St. Al eyeing 1A track sweep
Published 10:35 am Friday, May 8, 2015
Josh Price quietly flings the discus, slowly walks to find it, then picks it up and throws it again.
On one end of Balzli Field, St. Aloysius’ football team is running through a spring practice. At the other, a worn landing pad sits unused while hurdlers work with hurdles set up on the grass.
Outside the fence, the girls’ track team is doing some speed work and the boys are practicing relay exchanges on a worn, rutted dirt path.
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St. Al’s track facilities are not subpar, they’re non-existent. Yet, somehow, the football field turned makeshift practice facility has become home to two potential championship teams.
Both the Flashes and Lady Flashes are favorites to win the Class 1A team championship at today’s state meet at Pearl High School. Neither has lost a meet this season, and between them they’ll compete in 27 of a possible 34 events today.
It’s a surreal experience for a program that doesn’t have a home track and little to no history as a title contender.
“It’s unbelievable, because it’s finally an approachable goal and it’s never been an approachable goal,” said St. Al senior Alyssa Engel, who will compete in the girls’ long jump, triple jump, 200 meters and 4×400 meter relay at the state meet. “It sounds awesome to me.”
St. Al has not been without successful athletes in the past. Engel won the state championship in the long jump in 2013 and reached the state meet last year. Pole vaulter Maggie Waites is a three-time state champion who has cleared 12 feet this season — the highest vault ever recorded by a girl in Mississippi. She signed with Division II Texas A&M-Commerce in April.
Price has reached the state meet before in both the discus and shot put, and a host of other athletes over the years have competed and won at the state meet.
The problem was, neither the boys nor girls team had enough talent to compete for the team championship. Doing that requires advancing a lot of athletes to the state meet, and St. Al has never had the depth to do it. That changed this year when 28 girls signed up for the team. The newcomers included seventh-grade distance runner Madelyn Polk, who is a favorite to win in both the 1,600 and 3,200 meters today, and sophomore Olivia Curtis, who won the South State championship in the high jump.
“The big sign up was a shock for me. We had 28 girls, and we usually had about 16,” St. Al girls coach Keiko Booth said.
The boys team had similar numbers, along with some key newcomers. Junior sprinter DeMichael Harris came out for track for the first time and is undefeated this season in the 100, 200 and 400 meters.
Tae Warnsley transferred to St. Al when Hinds AHS shut down and has gone undefeated in the 110 and 300 meter hurdles. Also coming over from Hinds AHS was coach Michael Fields, who led the War Dawgs to Class 1A team championships in 2005 and 2014.
Boys assistant coach Anthony Moore said Fields’ championship pedigree brought a new dimension to the program that was missing.
“Coach Fields made a big difference. His experience came into play to help us get this far,” Moore said. “With the contribution of Coach Fields’ knowledge and competitiveness, the guys can feed off of that. He, and myself, have both played on a much higher level. That’s a recipe for winning right there.”
With the pieces in place for a successful season, the Flashes and Lady Flashes still had to contend with their lack of facilities. It’s nothing new for the program, but it does cause some issues.
The running path has some potholes, and includes stretches of uneven grass, dirt and concrete. Engel said several of her teammates have dealt with shin splints this season.
“It’s hard to get over the ditches. There’s a lot of ditches,” Engel said.
In May, the football team uses the field for spring practice. On Tuesday, while the track team was practicing on one side of Balzli Field the football team was doing the same on the other end.
Booth shrugged it all off, saying it was just part of the culture everyone has become accustomed to at a small school.
“I think we always make do with what we’ve got,” Booth said. “Maybe that’s part of it. You rise out of the challenge and just explain it to the young ones that this is what it’s going to be like. You can adjust to it and rise above it, or not.”
So far, the Flashes and Lady Flashes have both risen above it. They’re both undefeated in eight meets this season, including last week’s South State meet that they each won by more than 50 points.
Booth said each team’s success has fueled the other.
“What’s really exciting is we have the same number of wins. We can celebrate success together with both teams,” Booth said. “It’s a support thing for both teams. I think it also helps to keep both teams really focused. No team is goofing around because they’re not winning. We’re both really intense.”
The main competition for the Lady Flashes today is expected to be Coldwater and Tupelo Christian Prep, but St. Al has plenty of advantages with its depth.
Besides the sheer number of athletes, St. Al has a few likely winners in events many schools struggle in or don’t compete in, like pole vault and the distance races. If Waites and Polk win all of their events, it’s essentially 30 free points added to the total before the running events even begin.
Engel also is a favorite in all of her individual events, which could add another 30 points to the team’s score.
“That’s going to be huge, especially the events we’re doubled up in. That’s going to be where we really get out points,” Booth said.
The Flashes will rely more on star power with Harris, Warnsley and senior Luke Eckstein potentially providing as many 70 points by themselves. Eckstein has qualified in the 1,600 meters, 3,200 meters and high jump. He won the two distance races at the South State meet.
Price will compete in the discus and shot put in the morning, which could further help St. Al gain a big lead.
St. Al’s competition is more diversified on the boys’ side than the girls, with as many as five teams expected to contend. When two or three teams contend, 100 points is usually enough to win. With four or five in the mix, the magic number drops closer to 70 or 80 points.
“(Harris) is the motor in the car. But nobody can falter. He can win all four, and if somebody else falters we can still lose as a team,” Fields said. “It all starts with Josh and Luke. Those are the indicators for who’s going to do well.”
If everyone does their jobs, Fields will be celebrating his second consecutive state title as a coach and St. Al its first as a school. It would be an unlikely rise to the top to everyone, it seems, except Fields.
“It’s not remarkable. Every school in the state of Mississippi has the ability to do this if they pull together,” Fields said. “The schools I was at, none of them had facilities. The key thing in track is having kids willing to come out and make no excuses. It’s all about handling your business, and you party when it’s over.”