GREENSBORO — Before last Friday, Chatham County had never seen a women’s track & field athlete take home multiple state titles in a single season.
Enter Caroline Murrell.
In the final meet of her high school career, Northwood’s senior distance star outran Carrboro senior Hannah Preisser in the women’s 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs to claim the state title in both events during the NCHSAA 3A Track & Field State Championships at North Carolina A&T State University over the weekend.
She took first place in the 1,600-meter with a time of 5:07.44, topping Preisser by a little less than four seconds, and in the 3,200-meter, her time of 11:07.69 was nearly 16 seconds faster than her Carrboro counterpart.
“It feels really good,” Murrell said with a smile after her 1,600-meter win. “I’ve been really grateful to have a pretty consistent season and keep running strong. … I feel proud of myself.”
It was a performance that, frankly, didn’t shock her head coach, Cameron Isenhour.
“I expected the 3,200-meter state title, obviously,” referring to Murrell’s championship in the same event last season and her No. 1 seed entering Friday’s race. “I also expected the 1,600, but I didn’t want to jinx it … because anybody’s beatable, but when you’re racing against Caroline Murrell with a state championship on the line, you’ve got to be at your best because she’s going to throw everything at you.”
Murrell was one of 58 student-athletes from around the county that competed at states in Greensboro on Friday and Saturday, with Chatham participants accounting for two state titles, three podium placements and 20 top-10 finishes.
And even if the participants hadn’t brought their own heat to the track, the Triad area had plenty of it to go around, with both Friday and Saturday acting as two of the hottest days of 2022 so far with temperatures upwards of 88 degrees, forcing athletes to battle dehydration alongside their opponents.
At one point on Saturday, the PA announcer delivered a message from the on-site medical staff that cited a large number of dehydration cases among runners, which included some who fainted after crossing the finish line.
“I’ve just been trying to stay out of the sun as much as possible, drinking a lot of water and sitting in the shade,” Murrell said. “We have spray bottles, so I’ve been spraying myself with water and having a cold towel around my neck. … I’ve also been making sure to hydrate the week leading up to this, too.”
This year, Chatham was represented by a diverse group of newcomers and veterans, some on a mission to improve on last year’s performances and others simply happy to soak in the sights and sounds from the state’s biggest stage.
As Murell lined up for her final race in a Northwood uniform, she assumed every eye in the stadium would be focused on her.
And if they weren’t already, they surely were once the PA announcer began introducing all of the runners, letting everyone know that she was the state meet record holder for the women’s 3,200-meter run. She broke the previous state record, which had stood since 2014, with a time of 10:51.83 in her title run at last year’s meet.
With a top seeding and a record sporting your name comes a massive target on your back. And she knew it.
After her win in the 3,200-meter, she admitted that on her way into the stadium, she felt the nerves kick in.
“I went in kind of nervous, really jittery and really uncertain about how today was going to turn out,” Murrell said. “But just doing well in the mile gave me a confidence boost. And I was like, ‘I can do this. I’m Caroline Murrell. I’ve got this.’
“I remember, before I had a little breakout, I was always looking up to the girls who were winning state championships and I was like, ‘I just can’t imagine they’re that nervous,’ because they were just so fast and looked so competitive,” she added. “But now that I’m in their shoes, I understand. It’s almost harder because there’s more people watching.”
She paced herself during the first 800 meters or so, hanging just behind Preisser, whom she had beaten in the 3,200-meter at the 3A Mideast Regionals a week earlier. (Preisser, however, had topped Murrell in the 1,600-meter at regionals, only to fall to her at states.)
But once they got around the first curve in the third lap, Murrell began to inch past Preisser, slowly increasing her pace until she had a clear lead. Then, all that was left to do was stay the course.
When she finally crossed the finish line in first place, Murrell appeared to let out a sigh of relief, exhaling all of the pressure.
She’d done it. For the second straight season, she was a state champion.
The two state title victories are major additions to Murrell’s already jaw-dropping resume, having won the women’s 3,200-meter title last June, along with a state title in the same event during the indoor track season in February with a 3A meet record time of 10:46.69.
For those counting at home, that’s four state championship medals within the last 12 months, including two state/classification records.
But despite her high school accomplishments, she isn’t letting herself get complacent.
In the fall, Murrell plans to run cross country for N.C. State, the defending national champions, under Head Coach Laurie Henes.
It’s only fitting that a champion join a championship program.
“(This being my final meet) is bittersweet, but I definitely feel relieved,” Murrell said. “It’s definitely been a long past few years, but it’s great. It’s been super exciting, super fun and super fulfilling, but I’m definitely ready to be at N.C. State and move on to the next level.
