Buckeye-bound Wallen eyes big finish

National signing day is a big affair at Miami Northwestern, which regularly turns out Division I football prospects by the dozen each year. Senior Skyler Wallen, however, didn’t mind crashing this year’s party.

One of the state’s top middle distance runners, Wallen shared the stage with her more ballyhooed classmates, signing a national letter of intent with The Ohio State University.

“I was very excited,” said Wallen. “Lined up with those big football - the only girl with my little hat - it’s very rare. It’s a big relief to know where I’m going, so now I get to focus on the goals I’ve set.”

Wallen isn’t selling herself short in an attempt to color up her collection of medals from the 4A state meet. After earning gold medals each of the past three years as a member of Northwestern’s 4x800 relay team, she is ready to add some individual gold to her collection as well.

“I’ve been kind of struggling for second, third and fourth,” said Wallen, who has qualified for the state meet in the 800 and 1600 each of the last three seasons. “This year, the 800 is my race and I’ve really been working. My goal is to go under 2:10. That’s my biggest goal. In the mile, I want to run low 4:50s.”

Oh, and a state team title is also on that list of goals. Northwestern finished third in 2008, 29 points behind champion and rival Miami Southridge and Lauderdale Lakes Boyd Anderson.

The Bulls have plenty of returning talent in the pen, including state-scoring sprinters Brittany McCord and Brittany Pringley, hurdler Brianna Rollins and jumper Naquia Williams, to be considered a serious threat. Wallen could help pad the team totals by improving in her individual events.

Wallen’s best individual finish was a runner-up effort last May in the 800 (2:12.03). It marked the third consecutive season she has improved one spot at the FHSAA state finals. She also posted a career-best third-place finish in the 1600 (4:58.65).

She won’t be without competition. Wallen’s the top returnee in the 800, but Boyd Anderson’s Eva Pierce (2:13.05) and Rachel James (2:15.16) are back after finishing third and fifth at state. So is fourth-place finisher Jillian Collins (2:13.84) of Royal Palm Beach.

Boone’s Brittany Koziara is back to defend her 1600 state title (4:52.64) and Wallen will also have to contend with Spruce Creek’s Amanda Perkins (4:59.72) and Wellington’s Ashley Brasovan (4:59.76), who were fourth and fifth a year ago.

Of course there’s also the matter of the Lady Bulls completing a four-year sweep of the 4x800 relay.

“There’s a lot of pride behind that (event),” Wallen said. “I want to go under 9 minutes, set the state record and go out with something to remember.”

Wallen is one of four returnees who were part of last season’s winning quartet (9:11.70), and was a sophomore on the Bulls’ state record-setting group in 2006 when they posted a 9:05.90.

Veteran Northwestern coach Carmen Jackson has every reason to believe all of the goals are within reach, and a big reason for that is the maturity Wallen has shown in her final year of competition.

“Skyler is very young for her age,” Jackson said. “She came into high school at 13. This year she’s the most focused that she’s been since she has been with me.”

Jackson challenged Wallen to fulfill her potential during cross country season.

“Going into district, I said to her, ‘This is going to be your last season with me and if you want to be remembered stand up and give it your all, Let’s stand up the next three meets and show what you can do,’” Jackson said. “And she did.”

Wallen capped her modest cross country career with a personal-best time of 19:10 and a solid 12th-place finish at the 4A state meet.

“Miss Carmen and I are really close,“ Wallen said. “She sat me down (for that talk). …. It really did change me and change my whole view on how focused I need to be in order to get to that level of greatness.”

Jackson couldn’t be happier with the response she received from her once-reluctant pupil.

“That was the sign letting me know that she’s maturing and going in the right direction,” Jackson said. “Since that meet she is really, really turning around and heading in the right direction.”

If that maturity shows up on the track, Wallen may well have the speed to threaten Koziara in the 1600 come May at Showalter Field.

“Physically Skyler is ready to run fast,” said Jackson, who has seen Wallen start strong and fade late in the 1600 on more than one occasion. “Mentally, she has to stay there in the race and her natural speed is going to take her home. But she doesn‘t trust herself. She needs to believe in herself a little bit more.”

Wallen acknowledges that she doesn’t really know if she has the speed to win a closing sprint with Koziara at the end of the 1600.

“I’ve never really thought about that, but maybe I do (have the speed),” Wallen said. “We’ve never battled head-to-head where we’ve had to see. Hopefully this year we’ll be able see.”

Signing with Ohio State leaves Wallen unencumbered by the kind of off-track distractions that can derail the best of plans.. Full of confidence, with a solid distance base behind her, the little girl in the hat on signing day, is poised to put a gold-colored cap on her career.