Chatham sees 62 athletes qualify for states in dominant regional showing in Franklinton

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FRANKLINTON — You don’t want to blink when Tamaya Walden is on the track. You might miss her championship run.

The Chatham Charter speed demon qualified for the NCHSAA 1A Track & Field State Championships in the women’s 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes by winning gold in all three events at the 1A Mideast Regional at Franklinton High School last Saturday. She was the only contestant at the 1A regional competition to win three individual events.

“It’s another dream come true,” Walden said of her tour de force, acknowledging its source. “Thank God for my ability.”

She wasn’t the only Chatham Charter athlete to celebrate a figurative day in the sun, while rain showers literally doused the Franklinton High School facilities, delaying the competition’s start and periodically disrupting the flow of events.

Knights senior Brandon McKoy won the men’s 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs with stunning ease, Meredith Reese won the women’s 3,200 and Brooke Garner topped the women’s triple jump field, giving the Knights seven first-place finishes. Their third-place women’s ranking in the team results was the best of the six Chatham County schools competing among three classifications over the weekend. The Chatham Charter men’s team finished 10th in the title chase.

“Tamaya is just an amazing athlete. Everything she does, she does with her whole self,” said Chatham Charter co-head coach Tina Rakes, noting that the speedster scored her 1,000th career point in basketball this past season and that she and McKoy were named school athletes of the year. McKoy, she said, is incredibly hard-working, always lending a helping hand where needed and a high-level student — he’s headed to Columbia University in the fall.

“We had a great day today, our tiny little team,” which doesn’t have enough members to field any relay teams, a void that hurts them in scoring, Rakes said. “We just have such talent. That’s all I can say. It’s paid off, all the hard work that they’ve done.”

Other Chatham County regional champions were Caroline Murrell of Northwood in the women’s 3,200-meter run; Noah Nielson, Jackson Adams, Marco Sanchez and Christian Glick of Northwood in the men’s 4x800-meter relay; Rachel Woods, Charley Lemons, Cassidy Deshazo and Jasmine Basilio of Jordan-Matthews in the women’s 4x400-meter relay; and Woods Charter’s Ellie Poitras in the 1,600-meter run and Analise De Leon Villanueva in the women’s 300-meter hurdles.

To qualify for the state meet, athletes must place in the top four of their respective events at regionals. In all, the Chatham County delegation qualified 62 athletes for the NCHSAA State Championships, which will be held at North Carolina A&T State University on Friday and Saturday. Chatham athletes will be competing in 11 women’s events in 1A, seven in 2A and four in 3A, along with nine men’s events in 1A, five in 2A and four in 3A.

The quest for a repeat

Northwood’s Murrell, the returning 3A state champion in the women’s 3,200-meter run, sent a strong message that she has no plans to relinquish the title, smoking the competition to lead the Chargers’ women’s squad to an eighth-place finish. The men’s team also captured eighth place, paced by the first-place time of 8:14.78 for the 4x800-meter relay team of Nielson, Adams, Sanchez and Glick.

Murrell, still stinging from an earlier second-place time in the women’s 1,600-meter run that she led at one point, left no doubt in the 3,200. She began lapping the competition in her fourth time around the track, and by the eighth lap was a full half-course ahead of Carrboro’s second-place finisher Hannah Preisser. It was vindication for the Charger, who fell to Preisser in the 1,600.

“I’m glad I was able to come back after a performance that I didn’t love in the mile and do something I was proud of,” crossing the finish line just 8 seconds off her state championship personal record, Murrell said. “That’s definitely the race I feel more confident in. I’m proud of the way that I pushed myself. I definitely was tired.”

In the mile, Murrell drafted for two laps and then passed Preisser in the third, but couldn’t fight off a determined Preisser down the stretch.

“I knew that she had a good kick.,” she said. “I thought maybe in that third lap I could get some distance, but I just didn’t. I knew she was right there. I think she just matched my PR in that race.”

