Mustangs’ relay earns bronze medal at track nationals

Mustangs’ relay earns bronze medal at track nationals
June 25
00:00 2015

In photo above: Parkland High’s McKinley McNeill (in glasses) earned All-America honors in two events at the New Balance track nationals held last weekend in Greensboro. (Photo by Craig T. Greenlee)

   This year’s New Balance National Outdoor Track and Field Championships had a different kind of vibe for Parkland’s girls. Six seniors graduated a few weeks ago, which created a temporary leadership void.

   Given Parkland’s losses, which include two former state championship-meet MVPs (Katlin Sherman and Ebony Williams), there was uncertainty about how the team would fare at the nationals held in Greensboro last weekend. While it’s clear that this is a transition period, it’s a mistake to presume that the program is finished as a viable factor at the state and national levels.

The Mustangs served notice at the nationals that they aren’t likely to disappear as genuine contenders. In the process, they surprised themselves by delivering a bronze-medal finish in the 1,000-meter Sprint Medley Relay. This event, also known as the Swedish Relay, is popular in Europe and incorporates all the metric sprint distances (100, 200, 300 and 400).

Parkland’s runners viewed themselves as unknowns in this event. Two of its runners are relative newcomers who had little or no prior experience running on the Mustangs “A” level relays.

Jahnae Bowman and Zjinaiya Francis joined veterans Erin Morrison and McKinley McNeill to cover the distance in 2 minutes, 10.93 seconds. By placing among the top six, the quartet earned All-America honors. Union Catholic Track Club (N.J.) won in a meet-record time of 2:08.88.

McNeill, a rising senior and Class 4-A state champ in the 400, put Parkland in position to challenge, thanks to her blistering quarter on the anchor leg. For most the race, the Mustangs appeared to be destined for fifth place. McNeill, however, had other ideas. Coming down the stretch, she went into overdrive to assure of her team of a third-place finish.

    “I think we did amazing,” said McNeill, who ran a personal-best split of 53 seconds. “I was kind of nervous because we didn’t have all of our main competitors like we’ve had these last few years. Words can’t explain how proud I am of the team I have now”.

   “They proved to me and everybody on a national stage that they can do just as well as the girls who came before them. Parkland still has it. We’ll keep working hard and you’ll see us at nationals every year. While it’s true that I’ve become a team leader, this is not my team. It’s our team because all of us put in the effort to make the best of it.”

McNeill turned in Parkland’s best individual performance of the weekend. In the open 400 last Sunday, she won handily in a relatively slow heat. In the process, she produced her fastest clocking of the season at 53.40 seconds – a time that surpassed her previous best by nearly a full second. As a result, McNeill closed out the high school outdoor season as No. 5 in the nation.

   “McKinley has worked hard all year long, so she’s very deserving,” said Coach Antwan Hughes of Parkland. “And she’ll only continue to get better and better. Next season, I’m looking for her to run 52.”

 Had Morrison’s season gone as planned, it’s very likely that she would’ve ended her high school career after the state championships. Morrison, one of Parkland’s six graduating seniors, opted to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation by choosing to run in the New Balance meet.

   At the start of this year, Morrison had an Achilles injury, which put her on the sidelines for two months. The missed time in training proved to be a setback that she never fully recovered from. So, she decided to continue training and compete on Parkland’s relay teams (Swedish, 4×200, 4×400) for the nationals.

“Because of all the time I missed during the winter, things didn’t go so well outdoors,” said Morrison, who will run track at Hampton University. “I knew I could do better, so I never stopped training and I decided to help out the team in any way I could. I was very surprised that we did as well as we did (in the sprint medley).”
   “Some times, younger runners get a bad case of nerves, so you never know what might happen. As for me, I can’t complain – I’m able to run and I’m not hurt. So, I’m satisfied and feel like I’ll be ready for college.”

Bowman is confident that the Mustangs will continue to build on their winning legacy. “We have some people who have run times that are close to what the older girls ran,” said Bowman, a rising senior. “We’re not that far off. Plus, everybody continues to get better.”

 Francis, a rising junior who has trained with Sherman and Williams, will never forget her debut on Parkland’s “A” team. She admits feeling the pressure of competing against some of the nation’s premier high-school sprinters. “I was terrified and shaking from the start,” she said. “When I got it (baton), I kept thinking that I needed to make a name for myself.”

 “I got out, but then I got blocked in, but was still able to run well. I picked up my speed by training with Katlin and Eb, but I also learned about courage and motivation. Everything went great in the sprint medley, but it could’ve been better.”

 Hughes and his assistants never doubted that Parkland would more than hold its own in the Swedish Relay. In the weeks of training leading up to the nationals, Hughes was more convinced than ever that the Mustangs would meet the challenge.

“The girls were surprised,” he said. “They weren’t sure what they were capable of. But as coaches, we evaluated everybody and realized that finishing in the top three was an achievable goal with this group.”

 Although Parkland’s runners exceeded their own expectations in the sprint medley, the same did not happen the next day in the 4×200. Newness among members of relay teams breeds unfamiliarity, which in turn, produces growing pains.

Parkland won this event a year ago (outdoor nationals) and again last March at the indoor nationals. A botched exchange between McNeill (second leg) and Bowman (third leg), resulted in a dropped baton and precious seconds of lost time. The Mustangs finished 24th with a sub-par clocking of 1:44.11

“It all came down to lack of experience in working with one another (in the 4×200),” said Hughes. “When the baton hit the ground, we knew the race was over. Before that bad handoff, we were in the race all the way. As coaches, we felt like we gave away the silver medal. Based on relay splits, we probably run around 1:37, which would’ve put us in the No. 2 spot.

Mustangs’ notebook

   Here’s a summary of how Parkland athletes (in bold type) fared in other events at the New Balance nationals held last weekend at the Irwin Belk Track on the campus of N.C. A&T:
   The qualifying heats of the championship girls’ 100-meter dash held last Saturday proved to be disastrous for the top Class 4-A sprinters in North Carolina. The top three finishers at the state meet in May all failed to advance. The eight fastest times qualified, so it really didn’t matter who won the individual heats.

   Two-time state 100 champ Katlin Sherman (12.04 seconds) came up empty with the 12th-fastest time in prelims. State runner-up Tamara Clark of High Point Central ran 12.0 for 11th, and bronze medalist Sydnei Murphy of Apex was 10th at 11.95. Sherman has signed to run track at UNC Chapel Hill.

    In the girls’ Emerging Elites 400, Parkland graduate Erin Morrison placed 15th with time of 57.29. At last month’s state championships, Morrison was third in the open 400. She was the state outdoor runner-up as a junior in 2014.

    The Mustangs 4×400 (championship division) came up short in its quest to finish among the nation’s top six for All-America honors. Morrison, Shanone Cannon, Kimani Davis and McKinley McNeill clocked 3:53.02 to post a 15th place finish.

    Nateja Hale had trouble generating consistency in the Emerging Elites triple jump. As things turned out, her first attempt (35-feet, 8 ¾ inches) proved to be her only legal jump. She fouled on her second and third tries and ended up 25th overall. Hale will attend UNC Asheville on a track scholarship.

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Craig Greenlee

Craig Greenlee

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