In the spring of 2017, things were looking up for Ian Thrush.
Then a freshman at Brookville Area High School, the budding sprint talent landed a prized spot on the Raiders' 4x400-meter relay team heading into the postseason, running alongside one of the school's all-time greats whom he admired.
At that moment in time, he hoped that one day aspiring track and field performers at the Jefferson County school would be looking up to him - and his name on a banner inside the high school gymnasium.
The fallout from COVID-19 took away a final opportunity for the Duquesne recruit to grab state gold, but Ian Thrush's place among Brookville Area, District 9 and the state's top Class AA sprinters was crystal clear over the past several years.
"It hit pretty hard whenever it first was announced that it was cancelled, it hit pretty hard," Thrush said of not getting a chance to compete for a PIAA title in 2020. "Ever since I was a freshman, that's been my goal because I saw my cousin (Ryan Thrush) do it. So that's just always been my goal. I wanted to become a state champ just like him.
"And then last year when we had the group that we did for the 4x1, we were really hoping for that (state champions) banner and then I had a good 200 chance, so I was really hoping for that. But then we also had a good team chance, so I ended up running four events, so it kind of wore it out of me."
A rookie sprinter's running start
"That was huge."
Both athlete and coach had identical responses when asked how important to Ian Thrush's development was running in the 2017 state meet as a first-year track athlete and freshman.
"I always say kids will do better the second time they get to the state meet," Brookville Area head coach Dan Murdock added. "Looking at Ian as a freshman, I didn't know what he would become. I had no reason to predict that he would run as quickly as he ran even as a sophomore."
Buoyed by that first trip to Shippensburg in the metric mile relay, Ian showed signs of continued development as he headed into his second indoor season in the winter of 2018. With mostly relay work from his initial year in the sport, the 5-foot-8 sprinter quickly showed promise running solo, picking up what was the first of numerous school records during his sophomore indoor season by eclipsing a mark set by his cousin and motivation.
"His progress through that indoor season, he set himself up to be in real good position to go down there and medal in the state meet as a sophomore," Murdock said of Ian. "He put the work in, but that indoor season his sophomore year the times started dropping. I said, 'This is going to be good.' "
Season-best clockings of 11.98 and 24.15 as a freshman turned into 11.01 and 22.32 as a sophomore for Ian in 2018. He now was 14th and 12th, respectively, for the Class of 2020 after failing to crack either race's top 50 the year before amongst freshmen.
"I love our coach to death," Ian Thrush said of one of the keys to his improvement and that of 2019's standout sprint unit at Brookville. "He is just a great guy in general, and he knows how to coach. He's run for numerous years so he knows what to do and what not to do. Even formwise, he can teach us so well."
While his first trip to Shippensburg included only a single 4x400 leg in Friday's prelims, Ian Thrush returned in 2018 with a full schedule, qualifying in both the 100 and 200 and contributing legs on the 4x1 and 4x4 relays. When the stands emptied on Saturday, he had helped put both relays on the podium and also claimed sixth in the AA 200.
Pursuing a higher honor
Arguably the highest honor, literally and figuratively, that Brookville Area athletes can achieve is having a banner displayed on a gymnasium wall to recognize an individual or team state championship. In track and field, the lone Raiders duly recognized are high jumper Barb Reinard, long sprinter Ryan Thrush and sprinter-jumper Lanae Newsome.
With her 5-foot-6 clearance in 1981, Reinard became Brookville Area's first AA state track and field titlist. More than 30 years passed before a Raider returned to the top spot of the awards podium, with the 2010s being a very productive decade.
Before she took her jumping and sprinting talents to the University of Mississippi, Newsome piled up a handful of gold medals and points at Shippensburg. The PIAA AA triple jump champion in 2011-13, Newsome also won the AA long jump in 2013 and the PFTCA indoor TJ in 2012.
According to the MileSplit database, Newsome is one of only 10 girls to ever reach 40 feet in the triple jump, with her 40-4 prep PR checking in at PA#7.
The most recent banner recipient in track and the one who motivated Ian in his quest was his cousin and current Ivy League 500 champion. Although he was a four-time state qualifier in XC and fourth overall in Class A in 2016, Ryan Thrush was at his best on the track, claiming the AA 400 dashes in 2016 and '17.
