doing the same thing in the shot put and the discus. In the former, he’s the top-ranked thrower in the state, having set his personal record April 9 at over 52 feet, a far cry from his freshman year when he was topping out in the high 20s.

But he says he’s not feeling any pressure.

“If there’s one thing this pandemic has taught me, it’s just to enjoy what you’ve got,” Taunima said. “I still want to improve and be the best I want to be. Honestly, I really don’t pay attention to where I’m ranked or any of the stats. I’ll know where I stand when the season’s over.”

There aren’t as many girls competing for Combs this year, but one is doing very well for herself. On Friday, Makayla Engelhardt finished first in the 3200-meter, second in the 800-meter and third in the 1600-meter.

Benedict said it was hard to stay motivated after last year’s track season was canceled, but he worked out a lot by himself in his bedroom, while utilizing his lunch breaks and any other free time to work out and maintain his shape.

“It was super hard, but I had my friends and family around me,” Benedict said. “That made it easier, but I mostly held onto the hope that there’s always next season. I’ve just built all that confidence and motivation in myself.”

Johnson said it was hard for everyone on the team when their season was taken away from them in 2020, but she has been nothing but impressed with how they responded. By taking their performance in their own hands, she said they only put themselves at an advantage heading into the season.

“These kids are self-motivated, so even when they don’t have team stuff going on, they’re out doing their own workouts,” Nelson said. “Regent is the king at that. In fact, what stressed me out about him, is he doesn’t rest enough. He’s so focused on his running.”

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