SILER CITY — Over the weekend, two sporting events captivated Chathamites like no other, bringing the county together to witness intense rivalry battles, talented student-athletes and a blue-blooded champion taking home the crown.
One took place at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, the other at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City.
As an appetizer to Saturday’s Tobacco Road showdown between North Carolina and Duke, five of Chatham County’s high schools spent last Saturday morning competing in the 2022 Chatham County Invitational track & field meet, hosted at J-M.
The crowd of dedicated parents and supporters watched as Northwood — a perennial contender — took first place in both the men’s and women’s team scoring as the Chargers earned 205 points (out of a possible 349 points) in the men’s events and 100 points in the women’s events.
In total, the Chargers won 19 out of 34 events, accounting for 56% of the meet’s champions.
“I think we felt pretty dominant,” Cameron Isenhour, the Chargers’ head coach, told the News + Record after the meet. “We didn’t have all of our people, we had to scratch a few here and there, so we weren’t at full strength, but the girls did very well with only nine girls in the meet. … I was pretty happy with today.”
Shorthandedness was a common theme in this year’s meet, with all five teams — the Chatham Central Bears, the Chatham Charter Knights, the Jordan-Matthews Jets, the Northwood Chargers and the Seaforth Hawks — missing some of their athletes for one reason or another.
The Bears were missing most of their women’s runners, including all of their women’s relay teams.
The Jets were suffering from an injury bug, being down a good chunk of their men’s runners.
The Knights, who were on spring break last week, were competing without senior distance runner Brandon McKoy and senior field specialist Brooke Garner, both of whom typically sweep their events.
And the Woods Charter Wolves were the lone Chatham team that missed the meet entirely due to their own spring break.
But the absences didn’t distract from the product on the track, which saw some of the county’s finest rise to the occasion.
Northwood’s familiar faces
Part of Northwood’s dominance in Siler City came at the hands of some of their usual suspects.
Caroline Murrell — a state champion in the women’s 3,200-meter run last season — earned three distance wins on Saturday, including the women’s 800- (2:29.77), 1,600- (5:23.79) and 3,200-meter runs (14:14.19).
She hasn’t finished below first place in any of her nine races this season.
“She just ran whatever she needed to do to win, which is exactly what I wanted her to do,” Isenhour said of his star. “She’s not going to run the next two races. We’re going to train hard and really try to hammer down at a few invitationals at the end of April and in both the regional and state meets.”
The Chargers got a hand from senior Colin Henry and junior Christian Glick, who won the men’s 800-meter run (2:15.76) and men’s 1,600-meter run (4:45.64), respectively, and came together to win the men’s 4x800-meter relay (9:13.34) with sophomore Noah Nielson and freshman Trey Hudson.
Glick and Nielson were also part of the men’s 4x400-meter relay team with seniors Jack Spotz and Marco Sanchez, which captured the win by nearly 26 seconds after posting a time of 3:32.91 as part of the Chargers’ men’s relay sweep, winning all four races.
“It’s pretty impressive,” said Isenhour, referring to what his men’s relay teams accomplished despite not being at full strength. “Especially considering we just practiced the 4x100 for the first time yesterday and held off a late charge by Jordan-Matthews and Chatham Central. We still got the job done.”
Adding to Northwood’s sweeps were the junior trio of Cameron Stevenson Jr. (men’s shot put, 39-10.00; men’s discus throw, 102-10.00), Jack Nicholson (men’s long jump, 19-00.00; men’s triple jump, 37-03.50) and Zachary Peterson (men’s high jump, 5-04.00), who combined to win all five men’s field events, beating out a host of athletes from the Bears and Jets.
Between the Knights and Jets, Siler City’s representatives didn’t make it easy for their Pittsboro counterparts.
Chatham Charter junior Tamaya Walden flew by her competition during the women’s sprints, snagging first place in the 100- (13.08), 200- (27.51) and 400-meter (1:04.87) dashes.
She’s been one of the stars of a small Knights team that’s slowly making a name for itself within the county.
“In track, we’re seeing her grow because — especially in the 100(-meter) — I can tell she’s faster, and in this meet, this was the fastest 200(-meter) she’s run this season,” Tammy Walden, the Knights’ co-head coach and Tamaya’s mother, said after the meet. “I laugh at her because the 400(-meter) is one race she never wanted to run, and in my personal opinion, I think she runs that one the best.”
Walden — who has recently adopted the 400-meter dash as one of her primary races — is one of many Knights who are trying out new events this season, headlined by senior Alexis Baldwin, who took first place in the women’s shot put on Saturday (29-05.00) and has become a “powerhouse” in the event this year, according to Tina Rakes, the Knights’ co-head coach.
“The ones that came out today, a lot of them (got personal records) and it’s awesome,” Rakes said. “Our boys have never run the 3,200(-meter) before … and Meredith (Reese) shaved 30 seconds off of her two-mile run and Ariana (Rivera-Roma) ran it for the very first time.”
And even though some of the results didn’t always stack up to their opponents, with Chatham Charter claiming the fifth-place spot in both the men’s (1 point) and women’s (39 points) events, Rakes mentioned that track & field is all about improving each and every meet.
