By SHAUN SAVARESE
Of The Record Staff
For many Harnett County high school athletes, their spring season has ended and they’re focused on summer vacation or early June graduation ceremonies at Campbell University.
Though the seniors of Harnett Central High School will toss their tasseled caps on the night of June 9, six Trojan track teammates have only Friday on their minds.
The 2018 NCHSAA State 1A and 3A Championship track meet is at 8 a.m. this Friday at N.C. A& T State University in Greensboro.
Harnett Central seniors Laderique McNeill and Maliah Banks will compete there, along with junior Jesus Gonzalez, sophomores Maggie McCormick and Everett Blake, and freshman Robert Bowman.
McNeill, an N.C. State Track commit, will compete in the 1600m and the 3200m runs, after finishing in first place in both of those races — and the 800m run — at regionals last weekend.
Banks will compete in the 100m dash, the 200m dash and the long jump Friday morning.
McCormick will run the 3200m. Gonzalez, Blake and Bowman are on the men’s 4x800m relay team with McNeill.
This Harnett Central six was working hard in the heat this week, under the watchful eyes of five Trojan track coaches.
Harnett Central head varsity track and field coach Kevin Spears led a two-hour afternoon practice on the track in Angier Monday, as temperatures topped out at 95 degrees. Spears, and his quartet of coaches, were making an effort to further condition their half dozen, elite runners and jumpers.
Long-distance coach Carter Benge kept pace with McCormick and McNeill on the pitchblack track off Harnett Central Road. Mid-distance and shortdistance coaches Everett Ray and Michael Enyeart worked with Banks and members of the 4×800 relay team.
Former Trojan track coach Sam Bell, offered 32 years of experience from a shaded spot nearby the concession stand, talking technique to Banks and others, while reminding the runners to cool down and hydrate.
Bell coached track from 1975 through 2007. Still, he’s impressed with the state-qualifying performance of the 2018 Trojan team, saying, “It’s pretty great. We haven’t had this many athletes going in a while.” Bell also assists the Triton High School track team, and will coach this year with a summer track team in affiliation with the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office.
Spears, Benge, Ray, Enyeart and Bell are the only five track coaches in Harnett Central’s district.
There is no junior varsity or middle school level program at Harnett Central. In fact, a few of the state-meet relay runners had never ran a race before this year.
Spears said the 2018 spring season is different from his past five years as head coach because of the number of coaches who’ve volunteered, and their levels of experience. He also accredited this season’s success to the freshman class, calling them “a good group of younger kids who contributed.”
Spears — Harnett Central class of 1994 — also expects the success to continue, as his team will only lose a few seniors after graduation.
The former college linebacker, and Trojan shot put and discus competitor, has worked to use his athletic experience to improve each rising class of athletes. “I realized how it helped me and how it can help kids’ speed, mental toughness and endurance,” Spears said of high school track. “It’s the same thing in life,” he continued. “If you work hard, you will see results. You can do anything that you set your mind to.”
Though Spears will lose just a few seniors this summer, it can be said that they are a special class. For instance, McNeill and Banks have both made an impression on their coaching staff.
“I had Laderique in my P.E. class as a freshman and he ran a 5:45 mile with jeans on,” Spears said, before reflecting on the path McNeill’s taken to reach this point. The long-distance runner was in a 2017 automobile accident, and in a three-day, medically- induced coma. “This was his first chance in regionals and he responded well,” Spears said, calling him a hard worker, both on the track and in the classroom.
McNeill’s long distance and cross country coach, Carter Benge, has worked with the future collegiate runner for over a year and a half. “I started in cross country his junior year,” Benge said, “And since then, I’ve seen incredible growth and development. I mean, he’s almost died a couple times. But, the leadership and the work ethic that he’s shown since then, is really an inspiration for the team.”
Perhaps McNeill inspired fellow Central senior, Maliah Banks, who’s qualified to compete in three events on Friday.
“She’s different. She’s a hard worker,” Spears said of Banks. “Her freshman year, sophomore year and even in her junior year — when the girls started slacking off — she would go on and run with the boys, to get her work in and keep her pace up.” Banks is graduating on June 9, and according to her coach, she hopes to attend N.C. Central and has dreams of playing basketball on the next level.
The Trojan’s two-mile runner, Sophomore Maggie McCormick, had left the team due to injury earlier this spring. She returned to work through the pain and has qualified for the state competition.
“She was the first competitor I saw this season to cry because she lost,” Spears said, “After that point she picked herself up and worked hard and now she’s qualified for the 3200.”
Spears spoke briefly on Monday about his 4×800 relay team, saying, “This team is representing every class in the school.” The relay team includes one freshman, sophomore, junior and senior.
“They just came on to the scene, worked as a team, and just clicked. They worked hard, kept coming and kept pushing, and they finished No. 2 in the region. They almost set a school record. They have been working well as a unit and pushing each other as a unit. They are very competitive.”
The coaching staff at Central began this season running in the wind and the rains of March. Now they must handle the mugginess of May.
“Competing in the heat takes a lot of conditioning. If you don’t over train to prepare for it, then it really shows up,” Spears said. “A lot of the kids change their diets. We try to push hydration. Sleep, rest, ice, ice baths … anything you can do to take care of yourself.”
Although Spears said his distance assistants have helped him push the athletes; this time of year, hydration trumps motivation.
“We tell the kids, if you’re thirsty now … it’s too late,” he said. “You always hydrate today for tomorrow. It’s important to stay on top of that because if you get thirsty out here, you can have cramps.” He said he’s seen fullbody cramping, but his team’s been blessed this season to not have been affected by bouts of dehydration.
The 2018 NCHSAA State 1A and 3A Championship track meet starts at 8 a.m., when the gates open for the teams. There will be a coaches meeting at 8:45 a.m. and Banks will compete in the long jump and 100m dash, both at 10 a.m. The other running events begin at 1 p.m.
Editor’s note: Western Harnett and Hobbton high schools will also compete on Friday.
Overhills High School will compete on Saturday.