From Distance Runner To State Long Jump Champion

For Centreville track standout Caden Billak, winning a 6A state championship in the long jump was like a dream.

In fact, it was just like one. Literally.

To hear Billak tell the story is to sense that the theme music from "Twilight Zone" (look it up!) is about to start playing in the background.

Billak, who entered the state meet with a best jump of 23-2, tells the story.

"Since we're from Northern Virginia, we came down to Newport News on Thursday night to stay in a hotel. And I had a dream. It was so strong that it woke me up at four in the morning. I dreamed that I jumped 23-10 and won."

Billak had a good reason to be optimistic. Unlike some other jumpers, he hadn't lost too many days of practice due to inclement weather. In fact, he made it out to Centreville High on Monday, the President's Day holiday, and jumped in the Wildcat pit by himself. On Wednesday, he got to practice jumping some more, but this time with his teammates.

"Practices went pretty well," said Billak in a moment of reflection. "I worked on sprinting, since I also run the 55, but mostly did light stuff, like run-throughs."

And in perhaps the best performance of his young track career, Billak busted out with a PR 23-5 on his first jump and blew past the competition to win the 6A long jump on Saturday with a leap of 23-10.25.

Psychic fate? Probably not. In fact, the bigger surprise might be learning how Billak got started as a jumper.

"I didn't run indoor in ninth grade, and I played football for three years," said Billak, who admitted that he stopped his gridiron career with the Wildcats last fall in order to focus on his pending college track scholarships. "I ran outdoor track, and I ran the mile and two-mile."

A distance runner?

"Yeah," quipped Billak, as he laughed at the memory of tipping the scales at 145 pounds as a freshman, while maintaining his 6-foot-2 frame. "I ran the mile in 5:08 in ninth grade."

The switch came during "one of those little JV meets as a sophomore," said Billak. Given the opportunity to multitask, the Wildcat coach dropped the distance runner into the 55 meters, "and I did alright. After the meet, I talked with the coach and we switched."

Billak's first invitational 55-meter dash was dreadful. "I ran 7-point-2 something (7.22). Fortunately, he grew into sprinter form and lowered his time into the 6.7-6.8 range by season's end.

With his newfound speed, the Centreville coach had another idea. "I started jumping." It made sense given his combination of size, strength, and speed.

There was still the matter of playing football. "I played for three years, mostly as a backup and on special teams. But I broke my wrist last year and missed the playoffs. Then, I had to run during the indoor season with a cast on my arm."

With only track to focus on for his senior year, Billak has flourished. At the Virginia Showcase, he won the non-invitational 300 with a swift clocking of 35.06, while his 55 time is down to 6.55.

The colleges have noticed, and as winter turns into spring, the senior has narrowed his choices down to three - the Naval Academy, William and Mary and St. Francis (PA). He will make his announcement "in about three weeks," leaving plenty of time to run an outdoor season free of collegiate recruiting pressure.

What's the next step for Billak? Complacency is not a common word in his vocabulary. "I can never settle. I'm always aiming to get new qualifiers." The goals for outdoor season include a 10.7 in the 100 (he's at 10.90 now), sub-22 in the 200, 48 in the quarter and 24 feet in the long jump.

Billak realizes that he might hit the jump goal at New Balance Nationals in 10 days. For him, the sprinting goal may be the hardest to reach. "Coming out of the blocks is my biggest problem - because I'm tall. I need to work on my explosiveness out of the blocks."

Reminded that another poor block starter, world record sprinter Usain Bolt, is 6-foot-5, he laughs again. "You know what, I was thinking that too."

If the thought leads to Billak having another premonition, pay close attention.