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Track team out to show it’s among state’s best

South Boston News
Members of the Comet track team who will be competing in the VHSL Class 5 state championship meet this Friday and Saturday in Newport News are shown above with coach Mary Douglas. Team members who qualified for state competition (listed in no particular order) are Otis Slayton, Jaden Waller, Herbert Brooks, Azaad Barksdale, Thomas Lee, Spencer Hargrave, Ali Ferrell and Kmayia Moore. / May 30, 2019

The Halifax County High School track team will be fighting for points in the VHSL Class 5 state championship meet Friday and Saturday, with hopes of putting together a team score high enough to place among Virginia’s best.

With three events where Comets can compete for first place, and several more where they have an outside shot, the team is excited about what the weekend may hold as the state meet unfolds at Todd Stadium in Newport News.

Otis Slayton is the fourth best long jumper in Virginia, and the best-ever to come out of Halifax. However, he’s going to need to jump further than he ever has to win a state championship. Slayton, like his Comet teammates who also have qualified for states, is confident.

“All things are possible. With any event all things are possible,” said HCHS head coach Mary Douglas.

Although Slayton’s official best in the long jump is 23 feet, 10.25 inches — a leap that broke the school record and won the regional championship — he has jumped further, but not without fouling on the attempt. Slayton’s teammates who witnessed the scratch jump said he overstepped by just a quarter inch.

That jump would have been over 24 feet, neck-and-neck with his opponent, who is first in Virginia and 39th in the nation.

“I’m like, a three quarters of an inch off of him,” Slayton said.

Meanwhile, sophomore high jumper Jaden Waller, whose personal best is 6’4”, is tied with five other athletes for second place going into the state meet. However, first place belongs to another nationally ranked senior whose record is six inches higher than anything Waller has jumped.

“He can jump,” Waller concedes of his top rival. “But anything can happen.”

Waller said that he and Douglas have been working to fix his approach — the run toward the high jump bar — so that he can make his jumps more consistent.

“Consistency is most needed for high jumping,” Waller said.

Other than altering his approach, the only thing Waller said he could do was, “Pray to God.”

The team’s best chance for an event victory may lie with Herbert Brooks, who threw the discus an incredible 170 feet, nine inches to become the top thrower in VHSL Class 5, Halifax’s competition level. If he can replicate or improve his throw, Brooks would be at least three feet further than his nearest competitor.

At regionals, Brooks won the discus with a throw of just 145 feet, one inch. Slayton won the long and triple jump, and Waller took home gold in the high jump. Shot putter Thomas Lee earned second place with a 44 foot throw. Teammate Azaad Baskerville followed Slayton, also qualifying for the state championship in the long jump and triple jump.

Though his best events involve jumping, Slayton has qualified for the state meet in the 100m and 200m sprints. He and Lee also will join sprinters Ali Ferrell and Spencer Hargrave to round out the 4x100m relay team.

The relay team, although tied for 12th, is only 0.2 seconds away from earning a medal. Slayton and Lee each believe they will be competitive.

“That’s [the gap between 12th and 5th] just a handoff. If we can get our handoffs clean we could easily be top five,” Slayton said.

The relay team, which has been reconfigured multiple times during the season and is still trying to improve the efficiency of its handoffs, is an unknown. Members do not believe their previous performances are the limit to what they can do.

“We’re like a wild card. We can be really high or really low,” Slayton explained.

That wild card status is what makes a good coach so important. Douglas advises athletes on how to improve their diets, get more sleep, drink more water, and she keeps them on a scheduled eating plan during events. She said many students have a hard time eating healthy because good options are often not readily available, and students in high school tend to stay up late doing homework or playing on their phones.

Besides watching over their health, a coach guides the students through the murky process of applying to colleges and college recruitment. As far as Douglas knows, her graduating seniors plan on attending college. While not all of the athletes want to run in college, scholarships that come with recruitment do help students who otherwise might not go.

“I think they’ll do well in college,” Douglas said.

She explained that her students maintain high GPAs and work hard both on and off the track. In one example, team members volunteered to help staff the concession stands simply because the job needed to be done.

“We’re losing a good bunch, not just because of track,” she said.

Strong as the Halifax athletes are as college applicants, recruitment is a process that relies on personal connections and prior knowledge of what to say as an athlete and what to expect to hear from college coaches. Douglas carefully monitors colleges’ interest in her athletes, working to try to get them the best deals.

“I try to make contacts with other coaches for them,” Douglas said.

Some athletes are lucky. Brooks, the discus thrower who won regionals and is projected to win the state championship, will be attending VMI in the fall to throw for their team. Other athletes need more work, such as Slayton.

Douglas explained that getting Slayton a good option had been difficult because, despite his accomplishments, he had been playing basketball for the high school as well. This meant that he never competed during the winter indoor track season, a fact that made college coaches worried he was either injured or not committed.

Douglas is trying to get Slayton onto the coaches’ radars to get him a better offer for financial aid than what they’ve already gotten.

Besides helping place her athletes, Douglas and team have to prepare for meets, schedule host events at HCHS (which can take up to two days), work on improving their running, enforce rules, and maintain a positive team culture. They sometimes have to take care of the athletes in ways unrelated to the track.

“[I am] sometimes a confidante, mom, everything,” Douglas said.

“For a lot of these kids it is, besides school itself, the most positive thing they get to do. It gives them an outlet,” she said.

According to Douglas, the track team gives students a chance to meet other people, both within Halifax County High School and in other schools as well. She said several of her athletes had gone to proms with members of other teams.

“They mingle with other teams, move and grow as individuals,” she said.

Not every year, or every group, is as positive as 2019’s track team. While they are competing for state titles on the male side, the female team is sending a relay team that ranks 33rd and shot putter Kmayia Moore, whose throw of 33 feet, nine inches projects her at 21st in the state competition.

Moore, who is also on the relay team, is a junior and likely will improve to be even more competitive in her senior year, but Douglas admitted it is hard to find more girls to compete. She said that her goal for both teams was to build up the number of “quality athletes,” those that last for multiple years and show both dedication and improvement.

Douglas and her assistant coaches work to build their culture by cultivating athletes across seasons. Some of the seniors who lead the team previously quit the team as younger athletes only to return. She said that as they aged, athletes become more focused.

“They have to have a taste for competition; it’s an acquired taste,” Douglas said.

Once they catch that taste, Douglas said her athletes have shown a talent for reaching lofty goals. At the team’s collective favorite event, the Golden Eagle Invitational, Brooks — whose previous discus throws had averaged around 150 feet — got into a competition against the best discus thrower in Virginia. By the end of the competition, Brooks had shattered his previous record by nearly twenty feet.

Where many people would see an impossible task, Halifax County’s track and field athletes see a chance to push themselves further. Though they seldom get the attention they deserve, these are some of the best athletes in Virginia, and some are among the top in the nation.

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