“I don’t want to be like, ‘OK, I’ve reached my peak,’” she added when asked about her satisfaction level. “I just want to constantly be hungry for more, striving for more.”
Last Friday, Northwood was responsible for all three of Chatham’s podium appearances, with its men’s 4x800-meter relay team — consisting of sophomore Noah Nielson, junior Jackson Adams, senior Marco Sanchez and junior Christian Glick — taking third place after clocking in at 8:04.54.
The team broke a school record that stood for approximately a week, with the same squad having broken the previous school record at regionals on May 13 with an 8:14.78 time.
The Chargers’ 4x800 team took home the state title during the indoor track season (8:25.61), but the addition of Nielson in the lead-off spot was Isenhour’s reasoning for their historical competitiveness during outdoor track, too.
Isenhour said he thinks the team of Nielson, Adams, Glick and now-freshman Trey Hudson will be a near-lock to win the state championship next year as long as everything falls as it should.
“Next year, we should win the indoor state and the outdoor state and run under eight minutes,” Isenhour said, “which would be sensational.”
The Chargers also had some help at states with a few first-time qualifiers, including senior Bentley Brooks (8th, women’s discus, 95-09), junior Ethan Wilson (11th, men’s 110-meter hurdles, 16.32) and junior Jack Nicholson (7th, men’s discus, 131-11).
Brooks had one of the more impressive showings, according to Isenhour, as she came into the women’s discus seeded at No. 16 and finished in eighth, throwing over five feet further than her seed distance of 90-00.
“She was seeded 16th going into the state meet, meaning that at all of the regional meets last weekend, 15 other girls had a better day than her,” Isenhour said, “but on the biggest day, she beat eight of those girls and finished eighth, which is phenomenal.”
Lamont Piggie, head coach of the Jordan-Matthews Jets, still sounded surprised about his team’s 2022 accomplishments when he spoke with the News + Record after last Friday’s state meet.
Much of that pleasant shock stems from his excitement in watching the growth shown by a few athletes that hadn’t taken up track & field until this season.
Jets freshman Rachel Woods, for example, took 10th in the women’s 2A 400-meter dash after coming into the meet seeded dead last.
That comes a week after she jumped a personal-best 16 feet, 7 inches in the long jump at regionals, nearly a foot longer than her previous record. It wasn’t enough to qualify for states, but it surely caught Piggie’s eye.
“From the first meet we had in March to now, you just see the growth,” Piggie said, “from Rachel, from a couple of our other girls, you’ve seen times get faster, throws get longer and jumps get longer. Such a big improvement.”
Piggie also called out Madelyn Eubanks, a junior that, in her first season of track & field, qualified for states in the women’s discus, finishing 15th with a throw of 76-01.
“Madelyn, her first throw of the season was 40 feet in discus, but she ended up throwing almost 83 (feet) in regionals,” Piggie said with a laugh. “They’ve been working hard. That’s what we ask, just to work hard and always improve every meet.”
The Jets sent four of their relay teams to regionals — the women’s 4x100, women’s 4x400, women’s 4x800 and men’s 4x400 — nearly all of which improved on their seed time, including the 4x800 team of sophomore Jessica Parroquin, junior America Cuanalo, freshman Sophia Kopela and senior Jasmine Basilio, which improved its time by close to 40 seconds despite finishing in 16th place.
“We improved our time by about 40 seconds,” Piggie said. “Now we’ve just got to try to keep up with these other schools.”
Seaforth freshman Jack Anstrom has been another surprise this year, coming onto the scene during cross country — where he finished third in the state last fall — and staying for track, where he’s thrived as a distance runner.
Anstrom ran both the men’s 1,600- and 3,200-meters, placing fifth in the 1,600 with a time of 4:36.62, over 10 seconds better than his seed time.
But with him in third place halfway through the 3,200-meter run, something happened that “only happens once every 1,000 races,” Tommy Johnson, the Hawks’ head coach, told the News + Record.
While he was rounding the final curve of the fifth lap, he clipped the inside railing along the track — a metal bar that wraps around the entirety of the infield and stands a couple of inches high — which caused him to fall by the men’s long jumping pit.
With the track’s surface as hot as it was — Johnson said it measured around 140 degrees on Friday — and the impact of the fall, Anstrom was “scratched up pretty good,” said Johnson, with a concern that he might have injured his hip. He didn’t finish the race.
“The race had kind of passed him by at that point, so he went to the finish line and cheered on the guys who finished,” Johnson said. “He handled it really well. I think it really speaks to his character that he didn’t finish that race but he went up to the finish line and congratulated (Andrew Johnson) from N.C. School of Science and Math that ended up winning.”
