R.J. Alowonle is fractions of a second away from making Minnesota track and field history. And if – when? – the senior from Park High School in Cottage Grove carves his name into the record books, those closest to him will remember the days when he was a little kid carrying his Pokemon cards and tagging along with his big sisters when they were Park athletes.
Alowonle is the youngest of five children and the only boy. Track runs in the family; his sister Jummy was a two-time state champ in the long jump and won one triple jump title before competing at Iowa State.
“When I was younger I would always come with my sisters to practice,” R.J. said. “People remember me as Jummy’s little brother, who had his Pokemon cards at every practice.”
Park boys track coach Mike Moran, who has known Alowonle since he was small, said. “His sisters ran for us and he hung around the pole vault pit. We knew he was going to be a good track guy.”
He has turned into much more than a good track guy. As a sophomore, Alowonle won the big-school state championship in the 300-meter hurdles, finished fourth in the 110-meter high hurdles and was a member of Park’s third-place 4x200 relay team. A year ago he won both hurdles races at state, placed fourth in the triple jump and ran a leg on the Wolfpack’s third-place 4x100 relay unit.
And this season he is on the cusp of breaking two of the oldest records in state high school history. The record in the 110 hurdles is 13.85 seconds, set by Owatonna’s Rick Schroeder in 1981; Alowonle’s best time this spring is 14.13. The 300 hurdles mark is 36.97 by Minneapolis North’s Dan Bannister in 1987; Alowonle’s best is 37.03.
But he’s not just a hurdler with the best times in the state in 2012. He also ranks No.1 in the 100, the 400 and the triple jump while ranking second in the 200 (to Park classmate D’Monte Farley). Park’s 4x100 relay team also has the second-best time in Minnesota this spring (behind North St. Paul). And for good measure, Alowonle ranks 18th in the long jump.
“He’s a really good student, top 10 in his class,” Moran said. “He’s got everything going for him. He’s really, really popular and the kids all love him. Mention ‘R.J.’ and the whole school knows who he is.”
Alowonle, who also is one of the state’s best soccer players, was “untouchable” on the junior high track team, according to Moran. As a ninth-grader he fell just short of qualifying for the state meet in the 110 hurdles. And as a sophomore he exploded onto the scene.
He didn’t run the 300 hurdles as a freshman and stayed away from that event for most of his sophomore season. “I just thought it was way too hard and I didn’t want to try it,” he said.
Late in his sophomore spring, however, he ran the 300 hurdles for the first time in a meet for sophomores and freshmen. He finished first, practiced for a few days and then won again at the Suburban East Conference championships. He won once more at the section championships and took home a gold medal at the state meet.
That means Alowonle has never been beaten in the 300 hurdles. Which, as Moran said, “is amazing.”
Alowonle’s legend became even larger in recent days, when he expressed a desire to run the 400 meters. He had run in the 4x400 relay but never in the open 400. So what happened? He set a school record of 48.28, which is 1.1 seconds off the state record and the fastest time in Minnesota this year. (Other 400 runners will be relieved to learn that Alowonle will not run the 400 in this year’s section or state meets.)
Park has had a boys track program since the 1940s and all-time standings have been compiled in each event. Alowonle ranks first or second in the 100, 200, 400, both hurdle events, the long jump and triple jump.
“And if he ever high jumped he could probably be in that, too,” said Moran.
Alowonle’s high school career is winding down. The Suburban East Conference finals were held Friday at East Ridge, the Section 3 meet is scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday at the University of St. Thomas and the state championships will be held June 8-9 at Hamline University. Alowonle will compete in both hurdles races, the triple jump and the 4x100 relay in those meets. If all goes well, his dreams will be fulfilled.
“I would really like to get four firsts in the state meet, and more importantly I really want Park to take first (in the Class 2A team race),” he said. “Last year that was never one of our goals, but getting third last year really opened a lot of kids’ eyes and everybody’s been training really hard this year.
“My times, I would like to see them drop as well because I want to get the state records in the 110s and the 300s.”
Alowonle and Farley will be key components to the Wolfpack’s team title aspirations. They have been good friends and teammates since junior high.
“We’ve been really close, always,” R.J. said. “In junior high we did some of the same events. We push each other so hard in practice and we love each other so much that if we are going to lose, we want to lose to each other. That relationship is what’s helped me a lot. We’re super competitive but super friendly. Him without me or me without him, I don’t think we’d be nearly as good as we are.”
Farley has signed with the track program at North Dakota and Alowonle has the done the same with North Carolina. A year ago they became the first male Park track athletes to qualify for state in four events. They hope to do the same this year and end their high school careers in high style.
As for breaking a state record -- or two? Alowonle has envisioned what that would feel like.
“It would mean the world,” he said with a smile. “It’s a crazy feeling; even beating any Park record is fantastic. It’s one of the greatest feelings ever.”
UPDATE: Alowonle broke the state record in the 300-meter hurdles at Friday's Suburban East Conference championships. His time was 36.38 seconds, breaking Dan Bannister's 1987 record of 36.97.
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