‘Everybody has fun’: J-M, Chatham Charter track programs thriving under first-year coaches

BY VICTOR HENSLEY, News + Record Staff
Posted 5/31/21

SILER CITY — As far as passion goes, high school track & field coaches — and parents — are rarely lacking.

Spending hours in the blistering heat, setting up and hosting meets …

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‘Everybody has fun’: J-M, Chatham Charter track programs thriving under first-year coaches

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SILER CITY — As far as passion goes, high school track & field coaches — and parents — are rarely lacking.

Spending hours in the blistering heat, setting up and hosting meets and helping out with events in addition to coaching their student-athletes, among other things, are all indicators of coaches who love the sport they’re involved in and want to see their students thrive.

In a sport often overshadowed by some of high school’s more popular choices, Jordan-Matthews and Chatham Charter have managed to roll out competitive track programs spearheaded by first-year coaches that have worked hard to drum up interest and keep things afloat during a pandemic-shortened season.

“A lot of it is just getting them out here, just showing them the events,” Lamont Piggie, J-M’s head track & field coach, said after last Tuesday’s meet in Siler City. “Because everyone’s familiar with football, basketball, baseball, stuff like that. A lot of them aren’t familiar with track. … But once they learn it and grasp it, it takes off from there.”

Last Tuesday, the Jets hosted their second home meet of the year alongside the Knights and two PAC-7 conference rivals — the Wheatmore Warriors and Eastern Randolph Wildcats — finishing first place in the men’s competition (83 points) and second place in the women’s competition (41 points, 30 behind Wheatmore’s 71 points).

Six days earlier, in the PAC-7 Championship Meet, the Eastern Randolph men narrowly edged out J-M by just two points, 102-100, to take the conference crown after senior Jacquez Thompson was held out of the boys 200-meter dash due to injury, which could have acted as a meet-winner depending on his placement.

Last Tuesday’s meet was a taste of revenge.

In total, the Jets took first place in seven events — five men’s, two women’s — as the men’s team claimed the top spot over the Wildcats by a razor-thin margin of four points, J-M’s 83 to ER’s 79.

The Jets were led by some of the team’s usual suspects, including Thompson, who won the boys 100-meter dash (11.15); senior Eral Jones, who placed second in both the boys 200-meter dash (23.87) and high jump (6-02.00) and junior Geneva Woolford, who won both the girls 100-meter hurdles (21.00) and 300-meter hurdles (1:03.47), though she was the only runner in the latter.

J-M is also led by strong men’s relay teams — of which Thompson and Jones are crucial parts of  — and two of them won their respective races on Tuesday: the boys 4x100 (44.97) and boys 4x200 (1:33.31, personal best).

According to NC Milesplit, J-M’s 4x400 men’s relay team is ranked top in the 2A Mideast Region, while the 4x100 and 4x200 are also ranked the best in the PAC-7.

As of now, the Jets have qualified for 2A Mideast Regionals — which will take place on June 19 at Franklinton High School — in nine events, including Thompson (boys 200-meter dash and long jump), Jones (boys high jump), the boys 4x100 meter relay, boys 4x200 meter relay, boys 4x400 meter relay, the boys 4x800 meter relay, the girls 4x100 meter relay and the girls 4x200 meter relay teams.

To qualify for regionals, the state sets a benchmark time, distance or height for each event that athletes must surpass in one of their school’s official meets.

Chatham Charter, on the other hand, finished in last place (fourth) in both the men’s (15 points) and women’s (37 points) competitions, but were just four points behind J-M for second place in the women’s competition. However, two Knights’ runners — sophomore Tamaya Walden and junior Brandon McKoy — won all but one of the events they participated in with Walden qualifying for regionals in two separate events based on her Tuesday times.

Walden, who entered the meet at J-M having already qualified for the girls 400-meter run, also punched her ticket to regionals in both the girls 100- and 200-meter dashes in Siler City as she cruised to three wins on the day.

“(I feel like I did) really good, to be honest with you,” Walden said after the meet. “Because my knees have been hurting for a while and I’m proud of myself for not mentally getting down on myself.”

McKoy — the team’s top distance runner who’s already qualified for regionals in the boys 3200-meter run — won two out of three events, the boys 1600-meter run and the boys 800-meter run. In both of them, he bested the second-place finisher by at least six seconds. He won his 1600-meter race by a whopping 37 seconds. 

One of the major keys to McKoy’s success is the way he starts. He rarely has to come from behind in his races, often getting out in front from the get-go and never looking back.

“I take the first 100 (meters) really fast, that’s just how I grew up learning,” McKoy said. “You go out hard to get your place … then you settle in around the 75-meter mark and that’s kind of how you go for the rest of the race. … Don’t try to hold your opening pace.”

McKoy is three seconds off from qualifying for regionals in the mile (1600 meter-run; standard is 4:50.00) and four seconds off of the 800-meter run (standard is 2:09.00), both of which he says are “doable.”

Saving the season

Believe it or not, the Knights almost didn’t field a team this year.

Before the season began, Chatham Charter struggled to find a track & field coach in just its third season as a recognized program.

With the season fast approaching, the roster consisting of just a few kids and nobody leading them. It appeared that after already losing their 2019-20 season to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Knights were going to have to sit out yet another season.

That’s where dedicated parents came in.

“Landon said, ‘We didn’t find (a coach) so that means we won’t have a track season. Unless you want to coach,’ and I just laughed,” Tina Rakes, the mother of Landon and Hayley Rakes, said. “I just thought, ‘Well, I am the kind of mom that makes things happen when I need to, for my kids,’ and then in my head I was like, ‘I can’t do that.’”

Rakes, who ran track in high school and college, ended up having a conversation with McKoy’s mom, Lashawn Lafranque, who wasn’t opposed to the idea as long as Rakes came on board with her. But they needed more help.

As a duo, they spoke with Tammy Walden, Tamaya’s mom, about joining their coaching group, who agreed. And to round it out, Tammy Walden — who works as a health science teacher at Jordan-Matthews — asked Rahma Mateen-Mason, J-M’s former track & field coach, if she wanted to join their team. She was happy to volunteer.

Rakes and Mateen-Mason now act as the two head coaches, but in reality, all four parents are heavily involved in making sure things run smoothly and that the program continues to grow.

In addition to having more athletes come out for the women’s team, this is also the first season the Knights have participated in high jump, triple jump and hurdle events, events smaller schools often have to sit out.

“It’s been fun,” Rakes said. “It’s really has been hard, but I think they’re just really glad that they’re getting the opportunity, all of them, regardless of if they’re the fastest or they’re not. Track is something everybody can be successful at because everyone can get faster. You don’t have to win to be successful.”

As first-year coaches at their respective schools, Rakes/Mateen-Mason and Piggie have done their part in drumming up interest in the sport, often attending other sporting events to find players that look like they could be good at track. Then, it’s all about recruiting.

For example, Piggie picked up freshmen Logan Gunter and Lia Carter simply from attending a few softball games and convincing them to try it out. They didn’t turn back.

“I was talking to them, saying, ‘You need to run track, you’re quick. Just give it a shot, give me a week and if you don’t like it, then hey,’” Piggie said. “Coming in, it’s just trying to get that respect from the kids, getting them to trust you and buy into the system. … then everybody has fun.”

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

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