Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Blazers relay the message

Coming off indoor state title, five Blair runners look for more

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
The Blair boys 4x200-meter relay team of (from left) Jonathan Haughton, Mohamed Mansaray, Louis Varella and Chris Grindley won the Class 4A state indoor title in February. Now they, and the 4x100 and 4x400 teams, turn their attention to doing the same during outdoor season.
Blair High School hasn’t won a lot of high-school athletics titles recently, so when it does, it’s a big deal. When four previously overlooked boys combine for a state championship, it’s even bigger.

Juniors Chris Grindley and Jonathan Haughton, and seniors Mohamed Mansaray and Louis Varella, readily admit they weren’t expecting their 4x200-meter relay win at the Class 4A state indoor track championships in February. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t ready. They expected a title, but in the 4x400, where senior Nilan Schnure replaces short-sprint specialist Mansaray, but the team otherwise remains the same.

‘‘I actually expected them to win the 4x4[00] at states,” said Ralph Penn, in his first year as head coach after working with Blair’s sprinters for several seasons. ‘‘Varella actually tripped on the anchor leg and we got second by fractions of a second. ... They’re running well, and some of those same guys are going to be on the 4x1[00] relay, too. So we have three relay teams that we really hope do well.”

There’s doing well, and then there’s winning championships. The same group of runners had a solid, but not title-winning, spring in 2007. The sprint relay teams consistently appeared in the fastest heats, along with the county’s powers in those events, the likes of Gaithersburg and Richard Montgomery. Blair’s 4x100, 4x200 and 4x400 teams all finished either second or third at both the county and 4A West Region meets last spring, except for a disqualification in the county 4x200.

All three also qualified for the 4A state championships, taking third in 4x400, fifth in the 4x100 and sixth in the 4x200.

The Blazers’ best time in the 4x200 last spring was 1 minute, 29.78 seconds; its top mark in the 4x400, 3:22.7. Both came at states, at the time of year when track athletes are expected to perform their best after a full season of training. At indoor states in February, they were already coming close to those times. The 4x200 team’s winning mark was 1:31.73, and the 4x400 ran a 3:31.31, 28 hundredths of a second behind C.H. Flowers’ winning time.

‘‘Last year, we had a good team, but we weren’t ready for this,” Mansaray said. ‘‘This year, we’re ready. We want to have another state championship. So we’ll keep working hard for that. ... I want to win states and make my school proud. Maybe it’s good to have the support of the school. It can boost us up.”

In addition to the school, the team members can rely on support from one another. A cliché it may be, but teamwork and camaraderie are as much factors in the success of a relay as speed. Blair’s fun-loving group appears to have that. They all run for the same club, the Hummingbirds, training together all summer. The togetherness extends beyond the white lines, as well.

‘‘In school, we hang out, we sit at the same table,” Grindley said. ‘‘On the weekends, we’ll go bowling together or do whatever we have to do. We do a lot outside of track.”

‘‘It’s a fun group of guys,” Penn said. ‘‘They’re constantly wanting to wear the best one-piece outfits and the right kind of spikes. I tell them, ‘You guys have got to step up and win if you’re dressed like that.’ They say, ‘Coach, we do win.’”

The group also takes pride in the five-letter name printed on those spiffy one-piece sprint suits. Blair hopes had recently fallen on the spikes of twin sisters Halsey and Ashlyn Sinclair in the girls distance events. Halsey racked up a slew of county and regional titles in the 1,600, 3,200 and cross country over four years, and Ashlyn was an All-American in the steeplechase. Now that the Sinclairs have graduated, responsibility for the school’s track fortunes shifts to the boys sprinters.

Yet maybe that’s not so different. While the Sinclairs led the Blazer girls to a sixth-place team finish at the 2007 county meet, the boys piled up enough points in the sprint events to place them seventh. It would be no surprise to see them move up those standings this May.

‘‘Blair really hasn’t been good at any sports, so for us to be good now is a big thing,” Haughton said. ‘‘We’re getting respect, we’re getting good looks. It’s been great.”

Maybe that’s the main difference this year: after their state indoor championship, everyone else sees them coming.

‘‘We set high expectations for ourselves,” Grindley said. ‘‘We want [personal records] in everything. Everything we did last year, we want to do better this year. People knowing us doesn’t make a difference. We still know what we have to do. We have a goal; we’re trying to achieve it. That’s it.”