Once again, Anna and Melissa athletes have turned their attention to the classical measures of physical prowess, some of which have their origins in ancient Greece. We speak of track and field, kind readers, the sport of many sports, the test with many tests.
Today, we’ll look at Melissa’s boys and girls squads, with comments from head coaches and top performers. Anna’s teams will be presented next week. As we’ll learn, Highway 5 environs are loaded with superb track and field athletes. Most began these endeavors around seventh grade, though one started at the ripe age of 8.
Head coach Theodore Mackey III, in his second year at the girls’ track and field helm, has a team back that expects to build off last year’s tremendous success. That season ended with the Lady Cardinals sending multiple representatives to the state meet in Austin, including: Gill Gray in the 400 meters, Maddie Kane in the 300-meter hurdles, Priscilla Adejokun in the shot put and Gray, Kane, Elise Hawn and Karrington Lewis in the mile relay, with Joy Sparks and Erin Eichel as alternates.
“Of those girls,” Mackey says, “we have them all back except for Elise Hawn on the relay.”
After a second-place finish in tough District 11-4A, Mackey notes his team did well at area and eventually became runners-up at the regional meet. At that event, to advance to state, Gray beat out everyone in the 400 meters, Adejokun ruled in the shot put, Kane took second in the 300 hurdles and the mile-relay team also placed second. At state, Kane stood on the medal podium, earning bronze, while Adejokun and the mile-relayers took fourth and Gray placed fifth.
With this wealth of talent returning, Mackey says he feels good about the coming season. “I would say that, No. 1, we have a great coaching staff. Coach [Frank] DePaolo is now on with us. He’s going to be our jumps coach. Coach [Rick] Gagarin has done a great job with vaulting and Coach [Whitney] Nelson is going to continue to be the ‘throw guru’ for us. Then there’s Coach [Clay] McCarter, he’s really my right-hand man. … We have a plan and we’re going to stick to the plan. Yes, we do have an expectation of being good and getting back there [to state], but we know it takes one meet at a time. … The blessing is we have a group of girls who have the desire to want to do that. What we do is put them in position to be as successful as they can be. It’s about them.”
The Lady Cards — and the boys — opened their season on Feb. 25 with a Class 6A meet at McKinney Boyd. Their next meet is the Lovejoy Invitational on Saturday, March 4. “Then we have multiple opportunities to go to the Texas Relays [in Austin],” Mackey says. “And we’ve already been invited to the Jesuit-Sheaner Relays [in Dallas]. That’s a pretty big deal. We have multiple girls in that.”
Returning state shot put-finalist Priscilla Adejokun says she originally leaned toward long jumping but was soon “more attached” to the shot and discus. “Mostly,” says the senior, “because I was, like, ‘Ooo, I want to go the distance’ — Hercules Disney quote right there. I just thought it would be really cool to compete with myself that way. That’s the cool thing about track. Your own contribution to the team comes from you challenging yourself.”
Adejokun says the state meet experience was special for her and her teammates. “A lot of the girls in my grade happened to go to state as well. It was just really cool spending time with them and getting to know them more, since I don’t really see them all that much.” Her goal is to “do better than I did last year,” noting it’s “college season” and she’s “looking out for other schools to also invest throwing in.”
Senior Maddie Kane says of running track, “It’s just kind of been in my life. Not very long like it’s been in other people’s, but I’ve loved it ever since I started it. … I like the atmosphere a lot and you meet a lot of people while you’re running. You have friends from other schools so when you’re at the starting line, you have people to talk to.” Kane says her third-place finish in the state 300 hurdles was sort of a shocker. “I was expecting to place but I wasn’t really expecting it to be that close. It just kind of took me by surprise. I was like, ‘Wow.’ I looked up at the big screen and I saw my time and it just kind of hit me.”
Kane’s goals this year include reaching a new personal-record time and winning state. “And I hope to grow more with my team and grow more as an athlete, and just become a better person on and off the track,” she says. “I’ve been getting stronger and just trying to work on myself and my technique, so I can get better than I was last year.” Kane says she has no particular Olympic role model. “You look up to all of those people. You want to be like them one day.”
Gill Gray says track sort of crept up on her. “I just kind of ran because you had to, then I ended up liking it, I guess, because I was good at it.” Indeed — she competed in the 400 meters at state last year, as well as with the mile-relay team. “It was really exciting,” says the senior. “I especially liked running in front of that many people. It’s just a really good experience, everything that you get to do. It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s really fun.”
Practice for Gray can consist of anything from running 12 150-meter dashes to multiple 400s. Gray, of course, wants to get back to Austin but this time, she says, “actually get on the podium.” She skipped basketball this year to concentrate on track. “I’ve had a lot more time to prepare for the next season,” she says, “so I think, physically, I’m in a lot better place than I was last year.”
Senior Karrington Lewis started track at age 8. “My parents actually forced me to go to a track practice,” she says, smiling. “I didn’t like it at first. I cried. But I got used to it.” Her main events today are the 200 and 400 meters. So when did Lewis start “getting used to” the 400? “Not quite yet,” she laughs. “I like it, but there’s always a love-hate relationship with the 400 that’s not going to go away.” As for getting to state last year, Lewis says, “I liked the environment. State environment is really intense. It’s nice — a lot of competition.” Her role model is U.S. gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross, who won the 400 meters at the 2012 Olympic Games.
