Although Northern Virginia athletes were not as dominant as last year when they won 17 of 27 events at the Physician's Care/George Mason University High School track and field invitational, this year, in capturing seven events, many good performances were turned in.
Tanya Gallaway-White of T.C. Williams continued a Northern Virginia tradition winning the shot put; Gina Perry, of Fairfax, was the most diversely talented athlete of the meet, winnig the triple jump, making it to the semifinals of the 55-meter dash and finishing third in the long jump; distance runners were up to their usual winning ways, Annandale's Jana Beckman defending last year's 1,600 meter title and freshman Alexa Lange, of Herndon, winning the 3,200 meters.
The emphasis of this meet was on individuals and team scores were not kept. Team scores often encourage coaches to use athletes in numerous events for scoring purposes. Most of the athletes participating Saturday were in just one event.
One hundred teams from Northern Virginia and the Richmond and Tidewater areas, Maryland, Washington D.C. and New York had at least one athlete advance to Saturday's finals. They qualified in early December, about three weeks after the season officially began. While the quality was much greater Saturday, after a month of practice and conditioning, it is still considered early in the season. By the championship portion of the season in late February (state meet is Feb. 26-27) the caliber of performance should be much higher.
Each athlete has a story to tell of the adversity they overcame along the way. So, here are a couple of the more interesting winners Saturday:
James Madison senior Doug Richards pole vaulted 13-feet-6, soaring well above a quality field, giving himself the unofficial title as the area-best and setting himself up as the top contender for the Virginia AAA state title. But when Richards first wanted to be a vaulter his freshman year, the coaches at Madison turned him away, saying he wasn't big enough or strong enough.
Any other 14-year old who was just 5-foot 4, 132 most likely would have simply walked away, aqcuiescing to fate. But for Richards, being told that he couldn't pole vault sparked something inside. And it's been burning ever since. For the first time, Richards, aimless as any ninth grader, who probably wasn't going to go to college, had a purpose. He wanted to pole vault and darned if any bunch of coaches was going to tell him otherwise.
"It really got me motivated," said Richards, now 6-1, 158. "If I didn't pole vault, I'd probably be a bum."
Over the ensuing year he weight lifted and conditioned himself, returning in better shape. He was accepted onto the squad and was the seventh man on the team outdoors as a sophomore. By his junior year indoors, he was fifth man in the state.
"He stays in shape year-round now, he's very dedicated," said pole vault Coach John D'Elia. "He's persistent."
James Madison has a proud pole vaulting tradition, regularly producing athletes who can clear better than 13-feet, a height good enough to win most any state meet. It was that tradition that attracted Richards, as it does many eager freshman, said D'Elia. But so did the element of the event itself. To propel yourself upward, soaring far above the crowd, higher than any high jumper and then free fall was defying the odds, at the very least gravity.
"There's no other thing in track equal to it," said Richards. "You actually get off your feet, your body leaves the ground and it's the most dangerous."
Since Richards has become a pole vaulter, he's also become a goal-oriented individual and not solely in sports.
"When he was young, Doug had no real hopes of going to college," said D'Elia. "But in the last couple of years, vaulting has opened many different avenues for him and he's looking at continuing vaulting at the college level. He's found direction through vaulting and we're more pleased about that than whether he wins or loses."
Richards has cleared 14-0 earlier this season but is still on the comeback trail following a vaulting injury last spring. He landed on his foot, breaking one of the metatarsal bones and was prevented from competing in the regional or state championships.
His tenacity has not been adversely affected by the injury, however. Richards came into the finals Saturday seeded third after clearing only 12-9 to qualify in early December.
"I want to get nationally ranked for college reasons," he said.
Ultimately, Richards' training program has him peaking for the state meet outdoors. But his coaches would rather not divulge numbers.
"Lets just say, of the kids returning, he has the best height in the state," said D'Elia. "But I think there's a kid downstate who did 13-6 outdoors last year."
Robinson senior Terrell McIlwain won the 55 meter high hurdles by a hair over Bayside's Lewis Turner, 7.54-7.56. Not bad for a guy who fell on his face, literally, in the December trials. Tripping and falling at the start, McIlwain was lucky to qualify ninth with a 7.8 and in the finals Saturday, the officials originially had Turner winning until the finish-photo was scrutinized.
But McIlwain has a knack for making believers out of unbelievers, even if that means himself.
As a freshman, when he played basketball, outdoor track coach Maynard Hines saw the potential in McIlwain "and he kept badgering at me, 'you've got to try,' he said but I never listened to him," said McIlwain, 5-11, 165. Then, when a knee injury kept him on the bench his sophomore year, he decided to give hurdling a try that spring.
The result was a second in the regionals that spring and last year indoors, the state title. He had a disappointing outdoor season last year, failing to qualify for the finals at the state meet after winning the regionals.
McIlwain will meet his George Mason adversaries again in the state meet in two months. His goal is to defend his indoor title, of course, but in his dreams, he goes much higher, all the way to the Supreme Court. He wants to be a justice on the Supreme Court.
"Everyone has their far off, hardest to reach goals," he said. "And that's mine, that's my dream."
He was accepted by early admission to William and Mary and hopes to go on to law school. He's also hoping to be accepted for the academic scholarships he's applied for, which he won't know about until March.
Hurdling or scholastically, McIlwain approaches both with equal intensity.
"I try to go all out everytime because anything can happen any time," he said. "To lay back would not be smart because something unexpected can happen."