Anstrom was one of nine athletes that represented the Hawks at states, with all but one of them, sophomore Chris Scanlon (NH, men’s pole vault), being freshmen.
Despite the team’s youth — a result of it being the program’s inaugural season — Johnson said he felt a sense of maturity among his athletes, rarely feeling as if he was coaching a room full of 9th graders.
“It was tremendous,” Johnson said. “In terms of how the team has carried itself and how its competed, it really hasn’t felt like coaching 9th graders. At states, they were very professional and detail-oriented. … It’s really cool for the future that they’re already so mature and take it so seriously.”
One of Johnson’s favorite stories from states came from freshman Juliette VanOlinda, who filled in for an absent runner in the women’s 4x800-meter relay, even though she’d never run in the event before and was a hurdler all season.
And her split time clocked in at a little under three minutes, an impressive feat for a first-time relay runner.
“To me, if you’re a 9th grader and you’re running under three (minutes) in the 800(-meter) at any point in the season, that’s an event that you have potential in,” Johnson said. “That was very impressive to me. … When one person fell, another person was ready to plug themselves in. From my own experience running track, very few people will throw themselves at the opportunity to hop into a 4x400 or 4x800 last second.”
Brandon McKoy, Chatham Charter’s standout senior, started his track journey in middle school when he began competing for an AAU team.
His first race, the one that started it all, took place on Marcus T. Johnson Track, home of the N.C. A&T Aggies and host of the NCHSAA Track & Field State Championships.
Last Saturday, his final race came on that very same track, the same one he’d been striving to return to for the last three years.
“It was kind of nostalgic,” McKoy said. “That was a time when I did track a lot more, I was more involved in track, and so this kind of brought back some of those feelings, a lot of that competitiveness. … It’s pretty nostalgic to end my (career) on the first track I ever raced on.”
McKoy is soft-spoken with a big personality. He’ll strike up a conversation with just about anyone, leading to his co-head coach, Tammy Walden, giving him the nickname “The Mayor.”
But on the track, that same competitive spirit kicks in. And Saturday was no different.
After taking sixth place in the men’s 1,600-meter run with a time of 4:51.88, nearly three seconds ahead of his seed time, he came back in the men’s 3,200-meter run and nearly made podium after staging a late comeback that propelled him to fifth place.
Throughout most of the race, McKoy stayed behind in a pack of about four runners, hovering between sixth and eighth place from lap-to-lap. However, in the final lap, McKoy kicked it, knocking off each opponent one-by-one until there he sat at fifth when it was all said and done.
McKoy said he originally thought he got sixth and, surprisingly, he wished he had.
“I told myself that if I tried to stay with (those near the top), then I’m going to burn myself out and finish something like eighth, so instead, I dropped to eighth early, let them take some of the wind for me and let them take some of the pacing off of my shoulders,” McKoy explained. “In my last 200, I just kicked it, I was just going. … Looking back, I thought I got sixth and then learned that I got fifth, so I was a bit regretful (that I didn’t kick earlier), but that’s fine.”
This was McKoy’s first time competing at states, having missed last season’s meet due to a Governor’s School commitment.
“I’m pretty proud of this ending, being just shy of my goal (of making podium),” McKoy said. “It was a good way to end my senior year.”
McKoy is headed off to Columbia University in the fall, where he said he’s still undecided on if he’ll keep running, even though he likely could walk on for the men’s cross country team.
“At the moment, I have to think about what the course load is going to look like, it’s definitely something that’s going to be rigorous,” he said. “Running is going to be supplemental. Worst case scenario, I’ll just keep running to keep myself healthy more than anything.”
In total, the Knights brought five athletes to this year’s state meet — an increase from two last year — including junior sprinter Tamaya Walden, who placed in the top 10 for both the women’s 200-meter dash (ninth, 27.17) and women’s 400-meter dash (eighth, 1:03.25) in her second straight appearance at states.
“That’s when the nerves set in, when it’s time for her to run,” said Tammy Walden, who’s also Tamaya’s mother, with a laugh. “I’m proud of her. She has a little bit of an injury that’s been bothering her, a ligament that’s been bothering her, but she’s pushed through it.”
Knights senior Brooke Garner was making her second straight appearance at states, having competed in the women’s 100- and 300-meter hurdles, high jump and triple jump at the 2021 meet. She paired her events down to just two at this year’s meet, finishing seventh in both the women’s long jump (15-11.25) and triple jump (32-10.50), outperforming her seed distance in each.
