Wheaton led Lyons High to three state titles
By Mike Courson
Garrett Wheaton impacted many lives in his tenure at Lyons High School and beyond. Minus some wind and thunderstorms, Tuesday’s Wheaton Relays at Lyons High School provided the perfect meeting place for a handful of Wheaton’s former athletes.
“One of the biggest reasons I’m coaching and teaching at LHS is because of Coach Wheaton,” said current assistant track coach and head basketball coach Brian Friess. “In talking with Darryl (Thornton) Tuesday night, Coach Wheaton was so good, not only as a track coach, but as a person in general. He was big into Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), and that along with his coaching, touched many lives at LHS. Coach just had a way of making athletes feel really important and making them ‘want’ to work hard for him.”
Friess was joined by 11 other former track runners for Wheaton Tuesday afternoon. Garrett’s son, Sheldon, loaned his father’s record books to Terry Drake, who brought them to Lyons. The group spent time poring over several years of history at County Seat.
“He kept every track meet result, every picture, every newspaper clipping, and every state qualifier,” said Friess. “It’s just amazing the records Coach Wheaton kept.”
Tuesday’s track meet marked the 48th (23rd annual) Wheaton Relays, named after the legendary coach. Wheaton came to Lyons in 1966 and began coaching track though the school did not construct its first concrete track until 1970.
Wheaton started the Lyons Relays in that 1970 season. At first, it was an all-relay meet for both field and running events. Wheaton retired from USD 405 in 1995, and the meet was renamed the Wheaton Relays in 1996.
The 1970 Lyons Relays consisted of boys’ teams from Chapman, Lyons, Nickerson, and Russell. Girls joined the meet for the first time in 1981. Twenty schools have participated in the meet.
Wheaton retired as track coach in 1986 but not before his teams compiled nine league championships (1971, 1975, 1977-81, 1985, and 1986), eight regional championships (1971, 1975, 1977-81, 1986), and a trio of consecutive boys’ state titles in 1979, 1980, and 1981.
In his tenure, Wheaton coached 12 individual state champions, six relay championship teams, and his athletes set eight state records.
Several LHS record holders were on hand for Tuesday’s meet. Daryl Thornton won three state titles in 1979. He still holds the school record in the 110m hurdles (14.1) and the 300m hurdles (38.0). The 250 points he won his senior year are also a school record.
“With technology and weight training, and all the education and science, it’s a surprise,” he said of the longevity of his records.
After graduating from Lyons High, Thornton went on to play football at North Texas State. He was later a police officer for five years before taking a job with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He drove in from Texas to attend Tuesday’s festivities.
“The track is much nicer,” he said of the new facilities. “We had an asphalt track. It was a black asphalt track. It was hard, but that was the best we had. We ran and we loved it. Coach Wheaton was really the catalyst for all of this.”
Terry Drake also went on to bigger and better things after graduating from Lyons. A 1975 graduate, he set the school record in the mile with a time of 4:27, another record still stands today.
“Probably about three years before me, a guy by the name of Bobby Joe Higgins was a superstar,” Drake said. “It was his record I broke in the mile. There were five or six of us who looked up to him and followed in his footsteps. We were conference champions and I feel like we kind of set the stage for how good Lyons became later on.”
Running in the 1970s, Drake had plenty of other inspiration with Steve Prefontaine and Wichita-native Jim Ryun competing in the 1972 Munich Olympics.
“Prefontaine is still a legend and he’s still impacting kids,” Drake said. “We all had his poster and we all wanted to be Pre. We all grew our hair long. He definitely had an impact.”
Drake went on to run for Azusa Pacific, a small Christian college near Pasadena, Calif., where he earned small-college All-American honors. He began running the 3000m steeplechase and returned home to Lyons to train before national meets.
“Coach Wheaton taught me how to compete, how to be humble, and how to help the guys on the team – to be a good leader,” said Drake. “He challenged us to be better and most of us were because of it.”
Drake competed in the 1984 Olympic Trials in Los Angeles. He finished eighth in his heat to miss a spot in the semifinals by eight seconds. Americans Brian Diemer and Henry Marsh, the top-two finishers at the trials, went on to place third and fourth, respectively, at the 1984 Olympic Games. He later spent three years touring Europe and competed in the World Games in Helsinki, Finland.
“I was a small guy from Lyons, Kansas lining up with the best guys in the world,” Drake said of the trials. “It was quite an honor. I didn’t do all that great but it was just an honor to be there.”
Drake, still a frequent visitor to Lyons, drove in from Olathe Tuesday to hang with some old teammates. “I haven’t seen some of those guys in 30 years,” he said. “It was really nice to see some of them. It was a lot of fun.”
Other record holders on hand Tuesday included Donnie Wilson and Chris Michaelis. Along with Ernie Wilson and Doug Siemens, they set the 4x800m school record that still stands at 8:09.50.
Mike Rogers’ 3200m record of 9:27.9 still stands today, and Friess and Joe Young, along with David Hundley and Andy Parrish, still hold the school’s 4x400m relay record at 3:22.90.