Ilian Roberts, his Deer Valley teammates and maybe even his coaches didn’t realize he was a top 200 meter runner until he stunned the field to win the Division II state title May 7.
Roberts, who just finished his junior year, arrived at the state meet gunning for a second straight podium finish in the 300-meter hurdles. But he ran 10th in the 300 preliminaries, missing the final, and snuck into the 200 field with the eighth fastest time.
Still he was an afterthought to the favorites, who were goofing around before the race and predicting the order of finish. The quiet Roberts put on a performance to shut them up, winning in a time of 21.92, slicing more than half a second off his personal best from the preliminaries.
“All the other 200 runners were just joking around, laughing. I just kept pacing back and forth and it was annoying me because everybody was saying lane 5 is going to win,” Roberts said. “At first I thought I was losing it because lane 7, I saw him through my peripheral vision. But once I passed through the transition line, I could see that everybody was behind me.
In the smaller track meets Roberts would have to choose between the 200 and the hurdles since those races are almost back to back. In the bigger meets
Longtime Deer Valley track coach Eric Bolus said senior Thomas Sahotsky, who did qualify for the 300 hurdles, motivated Roberts.
“He came out of lane nine and destroyed that race. They weren’t really close to him,” Bolus said. “Lane nine doesn’t win. For him to do it out of lane nine is really amazing.”
But Ilian Roberts is used to beating long odds.
Ilian is one of four boys adopted by Cathy and Paul Roberts and raised in their northwest Phoenix home. Though not brothers by blood, Chanel and Marlon preceded him in Skyhawks football and track lore.
The family, which includes four of the Roberts own boys, forged bonds over the years.
Throughout life we came together as a family,” Roberts said.
In 2011, a few years after the Roberts adopted Chanel, born in Africa, they adopted Ilian from a foster home in south Phoenix.
“To know Ilian’s story would break your heart. What he’s had to overcome as a young man and what he’s been able to accomplish goes beyond the track,” Bolus said. “He’s a straight A student. The adversity he’s had to deal with, to not use that as a crutch but as motivation to succeed, makes him even more impressive.”
Roberts broke out in 2015, placing second in the Division II 300-meter hurdles. But even for most of this year, there were stops and starts as the track coaches tried to get Roberts to believe in his abilities.
Bolus said next year’s goal is for Roberts to make the finals in both sprints and both hurdles races. While Roberts will have a target on his back, he’ll also return with more belief in his speed.
“I feel a lot more confident with everything I do,” Roberts said.
Roberts decided not to go to the Great Southwest Invitational in Albuquerque, N.M. this week, wanting to focus on summer football preparation.
As the Skyhawks football coach, Bolus didn’t seem to mind. He’s already seen a different Ilian on the field since the track finals, one that can be Deer Valley’s top cornerback.
“We saw it in spring football. It was a completely more confident Ilian. He looked amazing,” Bolus said. “We’re hoping it makes him realize how amazing he is and what he can do as a senior.”