“Everybody can be successful,” she said. “Because all you have to do is run faster and jump further than you did the last time.”
Jordan-Matthews, on the other hand, saw a perfectly balanced showing from both its men’s team (76 points) and women’s team (76 points), earning second place in both sections just behind the Chargers.
The Jets came close to a clean sweep in the women’s relay races, their strongest events of the day, winning the 4x100-meter (59.07) — taking first place due to a disqualification of Seaforth for running in the wrong lane — the 4x200-meter (2:00.59) and the 4x800-meter (14:03.66), but falling short in the 4x400-meter, which was claimed by the Chargers at 4:57.00.
They also got a couple of strong pushes in some of the short-distance races, coming second to Northwood in the men’s 4x100-meter (48.16), men’s 4x200-meter (1:40.39) and men’s 4x400-meter (3:58.21) relays.
The duo of senior Calvin Schwartz and sophomore Jaiden Gorham, second and third in both events, respectively, scored much-needed points in both the men’s 100- and 200-meter dashes, leading to praise from their head coach, Lamont Piggie.
“Jaiden did well in the 100(-meter) and 200(-meter) and surprised me a lot,” Piggie, the team’s second-year coach, said. “A lot of people hit their personal bests today.”
That includes sophomore Damisela Rivera, who was the lone Jet to earn an individual win, doing so in the women’s discus throw by earning a personal best of 77 feet, 4 inches.
Having lost a sizeable chunk of the men’s team from last year due to graduation, Piggie appears to be excited about what they’ve been able to do to replace them — a fact that’ll only become more true once the team’s fully healthy again.
“Overall, with the kids we had out today, I’m very impressed with the way they handled themselves and ran well against this competition,” Piggie said. “Our teams finished second overall, and that’s going against Northwood, who just won the state championship in some events. I’m very proud of them.”
Just like the rest of the teams in the Invitational, the Hawks were missing some key athletes heading into Saturday.
But rather than look at it as a negative, Seaforth chose to embrace it and use the meet as a platform to see which of their athletes could step into the spotlight and perform.
One of those athletes was freshman Wyatt Parker, who, despite finishing 7th in the men’s 300-meter hurdles with a time of 53.19, caught the eye of men’s head coach Tommy Johnson.
“That (race) is one where you have to put all three pieces together and he’s put two out of three on a number of times,” Johnson said, “but today, he ran a 53(-second race), so that’s him getting everything right.”
Johnson noted that the Hawks’ typical 4x800-meter relay team had two of its strongest runners missing, allowing freshmen Henry McFall and Johnson Brekke to step in and run alongside freshmen Nathan Smith and Jack Anstrom, coming in second (9:56.09) behind Northwood.
“It would be their 800(-meter personal record) if it were a normal race,” Johnson said, “so things like that really matter to us.”
He praised the women’s 4x400-meter relay team, which ran a 5:01.24, eight seconds faster than its season-high, along with sophomore Lily Cox, who finished third in the 800-meter run (2:50.17), just behind Murrell and Northwood senior Emma Serrano and ahead of Northwood freshman Avery Adams, who she passed late in the race.
“Everybody ran out of their minds, and then Lily Cox having those girls from Northwood to chase down and catching one of them, running 2:49-2:50,” Johnson said. “Those kinds of things are going to mean a lot when we get to the latter part of the season. I’m really pleased.”
The Hawks placed third in both the men’s (39 points) and women’s (51 points) team scoring, but for a program comprised of what Johnson said was 80% freshmen, a third-place finish isn’t anything to scoff at.
Seaforth earned five event wins on the day, including two men’s sprint first-place finishes from sophomore Anthony Vesce in the 100- (11.82) and 200-meter (23.94) dashes and two women’s hurdle wins from sophomore Juliette VanOlinda in the 100- (18.90) and 300-meter (57.25) hurdles.
In the field, they grabbed the first-place spot in the women’s long jump thanks to freshman Malana Mclean (14-03.00), rounding out the event wins for the Hawks.
“Our team is about 80-20 9th grade and today, it really felt like 9th grade,” Johnson said. “You come here and you see a 3A school with a bunch of seniors and you’re like, ‘We’re in a different league.’
“But then to come out and actually chase some of them down, it shows them that by the time they’re juniors and seniors, they’ll really have it put together,” he added. “It’s really fun, just getting to build something with them here.”
Chatham Central, which placed fourth in both the men’s (28 points) and women’s (49 points) events just behind Seaforth, was the only team without a win in any of the running events.
It did, however, have two first-place finishes in the field, courtesy of junior Kailey Green in the women’s high jump (4-10.00) and senior Carleigh Gentry in the women’s triple jump (29-09.50).
Results aside, Piggie said he was happy with the meet’s ability to bring Chatham together to not only give each team a chance to see how it stacks up with one another, but also showcase just how talented track & field programs are across the county.
“(I wanted to host this meet) to get the community involved because I’m big on community involvement,” Piggie said. “And just to show that we have talent on this end of Chatham County, as well. You’ve got Seaforth and Northwood over there and they always do big events — Seaforth just came up, but you can tell they’re going to do a lot of stuff. So I was like, ‘Let’s get something on this side of town.’”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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