‘I’ve gained more confidence’: Northwood’s distance star Murrell shines in record-breaking state championship run

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GREENSBORO — Caroline Murrell is a lot of things.

A rising senior at Northwood High School.

A volunteer for local nonprofit health clinic Vidas de Esperanza.

A distance runner for the Chargers’ cross country and track & field teams.

And now, as of last Saturday, a record-holding state champion.

Few outcomes felt more inevitable.

“I expected (her) to win,” Cameron Isenhour, Northwood’s head cross country and track & field coach, confidently said about Murrell after her title-winning race at the NCHSAA 3A Track & Field State Championships at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. “We actually didn’t get to practice together this week because of our work schedules, but she put in the work, tracked it on Strava and made it happen.”

Under the radiant, slowly setting sun, Murrell strode down the track’s blue-colored rubber surface as her friends and classmates cheered her name with less than 100 meters to go in the girls 3200-meter run. She’d built up such a commanding lead and it felt as if she were the only runner in the stadium.

After the race, she said that in that final stretch, she was worried a runner was coming up behind her to snatch her spot, giving her the strong urge to look back just to be sure. In reality, it would have taken supernatural forces for someone to catch her.

Murrell crossed the finish line in 10:51.83 ­— nearly seven seconds ahead of the second place finisher — with a look of shock, relief, joy and exhaustion flooding her face.

The hard work had paid off. She was a state champion.

“I don’t think it’s really kicked in yet,” Murrell said after the race with an ear-to-ear smile. “I wasn’t exactly going into this race expecting to be a state champion, I was really just going for the time, which I got, luckily, but I wasn’t counting it out of my abilities because I’ve dropped a lot of time this year; I’ve gained more confidence.”

Murrell not only crushed her seeding time of 11:15.52 — ranked third amongst runners in 3A — but her state championship time of 10:51.83 set a 3A state record in the girls 3200-meter run event, breaking the existing record set by A.C. Reynolds’ Anna Vess in 2014 (10:52.18) by 0.35 seconds.

The second-place runner — Topsail’s Kaitlyn Obremski — clocked in at 10:58.56.

By the time runners began crossing the finish line, the race wasn’t close. But that wasn’t always the case.

Murrell was hovering between fifth and seventh place for the first half of the race as she ran in a large pack of runners. Each lap, she appeared to slowly step in front of another runner, hopping from seventh to sixth on the second lap and sixth to fifth on the third lap.

And about 200 meters into the fourth lap, Murrell turned on the gas.

In the blink of an eye, she zoomed past the four runners in her pack, separating herself from the group and taking a sizable lead heading into the fifth lap.

For the next four laps, all she had to do was turn on cruise control.

“Coming around the next 100 meters before I moved myself up front, I had my dad calling out my splits, like if I’m too fast or too slow, and he was like, ‘This is too slow, Caroline, you’ve got to go,” Murrell said. “My plan for the first mile was just to stick to this pace, but I guess we were falling off the pace and I was like, ‘I’ve got to make a move.’

“I was feeling good, I wasn’t feeling like I was dying,” she added. “I was just like, ‘I can do this.’”

With all of the extra work that Murrell has put in off the track this year — on top of her other responsibilities — it comes as no surprise to her coach that she would end up a state champion.

“It’s funny, I’ll be on my way to work — I’m teaching summer school — and it’ll be seven, or sometimes before, in the morning and I’ll see Caroline just strolling down the streets of Pittsboro,” Isenhour said with a laugh. “She’s a phenomenal testament to her hard work and dedication. I’m just extremely proud of her and everything she’s accomplished so far.”

“(My training schedule) is just whenever I feel like running, honestly,” Murrell said, chuckling. “I’ll be like, ‘I’m going to get up early tomorrow morning’ and sometimes I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I’ll wait until 3.’ … It’s nothing crazy, it’s whatever the rest of everyone else out there is doing. But it works.”

The grind of an unusual season

This track season was strange, to say the least.

Not only was it mushed into an NCHSAA spring schedule with nearly every sport taking place within a five-month span, the season — which typically ends in May — lasted until June 26, when the weather is hotter, student-athletes are out of school and track & field meets are, at times, downright miserable.

But for the 13 athletes across Chatham that participated in state meets across three classifications this past weekend, it’s clear that their work ethic, persistence and dedication to their craft is what got them there.

Take Chatham Charter, for example, a team which sent two athletes to states — junior Brooke Garner and sophomore Tamaya Walden — in seven different events. Despite only having two athletes making it to states — technically three with junior Brandon McKoy, who had to miss the state meet due to a Governor’s School commitment — the Knights were featured in more events at states than any other school in the county.