“She has grown and improved a lot in her long and triple jumps, learning a better technique to help her,” Tammy Walden said of Garner. “We kept trying to talk her into those hurdles because she’s not too shabby at those 300(-meter) hurdles either, but we can’t talk her into those. I think she’s found her niche. … You can see her focus in it, she likes it.”
Chatham Charter also saw a couple of first-time qualifiers in the women’s 3,200-meter run in sophomores Meredith Reese (11th, 15:56.59) and Ariana Rivera-Roma (14th, 18:39.17).
“Meredith, she’s improved and grown by leaps and bounds, she really has,” Tammy Walden said. “And Ariana, this is her first time running track and here she is at states. She was so excited. At regionals, she wanted to be fourth so she could get to states and she accomplished her goal.”
Woods Charter freshman Anna Peeler minced no words when describing her first-ever state meet appearance last Saturday.
“I was completely freaked out, to be honest,” Peeler said, chuckling. “It was surprising because there were so many people (in the stands) and when I walked out to see everyone, I was shocked … but it’s amazing, too, because it’s my first year of track. It was pretty crazy.”
Peeler took 14th in the women’s 3,200-meter run alongside teammate Ellie Poitras (10th, 6:03.08) and Chatham Central sophomore Samantha Scott (15th, 6:51.61).
“We’ve had a couple of weeks of a lot of anxiety, and I think that’s one thing that experience gives you is the ability to take all of that anxiety and turn it into a good race,” Taylor Transue, the Wolves’ first-year head coach, told the News + Record. “And when you’re a freshman and you’ve never been to states and it’s a huge venue, that definitely plays a factor in getting really amped up.”
Transue said that for the weeks leading up to states, they practiced without a clock, refusing to worry about times.
“We really tried to downplay the clock and tried to play up what, mentally, we could control,” she said. “I hope that my athletes can at least say that they’ve got some tools in the toolbox that they can use when they’re racing that empower them to be comfortable and confident when they’re out on the track.”
Last June, the Wolves took just three athletes to states — all seniors except for Poitras, who made it into the women’s 3,200-meter run as a freshman — but this season, that number jumped to six, and would have been eight had a pair of athletes, junior Wiley Sikes and freshman Analise De Leon Villanueva, been able to make the trip.
Others making their debut included freshman Isabel Wood (12th, women’s 100-meter dash, 13.42; 13th, women’s 200-meter dash, 28.20), junior Collin Thompson (ninth, men’s 400-meter dash, 53.28), freshman Jesse Sikes (12th, men’s 800-meter run, 2:19.22) and senior Peter Ising (14th, men’s shot put, 38-09.75).
“The thing that I was the most proud of was how many different areas that we had kids competing in at the state level,” Transue said. “It’s just so exciting to be able to have kids at all three levels — field, sprinting and mid-distance — representing our school at states.”
Woods Charter may have a small school, consisting of less than 200 students, but it’s building quite the heavy-hitting track program, with Transue bringing in sprinting and field coaches that have shared their expertise with such a young group.
And it’s clearly working.
“I’m really excited that such a young team does have a lot of experience,” Transue said. “I hope that they’ll bring that enthusiasm to the rest of the team in future years so that it just becomes something we do — we go to regionals, we go to states and we compete on that level.”
One of the highlights of Chatham Central Head Coach Sherman Howze’s trip to Greensboro was seeing junior Kailey Green exceed expectations, taking fifth in the women’s high jump (4-10.00) to earn four points for the Bears.
She was seeded No. 8, tied with five other jumpers, heading into states.
“She’s grown up a lot,” Howze said when asked about Green’s showing. “She jumped Saturday with a bum leg, but she pushed through, that’s the thing about it. … She hit 5-02.00 in practice three days straight (this season). Her leg just wouldn’t allow her to do what she needed.”
After having missed states entirely last season, the Bears brought along 15 athletes to compete this year, including a mix of older athletes like senior Malachi Moore (eighth, men’s long jump, 19-11.75), senior Carleigh Gentry (NH, women’s high jump) and senior Trey Clay (16th, men’s 4x800-meter relay, 1:40.11), along with underclassmen such as Scott, freshman Mattie Caviness (14th, women’s shot put, 26-11.50) and relay team members freshman Troy Gaines, sophomore Javonte Johnson and sophomore River Warren.
Green’s near-podium performance is one of many reasons why Howze said he expects his women’s team to give schools around the state a run for their money next season — especially in the field events, which the Bears have thrived in.
“I’ve got 31 girls this season and only two are seniors,” Howze said. “We’re going to be fine. I’m looking forward to next year, but they’ve got to be looking forward to working because I’m bringing on two more coaches.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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