Wednesday, April 2, 2008

County’s division season a sprint event

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazete
Senior Suzanne Falk is part of a loaded Wootton girls team this spring.
Dual meets and division titles have never been a primary goal for most of Montgomery County’s outdoor track and field coaches, who prefer to build up athletes for the season-ending championship meets. That may never be more true than this spring.

In the past, county teams had been divided into divisions based on the combined success of their boys and girls teams: Division I included the strongest teams, Division IV the least strong. This offseason, coaches chose to shuffle the deck. There are still four divisions, but arranged such that each should include the same competitive balance.

‘‘The way we were doing it before was almost unfair to the smaller schools,” Quince Orchard coach Seann Pelkey said. ‘‘Some of the coaches of those teams mentioned that getting to go to a meet against some of the top schools would be a good thing for them for motivating their kids and showing them what needs to be done.”

In effect, the county’s 25 public high schools were seeded, then distributed evenly; the top four programs are in four different divisions, as are five through eight, and so on.

In addition, the early spring break means the county’s entire ‘‘regular” season is contained within the 30 days of April. Coaches said they will be particularly careful not to overwork their athletes this month.

The Wootton girls are the ascendant program in the area this spring, coming off a county-best third-place finish at the Class 4A state indoor meet. Heralded freshman Olivia Ekpone won state titles in the 55- and 300-meter sprints, not to mention earning All-American honors at the Nike Indoor Nationals, March 13.

Ekpone put the icing on a team that already had stoppers in every event, with the exceptions of throws and hurdles. Coach Kellie Redmond thinks the positive vibe surrounding the girls team is good for the boys, as well.

Before they’re crowned queens of the county, though, the Patriots have to get past local rival Churchill, the county’s top girls team over the past two years. The Bulldogs finished fifth in the state indoors, two spots below Wootton, and can no longer lean on graduated points monster Audrey Gariepy-Bogui. But last year’s state runner-up isn’t going down without a fight. In Katie Wolf, Erin McManus and Louise Hannallah, the Bulldogs have a chip in every race between 200 and 3,200 meters.

Churchill also boasts strong relays and solid hurdlers in Ale Martinez and Amirah Polite. Darren Harris and the distance team will try to provide the foundation for a program-building effort on the boys side.

It’s business as usual at Quince Orchard: distance, distance and more distance. The Cougars boys are coming off 4A state championships in cross country and indoor track. After coming on strong toward the end of his junior season, Neal Darmody has been a revelation as a senior in the 1,600 and 3,200, and the 4x800 team looks as strong as ever after a state indoor title of its own.

‘‘Going for three titles is something that’s going to make this season a memorable one for the guys,” Pelkey said. ‘‘The coach in me wants to say, let’s do what we’ve always done. But at the same time, you have to have that little something extra to make the guys want to go out there and practice.”

In terms of state-championship pedigree, Bethesda-Chevy Chase is Class 3A’s answer to Quince Orchard. The Barons won the boys cross-country title in the fall, and that entire team will stack the distance events in their favor this spring. B-CC’s girls are coming off the state indoor title, and while the Barons will miss 1,600 state champ Alex Doll, who is concentrating on soccer this spring, the rest of that core remains intact, as well.

‘‘The girls are still pretty young, which is nice,” B-CC coach Chad Young said. ‘‘The boys, five of our top seven cross country runners are seniors. ... I think the boys team is a little more well-rounded than the girls right now. We have some field guys, jumpers and sprinters.”

Across Bethesda at Whitman, they know a thing or two about distance running, as well. And the Vikings also know a thing or two about star power. Leslie Morrison and Morgane Gay have been All-Gazette fixtures for two years, and will keep the Vikings strong between the 400 and 1,600. Sophomore Andrew Palmer was a factor in the distance events last spring, and won the 4A state cross country title in the fall.

Last season, Richard Montgomery had the best boy-girl combo in the county, led by the sprint teams. But a staggering amount of talent graduated. That happened last year, too, and the Rockets were still well-stocked. This spring, they do not seem to have quite the same depth.

‘‘We definitely have some kids who can compete for county and state championships, but team-wise, it will be a little more of a struggle this year,” coach Matt Wheeler said. ‘‘We have a lot of freshmen and sophomores who are going to start to compete, when they haven’t had much of a chance the past year or two.”

In the private school ranks, Georgetown Prep returns most of the team that earned it the Interstate Athletic Conference Championship last season. Bullis and Landon are among those that will give chase, while a bevy of girls teams will compete in the Independent Schools League.