What makes a successful runner? “Just hard work and loving what you’re doing, basically,” Lewis says. Her current goals? “I do have a few times that I need to hit to get into college, to get those scholarships. … Everything’s good. It’s going to be a good year.”
Junior Joy Sparks, a mile-relay alternate at state last year along with Erin Eichel, hopes to get back to Austin again this time around. “I loved being there and seeing it, in case I run it this year,” she says. Relays, Sparks adds, have always been her favorite events since starting track in seventh grade. “I was just fresh into sports so I decided to do everything that year.”
Head coach Travis Roberson has served Melissa track and field for 10 years, initially coaching the girls for three seasons. With only two seniors back this year, his 2017 boys’ squad is young but Roberson assures they’ll be quite competitive. “We’ve got good throwers,” he says. “We’ve got excellent distance kids and we’ve got some really good young sprinters — mostly freshmen. In about another year, the goal is to get one of those relay teams to Austin. We’ve never had a relay team make it to Austin on the boys’ side.” He adds, “We’re probably a year away from being really, really good, as far as relays.”
The Cards had their first state medalist ever last year in Tom Whitson, who placed third in the 200 meters. “Obviously, losing him is going to be big,” Roberson says. But another 2016 state finalist, shot put and discus specialist Gunnar Murphy, is back for his senior year. “He was the only one at state last year that was an underclassman,” Roberson says of Murphy. “So obviously he’s got the experience. I fully expect him to make it back [to state] and, realistically, get on the medal stand — and possibly for disc.”
Roberson also touts senior Elijah Mackey, Melissa’s 2016 regional cross-country champion. “He should be probably the favorite in the region, maybe in the two-mile and the mile.” The Cards have other reasons to smile, including freshman sprinter Ja’Bray Young. “He’s an exceptional track kid,” Roberson says, “and he’s just a baby. And [freshman] Kaedric Cobbs should have a good year in the hurdles. And I’ve got a really good pole vaulter in [senior] Gabe Rodriguez, a regional-qualifier last year.”
Roberson says Melissa’s district, 11-4A, will be tougher than in the past. “You’ve got us, and Anna’s got some really good kids. EJ Smith at Anna is just phenomenal. And Princeton, just by numbers, they’re going to have quality kids in every event. Aubrey is always good at track, then Celina — is just Celina. Those are going to be, to me, the top five teams in the district. It’ll be competitive.”
Roberson notes that Melissa’s boys haven’t won a district championship in three years, finishing second last year to Princeton. “And it’s been two years since we won an area championship,” he says. “We always qualify 15 or 16 boys to the regional track meet. And the last couple of years, we’ve gotten at least one kid to state. So that’s the goal. We want to get as many kids to the regional meet as possible and get kids to the state meet — and get more kids on the medal stand, like we did last year with Tom.”
A key turning point for distance-runner Elijah Mackey was when he didn’t make his 9th-grade basketball team. “So my dad really encouraged me to start taking running more seriously,” he says. “As the years have gone by I’ve just taken it a little more seriously every year. Now I’m looking for a championship season this year.”
“I feel like I’m in some of the best shape of my life right now, as far as the running part,” Mackey says. “Mentally, I’m feeling pretty strong too. … The biggest part of the middle distances is the mindset. You can have a really great body, but if your mind isn’t there then you’re never going to be that good.”
Mackey’s role model is 2016 Olympic gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz. “I always look up to him,” Mackey says. “He’s a really great 1,500-[meter] runner.”
Gunnar Murphy says he didn’t get real serious about the shot put and disc until last year. I threw my sophomore year, but I didn’t do it real competitively.” He says a football foot injury his junior year caused him to give throwing more attention. “That was about the last thing I could do,” he says, “so I was thinking, ‘Well, let’s get after it.’”
Besides going to state in the shot last year, Murphy qualified for regionals with the discus. “I was one [throw] away [from state] in the disc and I had a bad day.” Of competing at state, Murphy says, “The adrenaline rush I got was unforgettable.” His goal this year is “to win state,” he says. “I was the only junior last year at state in the shot put, so I think it’s a very reasonable goal to set.”
Murphy’s practice regimen involves warm-ups on the track to “get my steps going right” followed by 200 throws each with the shot and the discus.
Pole-vaulter Gabe Rodriguez has qualified for regionals each of the last two years. “Sophomore year I just tried it because I have the right body type for it,” he says. “And I ended up loving it — and breaking my leg.” With that behind him, Rodriguez plans a 2017 trip to state. “That’s really the goal. … I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited.” He says pole-vaulting requires “body control and body awareness.” His role models are the collegiate athletes on his private team.
Ja’Bray Young, having already run sprints this day, says he feels “pretty tired, but good.” His role model is Tyson Gay, Olympic silver medalist and American 200-meter record-holder. “I try to watch him,” Young says. “He comes out of the blocks.” Young says he went into track simply because “I’m fast — and I want to win,” adding, “good form” is a must for a sprinter. Young’s favorite races are the 100, the 200 and the 4X100 relay. His training regimen involves running multiple 200s then concentrating just on navigating curves one day a week. Young’s goals? “Do my best and try not to lose.”