Murrell was also part of the women’s 4x800-meter relay team that took fourth place, and she had a PR in her leg. Senior Emma Serrano, junior Rokia Sissoko and freshman Avery Adams were the other squad members.

“I’m really proud of my team, and they put in a lot of hard work,” breaking seed to qualify for states, she said.

“Even at the state (level), nobody’s going to touch her (in the 2-mile). She’s one of a kind, one in a million for a coach,” Northwood head coach Cameron Isenhour said. “She just has that intangible that really nobody else in the state has of wanting it more than anybody and doing her best.”

Isenhour was also thrilled with his men’s relay teams.

“We broke a very old 4x800 school record that I think stood for over 10 years,” he said. “Definitely Noah Nielson exceeded expectations. He ran the first leg in our 4x800 and our 4x400. He PR’d in both.”

“We won it in indoor, and we’re hoping to repeat for outdoor,” said Sanchez, who ran the third leg of the 4x800. The Chargers led the whole race, eclipsing their seed time by 15 seconds, and Sanchez wasn’t about to get passed. “It’s going to be a close one,” he remembered thinking as he awaited the baton. “Adrenaline was rushing through me and I guess it helped me.” Sanchez was also on the 4x400-meter relay team that took third place.

Isenhour gave “a big shout out to Ethan Wilson” in the men’s 110-meter hurdles. He was seeded seventh, but captured fourth place and a trip to states “with a big PR.”

“I think I was last at the start,” said Wilson, a junior who ran the hurdles once in 6th grade but didn’t compete in track again until this year. As the race progressed, Wilson closed ground. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I might actually be able to get fourth. That’s what I was thinking.”

Wrath of the newcomers

The Jordan-Matthews women finished seventh as a team in the 2A meet, led by the 4x400-meter relay championship squad, and the men took 20th. Seaforth finished in seventh place in the men’s team scoring, while the women came in 11th.

“I’m just happy for them,” Jordan-Matthews head coach Lamont Piggie said of his Jets. It’s always an experience for the kids to get to the state track meet and to run on a college campus and expose themselves (to) everybody else in the state.”

Piggie said the women’s team finished second at the Mid-Carolina 1A/2A conference meet, “so they had high expectations coming here and exceeded them.”

“It feels good. Shocking, but good,” Woods said of winning the 4x400 and qualifying for three events at states. She also qualified by taking third place in the women’s 400-meter dash and fourth place with the women’s 4x100-meter relay team.

“It’s my first year running track. I’ve never run before so I came out here thinking I wasn’t going to qualify for anything,” Woods said, pleasantly surprised.

Basilio, Lemons and Deshazo were the other members of the 4x400 squad that was never behind in its gold-medal race.

“I was really nervous because I’m usually not last leg, and that last leg gets a lot of pressure,” said Basilio, who had never run track before this year. She said she was thinking how embarrassing it would be if they lost on her leg. “I heard people yelling and I thought there was somebody right behind me, so I did not stop sprinting” until she led the pack across the finish line. Basilio also qualified with the women’s 4x800-meter relay squad, which finished in fourth.

The Jets’ Madelyn Eubanks took silver in the women’s discus in her first year of track, too.

“I’m proud of myself. I really didn’t think I would go to states, but I surprised myself,” the Jordan-Matthews junior said. She said she has worked hard to improve on her form. “I’ve gotten better and I’m more confident,” culminating in her best throw of the year at the regional meet.

Seaforth co-head coach Tommy Johnson said there has been a steep learning curve for his team this season in its first year as a program.

“If you look at some of our early-season meets and what they did today, it’s pretty astounding to have 20 (at regionals) and we’re sending 11 to states as a first-year program with no juniors or seniors,” Johnson said.

Seaforth freshman phenom Jack Anstrom punched his ticket to states in the men’s 1,600- and 3,200-meter events in his first full season of high school track.