A group of young, talented two-sport athletes could turn Walter Johnson into something of a dark horse this year, but returning seniors will anchor both squads. Chris Moen is the prohibitive favorite in the boys 800, and hasn’t ruled out an eventual return to the 1,600. Renee McClinton has been a part of solid girls middle-distance teams the past two years, but has had to fight through some illness this spring.

‘‘We’ve got a couple of good things coming,” coach Tom Martin said. ‘‘We haven’t run a real race yet, but we did rather well in time trials. It’s early to tell, but I’ve got a good feeling about this team.”

Magruder has depth on the girls side and balance on the boys. After placing in all three jumping events at last season’s 4A West Region meet, Darius Ray could be a point-scoring machine this spring. He and freshman Anthony Winter, both two-sport athletes, give the Colonels strength in the sprints, but they have good athletes across the board. It’s the girls, though, who have the numbers, and coach Nathan Timm says only self-confidence stands between them and the county’s top tier.

Rockville coaxed longtime coach Peter Wade out of retirement after one season, and what he came back to was a roster of 22 athletes, all but three of whom are freshmen and sophomores. But the Rams are looking to send a solid contingent of distance runners to the regional and state meets.

All-Gazette performers Shakira Raheem and Salifu Cham helped Einstein’s girls and boys, respectively, finish in the top half of the team standings at last year’s county meet. Both have graduated, and the girls team doesn’t include a single senior. But a number of Titans performed well indoors, and first-year coach Eric DaSilva has them gearing up for another run at the championship meets come May.

‘‘I think we’re like most of the down-county schools, in that we’re not that big in terms of numbers, but have got some talent,” DaSilva said. ‘‘We’re not that worried about dual or tri-meets. We’ll go to get some experience; the same at invitationals. We want to be peaking in mid-May.”

That seems to be a consensus around the county this spring.

Fast Facts

Georgetown Prep Little Hoyas

League affiliation: Interstate Athletic Conference

Head coach: Greg Dunston, 2nd year

Last league title: 2007

’07 league finish: 1st

Athletes to watch: Ramsay Chapin (distance), Brandon Tisdale (sprints), Ifeanyi Edochie (sprints, jumps)

Walter Johnson Wildcats

State classification: 4A

County division: I

Head coach: Tom Martin, 3rd year

Last boys state title: None

Last girls state title: 2003 (1st)

’07 boys county meet finish: T-8th

’07 girls county meet finish: 15th

Boys athletes to watch: Chris Moen (distance)

Girls athletes to watch: Renee McClinton (middle distance)

Magruder Colonels

State classification: 4A

County division: III

Head coach: Nathan Timm, 4th year

Last boys state title: 1973 (1st)

Last girls state title: None

’07 boys county meet finish: 4th

’07 girls county meet finish: 19th

Boys athletes to watch: Darius Ray (jumps, sprints), Anthony Winter (sprints)

Girls athletes to watch: Elana Diestel (hurdles, sprints), Courtney Whalen (distance)

Richard Montgomery Rockets

State classification: 4A

County division: III

Head coach: Matt Wheeler, 7th year

Last boys state title: 1997 (1st)

Last girls state title: None

’07 boys county meet finish: 1st

’07 girls county meet finish: 3rd

Boys athletes to watch: Brendan Etzel (sprints, middle distance), Alonzo Evans-Chase (sprints), Tyler Jackson (hurdles)

Girls athletes to watch: Erin Hylton (pole vault, middle distance), Riann Webb (sprints, middle distance)

Rockville Rams

State classification: 2A

County division: III

Head coach: Peter Wade, 1st year

Last boys state title: None

Last girls state title: None

’07 boys county meet finish: T-22nd

’07 girls county meet finish: T-23rd

Boys athletes to watch: William Orndorff (distance)

Girls athletes to watch: Amy Ferro (distance), Rachel Wagner (distance)

Wootton Patriots

State classification: 4A

County division: II

Head coach: Kellie Redmond, 2nd year

Last boys state title: None

Last girls state title: None

’07 boys county meet finish: T-13th

’07 girls county meet finish: 7th

Boys athletes to watch: Kenny Siu (distance), Max Swider (middle distance)

Girls athletes to watch: Suzanne Falk (jumps), Olivia Ekpone (sprints), Veronica Salcido (middle distance, distance)