Shaw column: Stars expect to win

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 13, 2011

GRANITE QUARRY — The more time you spend watching Darien Rankin, the more you realize anything is possible.
Even on a day like Wednesday, when the do-it-all Salisbury senior fell short of his own lofty expectations in the Rowan County track & field championships.
“I wouldn’t say it was disappointing,” he explained after winning two jumping events and placing fourth in another. “It’s just not how I thought it would be.”
It wasn’t, and therein lies the fuel that drives Rankin to be the best. Expecting to win — and win in record-setting fashion, no less — is what makes him so dangerous.
“That’s just his competitive nature,” SHS coach Darius Bryson noted. “That’s Darien. It’s his last county meet and he wanted a county record (in the high jump) today, but he’s going home without it.”
Never mind that Rankin cleared six feet and six inches to win the event with relative ease. It wasn’t 6-8, his personal best set in the season’s first meet. And it wasn’t 6-9, the county-meet record held by East Rowan graduate Brian Perry, or the 6-10 that South’s B.J. Grant topped in last spring’s NPC meet. In his mind, merely winning wasn’t sufficient.
“I truly set my goals real high,” Rankin said after spending 10 minutes alone to reflect. “I don’t know. I don’t think I focused enough.”

Talented and humble. The only thing not to like about Rankin is having to compete against him. Listen to North Rowan’s Sam Starks, a friendly rival since childhood: “You’re not gonna always perform your best or do your best, but you’ve got to come with the mindset of being your best. That’s what he does.”
Starks, another blue-ribbon senior, knows a thing or two about being the best. He successfully defended his title in the triple-jump with a leap of 44 feet, 10 inches — impressive indeed, but a mark that pales compared to the 47-0 he jumped a week ago. And while he stood out for sporting colorful hosiery — he called them “crazy socks” — Starks was quick to credit the Cavaliers’ revered coaching staff, a group that includes the legendary Robert Steele and six-time All-American Mark Sturgis, a volunteer assistant.
“ We’re surrounded by greatness,” he proclaimed. “We work with the greatest coaches ever.”

History supports those statements. North has been a perennial winner in these parts and is favored to capture the 1A state championship later this spring.
“There’s a reason,” Starks said. “It’s a continuous schedule. We practice all the time. We practice when it’s 30 degrees. We practice on Sundays. It’s go to school, eat, practice. Go to church, eat, practice. Coach Steele demands nothing less than our best. You hear that from the best coach in the nation and you want to respond for him.”
Steele is a proud man, proudest that he has opened doors for dozens of young athletes.
“We’ve gotten millions of dollars in scholarships over the last 25, 26 years,” he said. “That tells you something.”

It tells you there’s a method to his madness. Same goes for Sturgis, the 2004 North graduate who holds Starks and junior teammate Johnny Oglesby in high regard.
“I took (Starks) under my wing last year,” Sturgis said. “He reminds me of Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan. He wants to be the best at everything, even if he doesn’t know how to do it. You can always use more of that.”
Then there’s Oglesby, a transfer from Lexington and the county’s star-in-waiting, whether he believes it or not. He placed second in the triple-jump and long-jump — earning this critique from Sturgis:
“He’s a technician who seems like he does everything right. He just needs to apply more aggression to his form. Then he’ll be flawless.”

Fitting words to conclude a day when few individuals were perfect. Even Rankin — a muscular, ’69 Chevelle in red & black — who wore the look of a beaten fighter.
“I like it this way,” he said. “It’s really not a bad day. I’ve just got to keep my confidence up and bring everything I have to the state meet.”
Where, of course, anything is possible.