Anstrom seized the lead against Lane Prochaska of Granville Central and Andrew Parker of North Carolina School of Science and Math in the 1,600, and briefly flirted with the idea of going all out. But he had second thoughts, knowing he would see them again in the 3,200, in which he thought he had a better chance of winning. Prochaska and Parker finished 1-2 in the mile, with Anstrom clocking a close third.

The trio again was bunched up in the lead for most of the 2-mile, but Parker blew it out after the seventh lap for gold. Anstrom took silver and Prochaska bronze.

“I’m OK with being a little bit incomplete because it gives me something to look forward to in the future,” Anstrom said.

“I’m happy to be in states twice. Not many other freshmen can say that,” Anstrom said. He planned to celebrate at a school dance Saturday night. “I can’t wait to go back and high-five a bunch of people, go to states and try to win the mile, and hopefully I do well in the 3,200 and then nationals after that.”

Seaforth freshman Gabby White flew through the air to a PR and bronze-medal finish in the women’s long jump.

“This was really such a great experience just jumping over 17 feet for me” for the first time, said White, who hadn’t run track before this season. She credited a tweak to her form — keeping her head up on the approach, “not looking down to see where I was stepping, just trusting that my steps were correct so that way I could jump my full capacity.”

Seaforth freshman Katie Johnson said it is intimidating to compete against schools heavy on upperclassmen, but thinks they were impressed with the upstart Seahawks. She ran the third leg on the women’s 4x800-meter relay team along with freshman Lily McFall, freshman Charlie Ann George and freshman Claire Morgan, that jumped from a fifth seed to a bronze medal.

“As soon as I got the baton, I just started running as fast as I possibly could, and I tried keeping that pace through the second lap,” Johnson said, “and once I handed over the baton, I was tired, but happy with how I placed.”

Qualifiers everywhere

In the 1A classification, all of Chatham’s women’s teams finished in the top 10 of the team scoring, with Chatham Charter capturing third place, Woods Charter claiming fifth and Chatham Central taking sixth. The men’s teams also all had top-10 finishes, with Woods Charter in sixth, Chatham Central in eighth and Chatham Charter in 10th.

Walden said she was nervous coming into the meet, but wanted to make her father proud because he had to work and couldn’t attend the meet.

Her winning 400-meter dash strategy was simple.

“After the gun, I made sure I get out on the curve and just keep the lead, and the last 100 meters, just push,” Walden said. She claimed she felt no pressure in the women’s 200-meter dash “because I could tell once I was in that curve, I was booking it.”

McKoy said he felt like he had something to prove this year.

“Ever since I got into track at Chatham Charter, which I started my freshman year, I really just haven’t been able to win at regionals, and I thought this year was the year to do it, especially since I’m graduating,” McKoy said. And he did it without trying to set a personal best time, but with an eye on simply qualifying for the state meet.

While he had to fight it out with Wiley Sikes of Woods Charter for four revolutions around the track in the men’s 1,600-meter run, McKoy blew out the competition in the 3,200.

“I ran my first lap out kind of fast just to get pace and just to set my place,” McKoy said. “But my second lap and the first half of my third lap were pretty slow, and when I finally got to that 600(-meter) mark I just kicked it in, and then kicked it again at 400 and 100,” all while lapping other contestants.

Reese, a Chatham Charter sophomore, finished nearly two minutes ahead of the field in the women’s 3,200-meter run.

“I was just thinking I’ve got to go fast, and I’ve got to meet my expectations, so I need to keep the same pace I’m going for and not deviate,” she said. It does get lonely out in front, she admitted. “Throughout the whole race, I just imagined there was somebody in front of me and that kept me going.”

Teammate Ariana Rivera-Roma finished fourth in the event.

“I think that was a good time for me. There’s always room for improvement, but overall, I’m just happy I made it to states,” Rivera-Roma said.

Woods Charter head coach Taylor Transue was pleased with her team’s performance, noting there is only one senior among their state qualifiers.

“I think we have a couple of good years ahead of us, and we’re kind of just the tip of the iceberg right here,” she said. “We’re a small school, so when we have this type of representation at a state qualifier it just makes me extremely proud of the hard work they’ve put in.”

