SETTING UP: Tigers expecting young talent to help fill hole left by graduating seniors

May 18—Next season, the Tahlequah Tigers track distance events will look a lot different.

Due to graduation, the Tigers are set to lose three of their best runners after last weekend's State Championship. Trae Baker, Ishmeal Perez and Matt Talburt have wrapped up their careers as Tigers. Even though it is hard to replace the ,strong senior class, THS has a solid core of athletes returning next season.

"Those guys just stepped up. They had a really good senior season. It is not easy watching these kids leave you; as a coach, you love them all," THS boys distance coach David Spears said.

Each senior brought something unique to the table. Baker finished his senior season with a pair of State titles in track and a State title in cross country. Along the way, he set records at THS and nearly set the new standard for Oklahoma in the 800-meter.

"You don't replace a generational runner like Trae who sets school records and almost set the State record," Spears said. "But you have a lot of kids who learn from him and learn how to work, but also have enough self-pride and confidence to do well on their own."

Prior to this season, Talburt was suiting up for the THS baseball team but decided to finish his high school career on the track. Talburt's return gave him a State Championship performance as a leg of the 4x800 relay that finished in fourth place.

Ismael Perez was another runner Spears pointed out, saying he was underappreciated at times. Despite this, Perez was another key member of the fourth-place relay.

"I was totally pleased their hard work paid off for the whole squad," Spears said.

Although the Tigers had three strong State-participating athletes, next season, they are set to have a stable nucleus. The Tigers' distance will return to two State placers in Jacob Tiger and Wyatt Burson.

As a sophomore, Burson probably made more progress than any other Tigers this season. Over the course of the year, Burson cut off 17 seconds off his 800-meter time. Starting the season, the sophomore knotted a time of 2:17, and by the Regional Meet, his time was down to a flat 2:00.

"The improvements Wyatt made were huge," Spears said. "Anytime you can knock 17 seconds off of the 800, it is impressive. It is not the fastest or the most exciting, but that is the hardest race."

Burson was also key in stepping up in the 4x800 after Taven Neal was scratched with a late leg injury. Despite learning he was to race 30 minutes before it started, Burson was a key part of the second leg of the relay.

"Wyatt had a great year when the lights were on, and when you needed him, he would have us," Spears said. "Sure enough, 30 minutes before State, Tavean had a leg issue and I told him 'let's roll.' He ran really well; he has a lot of heart. I think the end of this season will really boost his confidence and he will really have a super season."

Neal had to miss the relay due to the unfortunate injury, but he is expected to return next season as a key contributor for the Tigers. Next season's core looks like it will be made up of Neal, Burson, Jacob Tiger and Kaden Turner, according to Spears.

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