Prep Track: East boys back on top in NPC

Published 11:51 pm Wednesday, May 2, 2018

By Mike London

GRANITE QUARRY — The two-day North Piedmont Conference Track and Field Championships was decided by the final event on Wednesday and ended with multiple and sloppy Gatorade baths for East Rowan coaches.

East’s boys had finished fifth and sixth in South Piedmont Conference meets the last two seasons, but they found a new league to their liking. East’s seniors earned their second conference title. They won the SPC in 2015 when they were freshmen.

“This was a tough meet,” East sprinter Jacob Downing said. “The danger all day was in trying to go out too fast. We needed to pace ourselves. We had to have something left at the end.”

The 4×400 relay is the traditional conclusion for track meets, a fierce event that supplies the perfect combination of speed, endurance and teamwork. Four young people making careful baton exchanges under pressure while blasting an all-out mile sprint with the crowd screaming.

East went into that 4×400 with a precarious, five-point lead over South Iredell, and South Iredell was the favorite to win the event.

The scoring system is 10-8-6-4-2-1. East had done the math.

“We couldn’t finish lower than third,” said Downing, who placed individually in the 100, 200 and 400. “We knew where we stood. Anything lower than third and we lose the championship.”

Downing, East’s best 400 guy, got it started, and Cooper Wright, Ross Alexander and Chase Whitley followed him home. Wright, a sophomore, and Alexander, a senior, ran the 400 splits of their lives. Whitley, a senior, arms raised to the heavens, crossed the finish line right behind South Iredell, his last act on East’s track a moment of triumph.

The Mustangs were winners. The totals: East 127, South Iredell 124, North Iredell 103, West Rowan 78, Carson 75, Statesville 57.

In a meet that close, there are a lot places where East won it. On the far end of the track, East junior Christian Bennett, MVP for field events, added a surprising discus victory to the shot put title he achieved on Tuesday. No one had a great day throwing the discus. Carson’s Joseph Collins, who placed fourth, was 20 feet short of his winning effort in the Rowan County Championships.

“Christian threw 117 feet (and 6 inches), and that’s not normally going to win the discus in a conference meet,” East head coach John Fitz said. “But he threw it further than anyone else, and those were some big points.”

The versatile Bennett was more excited about his role on East’s second-place 4×100 unit. East appeared to have that race won, but West Rowan’s Jalen Houston summoned a phenomenal burst at the end.

“I had some pretty good throws in the discus today, just feeling it a little bit and powering through,” Bennett said. “I also wanted to do my part in the 4×100. That was a good race, good for the fans. We didn’t win it, so it wasn’t a perfect day, but we did enough.”

Fitz had played the meet out on paper as he always does. He knew South Iredell would present the serious obstacle. South Iredell had edged East twice during the regular season, once by four points and once by five.

“South Iredell has special athletes, the kind of kids that if you’ve got five like that, you can win the state,” Fitz said. “But we can’t win that way. We have to win with our depth. We try to put three guys in every event, and we go from there. Our guys did a great job today. They fought for every point.”

Sean Incardona’s win in the 800 in 2:02.44 was big. Incardona had finished second to South Iredell’s Gavin Mouat in the 3200 and 1600, but he topped him in the critical 800. Had Incardona finished second again to Mouat, the MVP for distance events, that four-point swing would’ve won the meet for South Iredell.

Incardona, who had helped East take the 4×800 on Tuesday, has enjoyed a great career in track and cross country. This was the senior’s final race on the East track.

“I think everyone was fatigued and stiff by the time we got to the 800,” Incardona said. “I was running behind a couple of guys for a while, but then with about 400 meters to go, I just took off. It was crazy, it was ‘Jesus, take the wheel’ time. I just ran as hard as I could.”

Sam Wall won the triple jump for the Mustangs, taking the event by 16 inches over West Rowan’s Jakari Gardner, the county champion. Wall had a monster day, second in the 200, third in the 100, plus the anchor on the second-place 4×100 unit.  That’s the race where West Rowan’s Houston, who followed Joojo Brush, Gardner and DJ Robinson, snatched victory from the Mustangs.

Houston and Wall were trading good-natured barbs and smiles as they approached the finish line.

“We’re close friends and we were having a good time,” Houston said.

Houston, who led West to fourth place, sported purple hair, a fashion choice he cheerfully explained was for the “Purple Reign” he had planned.

“Purple makes you stand out in the crowd a little bit,” Houston said.

Houston’s speed also makes  him stand out. He won the 100. He was second in the 100 hurdles and third in the 200.

“I was happiest with the 100 because I got off to a great start,” Houston said. “I  got a little off-balance in the hurdles race and it was going to take a perfect race to win that one.”

South Iredell’s Cory Gaither Jr. was MVP for sprints. He won both hurdling events. South Iredell’s Jake Richardson edged Wall for the 200 title and teamed with Gaither as the Vikings won the 4×200.

John Menscer was the standout for third-place North Iredell. He won the long jump on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he was second to teammate Nathan McDaniels in the 400 and second to Houston in the 100. North Iredell’s Daniel Nicholson and Garrett Gibson went 1-2 in the pole vault.

For fifth-place Carson, wheelchair athlete William Fuller drew roars from the crowd and scored points.

Christian Turner’s second-place finish  in the 300 hurdles was another highlight for the Cougars. He was seeded sixth.

“I’m feeling surprise and happiness,” Turner said. “I was running in Lane 6, and that’s not usually a good one to run in, but I got off to a good start, and I kept kicking it. That last hurdle is always fun because you never know whether to go over it or run through it. I felt a guy right behind me, so I ran right through it.”

Carson’s Jacob Higgins, county champ in the 800, finished third in NPC behind Incardona and Mouat. Cole Perry had a second place on Tuesday in the high jump.

Statesville, led by freshman high jump champ Detrich Davis, finished sixth.

But it was East’s day.

“County champs and now conference champs,” said East distance coach Rick Roseman. “That’s the way you want to go out. Our seniors leave this track with their heads held high.”