Woods Charter sophomore Ellie Poitras had a scare from Chatham Central sophomore Samantha Scott before winning the women’s 1,600-meter run.

“When she passed me, I kept trying to pass her doing little spurts. And then I was like, ‘Oh, no, I’m not going to get first,’” as they got to the last 200-meter mark, Poitras said. “And then right there I was just thinking about all of the training I had put into it and sprinted as hard as I freaking could and somehow finished strong” with a kick that put her across the finish line first.

Poitras’ teammate, freshman Anna Peeler, was also in the same race.

“My goal was third, but I’m also really proud of myself because I’m only a freshman and this is my first year running track, so I’m OK with winning fourth,” Peeler said.

Transue was impressed with De Leon Villanueva’s gold-medal performance in the women’s 300-meter hurdles.

“She ran a super race. The last two hurdles were just fantastic,” she said.

But it didn’t start out so well. De Leon Villanueva, already dealing with a shin injury coming into the event, clipped the first hurdle with her knee, aggravating the injury and momentarily slowing her down, giving TaTeyawna Faison of North Duplin an opening.

“When that other girl started sprinting past me, I got worried for a minute because she was the closest one to me,” De Leon Villanueva said. But she regrouped, telling herself this was her event to win, and thinking her coach would work her extra hard at practice if she blew it. “I started sprinting as fast as I could until I reached the end. At some point throughout the last 100 (meters), I couldn’t see her anymore, so that’s when I knew I was going fast enough.”

Sikes had a big day, finishing second in both the men’s 1,600- and 800-meter runs. It was a familiar scenario and opponent in the 1,600, running against McKoy.

“I’m not even sure if I’d call it a rivalry. Brandon is a good friend of mine. We’re even both enrolled in online school at North Carolina School of Science and Math,” Sikes said. McKoy called Sikes his “online sibling,” and both agreed their frequent duels in track and cross country make them better runners.

Sikes lost a heartbreaker in the 800 after appearing to have the race locked up. But Pender’s Samuel Wheeler had other thoughts, sneaking up from behind with a powerful kick and passing him in the final few steps.

“I had no idea he was behind me,” Sikes said. “I had pounding in my ears, sweat running down, etc. I couldn’t hear anything. My coach said she was yelling at me. I’m sure my mom was yelling at me. … He ran a great race and he deserved it.”

There was a silver lining, though. Sikes got to run the race with his brother, Jesse, who claimed fourth place and qualified for states. “He really loves running,” Wiley Sikes said. “He’s so into it. For him, his freshman year, to qualify to go to regionals and then to states, I’m so proud of him.”

Meanwhile, Chatham Central head coach Sherman Howze got hit with a surprise when seven qualifiers from his women’s team did not show up for the meet.

“That’s the thing about track. You’ve got to know how to run, but you’ve got to learn how to run,” and not showing up doesn’t lead to improvement, Howze said.

Nevertheless, he said, “I’m proud of the whole team. They had a good effort, field events, running events, they did what they had to do, and it will be interesting next week. I’ve got a good group going (to states).”

For a while, it looked as though Scott might give the Bears a gold medal in the women’s 1,600-meter run.

“I thought I had it, but I went for the sprint (at the end) and there was nothing left for me” as Poitras passed her, Scott said. “But I was proud of myself. I took off 18 seconds from my PR and now I’m going to states (for the first time). I’m really excited.”

Howze said freshman shot put silver medalist Mattie Caviness has been a blessing to the team.

“Mattie’s a first-year girl,” he said. “She’s all-conference in the shot put. She won the conference in the shot put. She’s a great kid. She’s a hard worker out there every day, just wants to do better.”

He said his high jumpers, junior Kailey Green and senior Carleigh Gentry, finished in unfamiliar territory. “They’ve been one and two all year. This is the first time they’ve finished third,” he said. Gentry also took third place in the triple jump.

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