Champions X 2 - MRA Sweeps Track Titles

FLOWOOD – MRA has best been known as a basketball school for the better part of the past two decades.

The other sports, however, are doing their darnedest to change that perception - and by and large already have.

Track and field jumped aboard the 2020-21 MRA championship train here Saturday as the Lady Patriots and Patriots claimed MAIS Class 5A State championships in dominate fashion. The girls ran away from the rest of the field to the tune of an Overall meet record 217 points – 45 clear of their nearest competitor – to claim a third straight championship. Meanwhile, the boys also established a new Overall meet record with 218 points – 25 points ahead of the runner-up – to hoist the blue trophy for the second straight time and fourth in the past six years.

MRA combined for a whopping 435 points, sweeping the two-day event by a combined margin of 70.5 points. And that’s without three of the best male athletes at the school – Stone Blanton, Rayf Vinson and Tylor Latham – who were all sidelined with injuries. Senior distance runner Everett Heard, she of the 22 state titles, also sat out with an injury on the girls’ side.

Paced by senior captain Kinsman Pace, who walked away with five gold medallions, the Patriots won nine of the 18 events. They finished 1-2 in four events, 1-3 in two others. John Weaver’s squad scored no less than six points in any event, and averaged 12.1 points per event. Meanwhile, the Lady Patriots, led by the dynamic duo of Laurel Fulcher and Evie Ewing, super star Kennedi Sanders and sophomore standout Riley Hancock, won eight of the 18 events. They finished 1-2 in three events, 1-3 in two others. Melanie Black’s squad also scored no less than six points in any event, averaging 12 points per event, while establishing 19 PR’s in the process.

Twenty-four different boys scored points for the Patriots; 18 girls scored points for the Lady Patriots.

Winning has become the norm for both squads. The coronavirus pandemic wiped out track a year ago, in all likelihood the only thing that kept the Lady Patriots from celebrating a four-peat instead of a three-peat late Saturday afternoon at Jackson Prep. The boys, meanwhile, have now won championships in every odd year since 2015.

“I think that this year’s championship was the sweetest because of losing our track season last year,” Black said. “That was so heartbreaking, especially for our six seniors. So, the girls this year worked really hard and appreciated the opportunity to compete, something that they had taken for granted in the past. Most of them had not been on the track in two years, since May 2019.”

Said Weaver: “We leveled up a little bit over the two days. What a great time to have peak performances on the two days it matters most. You have a track season . . .it’s not really what you do during the season, it’s the culmination of those two days and you have to be at your pinnacle, and our guys did that. Scoring 218 points is amazing. Same thing for the girls scoring 217. It was a fun two days for both groups, guys and girls.”

It has been a fun year when it comes to MRA athletics as a whole. With the girls and boys both winning championships in track and field over the weekend, that runs the total number of championships won this year to nine. Football won for the second year in a row, girls cross country won for the fourth straight year, boys basketball won its seventh straight State title and added yet another Overall title to boot, archery picked up another State title, the same goes for cheer and dance. And swimming. Not to mention Will Hooks’ individual title in tennis.

“It has been a very successful year here at MRA in terms of championships, no doubt,” longtime athletic director Richard Duease said. “The bar has been raised across the board. One thing now is our guys and girls don’t just hope to win championships, they expect to win them. There’s a big difference there. I was really impressed with our track teams Friday and Saturday. They were great. Coach (Melanie) Black and Coach (John) Weaver have done an outstanding job with our track program.”

Indeed. On the boys’ side, the positive vibes started on the very first event of the day – the long jump. Down to his sixth and final jump and sitting in fourth place, Josh Hubbard, best known for his exploits on the basketball court, came through with a clutch jump of 20 feet, 11 inches to win the event. Sam Polles finished second giving the Patriots 18 points and the emotional springboard they needed. That momentum carried on throughout the day Friday and into Saturday, culminating with the final event as Phillip Hughes, Rivers Godwin, Silas Smith and Pace set a school record in the mile relay with a time of 3:29.91.

“That set the tone,” Weaver said. “We knew Hubbard had the potential to go that far, it was just a matter of him getting on his board and hitting it at the right time. That’s why they give you six jumps. Fortunately, he was able to get it on his sixth jump. I think that catapulted us, and set the tone for the rest of the meet.”

The Patriots emerged from the field events on Friday at JA with 104 points, then added 114 more points on Saturday in the running events.

“I think there is 108 points if you’re perfect out of the field and we had 94,” Weaver said. “Then we added the two-mile run on day one, and that put us at 104. We had 77 scripted going in . . . that was kind of the magic number, and obviously we exceeded that. We definitely slept better Friday night. There was a lot less stress going into Saturday. We wanted to come back out on Saturday and put the hammer down. We didn’t want it to be a case of us having just enough points at the end, we wanted to make a statement. Our guys wanted to prove we were the still the best track team in the state in 5A and they did that on Friday and Saturday.”

While nobody wins a track and field state title with just one person, Pace proved to be THAT dude for the Patriots this year. Sadly, injuries the past two seasons derailed a once promising football career as a receiver, but nothing or no one stood in his way Saturday. The lanky senior won the 300 meter hurdles, the 110 meter hurdles, the 400 meter dash and anchored the winning mile relay team, helping earn 40 points toward MRA’s record-breaking total.

“You add the team medal, and he left with five gold medals,” Weaver said. “Pretty good, huh? We took our team picture (Monday morning) and I looked at him and asked him how it felt Michael Phelps. Anytime you have a triple winner you’re looking at 30 points, so that’s huge. We knew he had it in him. He motivated the guys during workouts, and he was there on those extra Saturday’s doing the same thing. He was our bell cow. What a competitor. I really wish he would’ve been healthy in football . . . there’s no telling what he would’ve done. What a way for him to go out as a senior.”

Fulcher also went out in style on the girls’ side, winning the 300- meter hurdles, finishing second in the long jump and 100-meter hurdles, along with anchoring the winning 400 and 800 meter relay teams. That helped account for 46 points, and also gave her 22 state titles in her highly-decorated career – twenty nine if you count the seven team titles in cross country and track and field. The same as Heard.

Likewise, Ewing once again played a major role in the Lady Patriots’ success. She, too, accounted for 46 points, winning the long jump on Friday then finishing second in the 200 and 400 meter dashes on Saturday while also running a leg on the winning 400 and 800 meter relay teams.

Ewing, a sophomore, would’ve been an even bigger star had it not been for Sanders, who to nobody’s surprise stole the spotlight, winning the 100, 200, and 400 meter dashes. Sanders, who has legit aspirations of running in the Olympics one day in the near future, established new Overall meet records in the 200 (23.36) and 400 (53.54). Her 400 time ranks fourth nationally. Obviously, the Lady Patriots were already good with Fulcher, Ewing and Co., Sanders added the proverbial cherry on top, if you will.

The Lady Patriots led by 19 ½ points following Friday’s field day thank in large part to the effort of Hancock, who carried the day by winning the triple jump, finishing second in the high jump and third in the discus – accounting for 24 of the Lady Patriots’ 84 points.

“This particular team is not only very talented, but also an extremely precious group of young ladies, who are poised and motivated to excel,” Black said. “It’s such a blessing to coach them. Although we may have been the favorite going into the meet, the girls still had to come ready to compete, and they certainly rose to the occasion. They definitely saved their best for the State meet. That’s a coach’s dream.”