Hannah Cunliffe sat in the Mount Tahoma Stadium grandstands last year, more embittered than at any other point in her life.
Looking out over the concourse, the Federal Way High School sprinter watched as the state’s top prep track and field athletes were qualifying for the chance to consider themselves the best at their respective events at Star Track XXXI.
After a King County Superior Court judge upheld a previous Washington Interscholastic Activities Association transfer-student ruling earlier in the day, Cunliffe remained ineligible to compete.
“I had my mom drop me off, and I just sat there, just angry,” Cunliffe said.
Cunliffe has sprinted on many tracks in faraway places: New York, New Orleans, Albuquerque, N.M., Boise — even in Ukraine. But she has never run on Mount Tahoma’s track.
Cunliffe has won six Amateur Athletic Union national championships but no state titles.
She might be the fastest sprinter Washington has ever seen, yet never seen.
“I have all these national titles, but I just want a state championship, a state ring,” said Cunliffe, a University of
Oklahoma signee. “I feel like a lot of people in Washington haven’t seen me run. A lot of people doubt me in Washington and think I’m not as good as I really am.
“I feel I can prove people wrong.”
Cunliffe’s times rival the fastest all-time marks in state history.
In the 100 meters, she was clocked in 11.38 seconds (wind-aided) in June at the Great Southwest Event in New Mexico. The all-time Washington record is 11.36, set by Lake Washington’s Danielle Marshall in 1992.
At the same meet, Cunliffe ran a wind-aided 23.10 in the 200. Clover Park’s Donna Dennis set the state record of 23.39 in 1982.
“In the 100 and 200, you are probably going to see state records ran,” Federal Way girls coach Quinn Gillis said. “When you watch her train and work out, you can see why she is where she is at.”
Cunliffe, who has seven sisters and one brother, was home-schooled before she arrived at Federal Way. In ninth grade, Cunliffe wanted to try out for a high school track and field team — even if it went against the wishes of her father.
“She had been running against collegiate (athletes) for two years, so I told her that I don’t know if I even want her to run high school track,” said Michael Cunliffe, who is also her coach with the Seattle Speed Track Club. “She ran an 11.71 (100 time) in the eighth grade. What is she going to do (in high school)?”
Hannah Cunliffe tried out at Decatur High School in 2011. Days after posting state-meet qualifying marks in the 100 and 200 at the Arcadia Invitational in California, she suddenly left the program.
Her decision stemmed from an alleged incident with a teammate. She claims that teammate spiked her in the back while she was stretching at practice and then spat food in her face. The two teenagers ended up wrestling on the ground before the scuffle was broken up.
The next year, Cunliffe enrolled in Odyssey Academy, an online school based in Oregon. For the second consecutive year, she was a member of the Star Track audience instead of the field.
“I just wished I could have competed because I think I would have had a good chance of winning,” Cunliffe said.
She enrolled at Federal Way High School last year because she started taking Running Start classes through Highline Community College. She eventually agreed to join the Eagles’ track team.
“(The coaches) came up to me after the first month of school and introduced themselves and asked if I wanted to run,” Cunliffe said. “I told them I would talk to my dad about it and see if it is something I wanted to look into. It ended up working out.”
Said teammate Ta’mara Richey: “To find out she was coming was shocking. It set me back a little bit because she is a great, amazing athlete. To have her on the team is a win-win for us.”
But the WIAA ruled her ineligible for varsity competition, citing transfer rules and saying she first needed one year of continuous enrollment at the new school.
The Cunliffes appealed the ruling but were denied at the West Central District and WIAA levels. So they took it all the way to King County Superior Court.
They argued two things:
• The transfer rule should not apply because she was home-schooled as a sophomore, enrolling in the virtual academy.
• Even if she was considered a transfer student, she should receive a hardship waiver based on the altercation she had at Decatur in 2011.
After many delays, the trial was held May 24 — the same day as the state preliminaries. Cunliffe hoped to win over the court, gain eligibility and join the field at Star Track before the gun sounded.
Instead, the court sided with the WIAA, which stated the transfer rule applied to all students regardless of where they transfer from, and that the altercation wasn’t a credible hardship because the lone witness to the event said the two girls looked like they might “have been playing around.”
The ruling devastated Cunliffe, who was denied any chance of being a member of the school’s state-winning squad.
Fast forward to the present. Spring practices opened two weeks ago, and Cunliffe — named a team captain — appears to be on a mission to become the school’s first state 100 and 200 champion.
Cunliffe already has competed in big meets nationally, too. She ran personal-best times in the 55 meters (6.79) and 60 meters (7.30) at the New Balance Indoor Nationals in New York last weekend. She placed second in both events, and the times rank near the top 10 nationally.
For some perspective: Cunliffe’s 60-meter time is faster than what U.S. Olympic gold medalists Sanya Richards-Ross (7.38 in 2000) and Allyson Felix (7.42 in 2003) ran when they were in high school.
Make no mistake, bitterness remains over what transpired the past three seasons. Cunliffe could have potentially had more state titles than she can count on one hand by now.
“I’m happy because I have an opportunity my senior year to do what I’ve always wanted and win state,” Cunliffe said. “But at the same time, I’m really hungry because going to the state championships for three years and watching it, wishing I could be out there, was frustrating. It just made me really mad.
“I’m ready to just go on the track and show everybody where I’ve been. I feel more focused than ever, and I’m excited. I’m really, honestly excited.”
