By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
For his 10th birthday, Nicholas Rauch got kind of a weird gift.
His dad, Stephen, promised his oldest son he’d teach him how to run.
“But I’m like, ‘Dad, I already know how to run,’ ” said the younger Rauch, now a senior at Casa Grande High School.
Still, the pair starting running together and took part in 3K competitions in their age groups. Nicholas did well enough, but didn’t set the world on fire.
He even promises me that when he was at Kenilworth Junior High, he was the slowest miler on the track team.
He was the final guy placed on Casa Grande’s varsity cross-country squad his freshman year and then skipped track to play badminton.
But something, somewhere happened. Nicholas Rauch morphed into Nicholas Wow.
That slow miler in middle school was suddenly looking up after four laps and seeing 4:24 on the clock as a sophomore.
In addition to his prowess in nearly every distance event in track, he was also the NBL cross-country champ, NBL Runner of the Year and led the Gauchos to their first NCS cross-country title last fall.
Rauch is the finest male distance runner Casa Grande has ever produced, said Jamie Pugh, Casa Grande’s track coach.
“The kid is a warrior,” he said. “Anything we wanted him to do, he would do, and he was the best.”
Rauch’s skills earned him a partial scholarship to run at UC Davis, but it wasn’t enough to make the move feasible, so he’ll suit up for Santa Rosa Junior College this fall.
Rauch is almost too good for his own good.
He’s qualified for the CIF meet in Clovis this weekend in both the 1600 meters and 800 meters but knows that against some of the strongest runners in the nation, he might be better off putting his eggs into one basket, rather than burning his legs up in both.
That basket is the 800 meters.
But that was a tough call for Rauch, who has excelled in just about every distance he’s tried.
He owns Empire bests in both the 800 meters and 1600 meters this season. But he’s also owner of the second-fastest 3200-meter time in Casa’s history, has run the third-fastest 400 meters in the North Bay League this season and runs a wickedly fast 200 meters.
“Some kids you have to say ‘Can you please do another event for me? Can you try this?’ Anything you ask him to do, it’s ‘Yeah coach, what can I do to help our team score points?’ ” Pugh said.
Case in point?
At the NBL finals, Rauch won the 1600 meters and the 800 meters, but also got second in the 400 meters and anchored the Gauchos’ 4×400-meter relay, running them from seventh to third.
Pugh called it one of the most impressive displays of athleticism he’s seen.
“Nobody does that set of races that he did at our league finals. You can try it, but you can’t perform them at the level he did,” Pugh said. “He is just a really, really tough kid. There wasn’t a single other guy running the 800 meter (also) running the mile, because it’s nuts.”
He might be tough and a little warrior-nutty, but Rauch’s no dummy.
The kid with the 3.5 grade point average ran the numbers for the state meet this weekend.
His top mile time this season — 4:19.20 — would seed him 21st in Clovis. His all-time best — 4:16.85 — ties him at 19th.
But in the 800 meters, he is seeded 16th, a breath away from the top 12 positions needed to advance to the finals Saturday.
His top 800 time of 1:54.28 is about a second and a half away of cracking the top 12.
Rauch called the gap between him and an appearance Saturday “a smidgen.”
And both Rauch and his coach are curious to see what he can do without the weight of multiple races on his legs.
“He has run one 800 fresh — ever — and that was at a meet that he ran a (personal record) on a bad foot,” Pugh said.
Rauch will also benefit from having experienced the bright lights of the state track meet before.
So the senior, who is skipping his high school graduation Friday night to try to shine on prep track’s biggest stage, is banking on a balance of just enough veteran savvy and freshness to see him through the weekend.
Pugh, for one, is confident, calling Rauch a smart, strategic runner.
“He has had a ton of experience,” Pugh said. “He knows what he needs to do.”
THE CLOVIS CONTINGENT:
School: Sonoma Academy
Event: 1,600-meter run
CIF seeding: 3rd
Qualifying time: 4:43.92 (1st at NCS Meet of Champions)
The storyline: Coyotes’ precocious freshman tries for second state title after winning cross-country Division 5 championship in November.
School: Santa Rosa
Events: 200-meter dash, 400-meter dash
CIF seeding: 2nd in 400, 12th in 200.
Qualifying time: 54.24, 400 (1st at NCS MOC)
The storyline: A relative novice at the 400, she ran the second-fastest time in the state in only her fourth competition at that distance.
School: Sonoma Valley
Event: Pole vault
CIF seeding: 26th
Qualifying vault: 11-4 (1st at NCS Meet of Champions)
The storyline: Helped by new 13-foot poles, she hopes to establish a personal best in Clovis to set the stage for a big senior season.
Event: Pole vault
CIF seeding: 28th
Qualifying vault: 11-0 (3rd at NCS Meet of Champions)
The storyline: Gilmore, with a personal record of 11-1, and Allison Scranton make Petaluma the only school with two athletes at the state meet.
School: Casa Grande
Event: 800-meter run
CIF seeding: 16th
Qualifying time: 1:54.46 (3rd at NCS Meet of Champions)
The storyline: Rauch also qualified for the 1,600 but will run only the 800 at Clovis. He went to Clovis last year to run the 1,600.
CIF seeding: 13th
Qualifying throw: 136-3 (2nd at NCS Meet of Champions)
The storyline: Scranton is in the state meet for a second consecutive year. She was 2 inches from qualifying in the shot put as well.
School: Rancho Cotate
Event: High jump
CIF seeding: 25th
Qualifying jump: 6-4
The storyline: Zinnerman is the veteran in the Clovis contingent. He’ll be making his third consecutive trip to the state championship.