Last year, Ashland High junior Sam Jackson was a man without a home; yet, by season's end no one could doubt he had found his comfort zone.

Last year, Ashland High junior Sam Jackson was a man without a home; yet, by season's end no one could doubt he had found his comfort zone. Now entering his third season as one of the top runners in the state, the sky's the limit for the Grizzlies' middle distance star.

Jackson entered last season believing that he was a long-distance runner squeezed out of the top two spots in his three preferred events. Then a sophomore, Jackson, also a member of the AHS cross country team and self described "running lover," hoped to fill a spot by running the 200-, 1500-, or 3,000-meter races for the Grizzlies. But upperclassmen blocked that path and running coach Bob Julian Jr. devised an alternative plan.

Jackson would fill the 800-meter spot on the team — a no-mans-land half-mile run requiring sprinting speed and long-distance endurance. At season's end the move paid off brilliantly when Jackson set a personal record and won the OSAA 5A state championship with a winning time of 1 minute, 57.16 seconds.

And, what is more unlikely than a sophomore winning a state championship in one of the toughest events is the fact that Jackson didn't even participate in team sports until his freshmen year.

"I was always very active and really loved running," Jackson said.

It didn't hurt that the transition from cross country to track and field his freshmen year was a natural progression. But the 800 is a different kind of animal. The event requires a sprinter's stride and extreme conditioning, which are rare qualities to find in high schoolers, let alone a 16-year-old.

The run requires someone to push it as hard as they can for a quarter-mile, without burning out, before hitting the jets and saving enough energy to avoid the "gorilla on your back" according to Ashland assistant coach Leland Fulton.

Jackson appears to have found that perfect balance. He has the physical gifts to run the event competitively, and the running mentality to take on all tasks small and large.

On Tuesday, in a dual meet at South Medford High, Jackson won the 200 and the 1500, which may surprise some considering the different set of skills required to run those events. But, Jackson's ability in the 800 allows him to perform well at all levels, and the varying events cross-train him for the half-mile.

"It's rare to see any athlete run both of those events let alone win both of those events," said Fulton. "And he had pretty good times in both events, too. It shows he has that physical (traits) and the good attitude to compete well."

Jackson's love of running and willingness to run any event short or long put him in the unique situation of always being prepared to take on the competition. And that is one of the more rare qualities Jackson has: the confidence that he can win any event he's in.

"(Sam) isn't afraid to run or race at any distance," said Fulton. "He's a competitive kid."

"I try to race like I'm running four 200-meter (sprints)," added Jackson.

By creating four mini-races in the course of the 800, Jackson has four opportunities to adjust his body according to the races. But no matter what, the last 100 meters are always the same: a flat-out sprint to the finish.

The race is tough, concedes Fulton. It can leave runners with pounding headaches and often runners will sacrifice everything for the best finish, pushing themselves to the brink of blacking out.

And Sam will be pushing himself this year, maybe even faster than he thought possible. This Friday Jackson and the rest of the Grizzly squad will head north to the University of Oregon in Eugene for the Oregon Relays, the premiere track and field event in the Pacific Northwest.

There, competing against the best high school athletes in the state — and among the professional and college ranks waiting to compete on Saturday — Jackson hopes to find someone strong enough to push him.

"Breaking a personal record is a lot easier when someone is running faster than you," said Jackson.

If you stay on their heels and kick hard down the finish anything can happen. Which might include setting a personal best of 1:55, which would obliterate Jackson's top time of 1:58.30 set April 6 against North Medford.

With the top time in the state at the 5A level (1:58.30), Jackson is eyeballing another fantastic finish this year.