PREP TRACK AND FIELD PRIMER
Could be a three-team race for the Class 4A title among defending state champion Federal Way, Wenatchee and Gig Harbor. Behind a national-championship band of cross country runners, led by Logan Carroll and Wolfgang Beck, top returning West Central District sprinter Garret Steuk and underrated thrower Charlie Dahlstrom, the Tides get the nod to win their fourth state title in the past decade.
4A Narrows — Gig Harbor. SPSL South — Federal Way. SPSL North — Kentridge. 3A Narrows — Lincoln. 3A SPSL — Lakes. 2A SPSL — Orting. 2A Evergreen — River Ridge. 1A Nisqually — Eatonville.
ATHLETE TO WATCH
Nate Robinson’s all-time Washington record in the 110-meter hurdles for Rainier Beach High School — 13.85 — has been pinned up in Eric Simpson’s room since he was in junior high school. Now the Rogers High School standout and reigning Class 4A state hurdles champion has that time in mind this season (best mark is 14.03). This Rams’ senior has a thirst for hard work and is extremely motivated this spring.
BEST OF the REST
4A: Wolfgang Beck, Gig Harbor, sr. (1,600, 3,200); Logan Carroll, Gig Harbor, sr. (800, 1,600); Hasani Childs, Curtis, sr. (100, 200); Keenan Curran, Federal Way, sr. (long jump, triple jump); Tucker Mjelde, Tahoma, sr. (pole vault); Denham Patricelli, Tahoma, sr. (javelin); Tyson Penn, Federal Way, so. (high jump); Jared Sinsheimer, Bellarmine Prep, sr. (high jump, triple jump); Garret Steuk, Gig Harbor, sr. (100, 200).
3A: James Jasperson, North Thurston, sr. (800); Trevor Jensen, Auburn Mountainview, jr. (shot put); Therron Randle, Lincoln, sr. (110 hurdles, 300 hurdles); Javon Watson, Timberline, sr. (triple jump).
2A: DeJuan Frye, River Ridge, jr. (100, 200); Takumi Okuhira, Black Hills, sr. (pole vault); Lane Russell, Tumwater, sr. (long jump, triple jump); Jaysen Yoro, Orting, sr. (high jump).
1A/2B: Austin Lutterloh, Tacoma Baptist, sr. (110 hurdles, 300 hurdles); Justin Kaelin, Eatonville, jr. (discus, shot put); Alexander Moore, Charles Wright Academy, sr. (100, 200).
Reigning Class 4A champion Federal Way has its top runners from the state-winning 4x100 and state runner-up 4x200 relay squads returning, defending state 100-meter hurdles champion Mariyah Vongsaveng is back ... and now Oklahoma signee and top national sprinter Hannah Cunliffe is in the mix. The Eagles are loaded, and everyone else appears to be fighting for second place.
4A Narrows — Bellarmine Prep. SPSL South — Federal Way. SPSL North — Auburn Riverside. 3A Narrows — Wilson. 3A SPSL — Enumclaw. 2A SPSL — White River. 2A Evergreen — Capital. 1A Nisqually — Cedar Park Christian.
ATHLETE TO WATCH
About the only middle-distance runner who can rival Kamiakin (Kennewick) star Ellie Heiden in the 400-meter run is Tumwater’s Brooke Feldmeier, an Ole Miss signee. Both are among the best all time in that event, with Heiden going 54.15 seconds last season and Feldmeier 54.37. The Thunderbirds’ senior won three Class 2A state titles last season and is versatile enough to become a college heptathlete.
BEST OF the REST
4A: Hannah Cunliffe, Federal Way, sr. (100, 200); Hannah Derby, Bellarmine Prep, sr. (400, 800); Sofia Kane, Olympia, sr. (1,600, 3,200); ShaRaya Quinn, Emerald Ridge, sr. (100 hurdles, 300 hurdles); Ta’mara Richey, Federal Way, sr. (triple jump); Chante Spotser, Beamer, jr. (400); Mariyah Vongsaveng, Federal Way, jr. (100 hurdles, 300 hurdles); Kaya Warrior, Jefferson, sr. (discus, shot put); Alanna Vann, Beamer, sr. (100, 200); Brittni Williams, Auburn Riverside, jr. (long jump, triple jump).
3A: McKenzi Bravo, Peninsula, sr. (1,600, 3,200); Ericka Budinich, Decatur, sr. (long jump); Maria Blad, Enumclaw, sr. (100 hurdles, 300 hurdles); Samantha Engebretsen, Enumclaw, so. (1,600, 3,200); Aleea Gwerder, Enumclaw, so. (400); Ashli Miles, Lakes, sr. (triple jump); KC Moulden, Enumclaw, jr. (discus, shot put); Michala Zilkey, Peninsula, jr. (discus).
2A: Jade Crawford, White River, sr. (100 hurdles, high jump); Abi Hensler, Sumner, sr. (1,600, 3,200); Amanda Jaynes, Steilacoom, sr. (100 hurdles, 300 hurdles); Lauren Pierson, Capital, jr. (1,600, 3,200).
1A/2B: Karen Bulger, Northwest Christian of Lacey, sr. (javelin, discus, shot put); McKenna Neufeld, Tacoma Baptist, sr. (100, 200, long jump); Daisey Newman, Eatonville, jr. (discus, shot put).