And as a fairly new program, they don’t even have a track facility to hold practices.

“I’m pretty proud of the girls, especially not even having a facility to train at, so they don’t even wear their spikes until we get to a track meet,” Rahma Mateen-Mason, the Knights’ co-head coach, said. “Brooke doesn’t practice her events until we get to a track meet. … I think it was harder for Tamaya in the sprints because … that’s really hard to do on grass and rocks (at practice).”

Garner, in her first season of competitive track, qualified for states in four individual events — the girls 100-meter hurdles (DNF), girls 300-meter hurdles (11th place, 54.52), girls high jump (5th place, J4-08.00) and girls triple jump (10th place, 31-04.00) — an incredible feat for any track & field athlete, much less one with such little competitive experience.

Walden, the team’s dominant sprinter, competed in the three major short-distance events — girls 100-meter dash (13th place, 13.44), girls 200-meter dash (9th place, 26.96) and girls 400-meter dash (9th place, 1:02.60) — as a sophomore, meaning she has plenty of room to improve on her times over the next couple of years.

“I went this whole season not knowing Tamaya was just a sophomore, I’m thinking she’s a junior all this time and I’m like, ‘Wow, I wish we had a couple more years of work (with her)’ and turns out we’ve got a couple more years,” Mateen-Mason said, laughing. “I think all of them will be back and be better (next year).”

Turning a new leaf

While some teams saw their blossoming young talent on display at N.C. A&T State University last weekend, others witnessed the swan song for some of their most impressive senior athletes.

Jordan-Matthews, who had one individual — senior Eral Jones — and three men’s relay teams competing at states, was represented almost exclusively by seniors.

Jones, a multi-sport athlete who began high-jumping earlier this season, participated in the high jump (11th place, 5-10.00) and all three relay races — the boys 4x100 alongside seniors Jacquez Thompson, Jayden Davis and Xavier Woods (8th place, 44.71), the boys 4x200 with the same group (7th place, 1:33.63) and the boys 4x400 with Thompson and juniors Carlos Rojas and Calvin Schwartz (10th place, 3:38.24).

The Jets were unable to crack the top five in any event thanks to a level of competition they aren’t used to, but they did manage to set a personal best in the boys 4x400 meter relay, beating their previous best time by nearly seven seconds.

For much of the season, Jones, Thompson, Davis and Woods have acted as the pillars of the J-M track team. They’re senior leaders, natural athletes and near-automatic point-getters for conference and regional meets.

Replacing them, especially on the Jets’ relay teams, won’t be an easy task this offseason.

“(I’m going to miss) just the leadership that these seniors have brought because they were already in the program and were familiar with how to run and how to hand-off, just teaching them more things to help them become even better,” Lamont Piggie, Jordan-Matthews’ first-year head coach, said following the state meet. “We’ve pretty much got to find a whole new relay team … We’ve got to get more athletes out here so we can put them in more events. A lot of recruiting for me.”

Woods Charter is sort of in mixed company, with two of its star seniors — Jay Charbonneau (7th place, boys 400-meter dash, 53.13) and Kyle Howarth (6th place, boys 100-meter dash, 11.64; 9th place, boys 200-meter dash, 23.56) — finishing up their careers with formidable performances at the 1A state meet last Friday.

However, as Howarth and Charbonneau finally exit stage left after graduating last month, the Wolves’ up-and-coming distance runner, Ellie Poitras, is making a name for herself.

She competed in both major distance events at states — the girls 1600-meter run (10th place, 5:47.51) and girls 3200-meter run (8th place, 12:57.34) — and is only poised to improve after making states in both cross country and track in her first year of varsity athletics.

The Wolves are going to have some turnover next season with both co-head coaches, Rahul Dudhat and Eric Hale, making career switches, but the track program — which consists of an eighth of the school’s population — still seems to be in good hands.

“She’s (Poitras) making it to states her freshman year, so you can only tell what’s going to happen in the next three years or so,” Dudhat said. “I told her that I’m going to be coming back to watch her run next year because I know she’ll be coming back. … She ran the mile and the two-mile today, that’s tough to do. And where she’s at as a freshman right now, she’s only going to go up from here.”

And if Murrell — who placed 10th in the girls 3200-meter run at states her freshman year, only to win a state championship in the same event her junior year — is any indication, there’s still plenty of time for Chatham’s younger athletes, like Walden and Poitras, to build off of their first state championship appearances and etch their name in N.C. high school sports history.

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.


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