As a senior in 2017, Ryan also was PA#2 and US#21 in the 800 with a 1:50.89 win at the Butler Invitational. That mark also is 13th all-time in Pennsylvania.
"He kind of always looked up to Ryan," Murdock said of the relationship between the Brookville track record-holders and cousins. "(Ian) said he looked at (Ryan's banners), and he said he wanted to put his own banner up there. So that was big, just the whole state experience and getting to run with his cousin (in 2017). Everything about it definitely was a good starting point for him."
Continually working to close the gap between himself and his school's track elite, Ian dropped his numbers early and often outdoors in 2019. A 10.82 invite victory on his home track was followed up by a 10.85 at Baldwin along with sub-22-second wins at Brookville and Butler and a strong second at Baldwin.
Fueling his junior season progress was the bond with his sprint relay and football teammates that put Brookville on the 4x100 map in 2019.
"All four of us on the 4x1 were all on the football team, so we were with each other year-round doing different sports," Ian said of 2019 teammates Cabe Park, Jack Krug and Bryan Dworek. "We never took it light on each other.
"We always knew what our potential was and what our max goal was, which was to win states. That didn't come true, but that just kept us motivated and we just kept working hard together at every practice and we didn't let each other slack off because we knew how big that goal was to each other."
That quartet wound up with a pair of 42.0 performances on the year that were PA top 10 worthy and also silver medals behind Motivation's 41.98 in the AA final. Thrush's full weekend last May also included a fourth in the 100, runner-up in the 200 and a leg on Brookville's scoring 4x4.
Murdock noted that Ian doesn't have the look of many of the state's other top sprinters, but he compiled a resume that speaks volumes.
"He's not a big kid," Murdock said of the sprinter and wide receiver who almost always is at a stride length and body mass disadvantage come start time. "When you look at him on the starting line of the 100 meters, people who don't know him, they're not picking him to win.
"He doesn't look like that prototypical big 100-meter kid or even a football kid but did a real nice job the last couple years playing ball. He looked like a ninth-grader when he was in ninth grade. He looks like a high school kid. He definitely has put the work in, though."
(Almost) one last go-round
With 2019's string of seconds still fresh in their minds, Murdock and Thrush put a plan in place that almost certainly would have resulted in one of the best match-ups of the lost-to-history 2020 PIAA championships.
"The goal was to win, to win the 200 this year," Murdock said of the outlook for 2020. "We did stuff through the winter, and I said let's get you down to low 22s and he did that pretty quick. If you can (break 22 indoors), you're going to be in the hunt. And he did.
"You may run under the state (meet record) and win or not win. (Donovan) Sanders is an excellent runner. You can run the race of your life and get beat."
Undaunted by the challenge, Thrush stayed true to the plan, building up confidence on the indoor ovals and qualifying for both short sprints at the PTFCA finale at Penn State. His indoor PR of 21.86 wound up sixth at the indoor championship, finishing five spots behind Girard College's standout in the meet and on PA MileSplit's final indoor performance list.
"This year, we were definitely focusing more on making sure that I won either the 100 or 200 or possibly even both," Thrush said of his 2020 goals. "So that kind of sucks knowing that I will never have that last chance to get a state banner in our gym, and that I never had a full four years to get it done.
"I feel like my best chance was in the 200, especially after last year's outing. I feel there's not a lot of people that drop a 21.5 in AA. At the end of the day, if i drop a good time and (Sanders) drops a better time, there's really nothing I can do about it."
Murdock noted that he shared some of his own experiences as a high school sprinter narrowly missing out on a goal in stressing to Thrush that his unfinished business can be resolved while competing in the Atlantic 10 for the Duquesne Dukes.
"I said to him, try to look for a silver lining," the coach noted. "You've got something to prove. You haven't achieve all your goals yet.
"He's very goal driven. He will have something that he wants to accomplish in the next four years at Duquesne, and I put my money on him getting those goals or getting dang close to them. He's just that type of driven kid who is not afraid to do the work. I'll be excited to watch how he progresses."