By Gabriel Stovall
STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. — What a difference a year makes.
That’s the feeling around Stockbridge High School when it comes to the boys 4×100 relay team of Artemus Mitchell, Jamari Clark, Jacob Pinch, Danang Rockett and alternate Nic Palmer.
Rockett and Clark were around for the 2014 track and field season when the relay squad squeezed into the state meet, but never got a chance to prove their mettle, all because of a disqualification that ended their bid to place in state before it ever really got started.
“That right there, man, that’s a long story,” Clark explained while the other four young men groaned.
Turns out that last year’s third leg runner broke his hand the day before the state meet, and, in the words of Clark, “thought it’d be a good idea to move his mark back like 10 feet for some reason.”
“He got outside of the exchange zone, and we didn’t even get it all the way around,” Clark said.
Needless to say it was a heartbreaking experience for the Tigers, but also one that sparked an increased hunger to make amends with the state track scene this year.
They took the first step last week at Starr’s Mill by winning sectionals with a time of 42.31 seconds. And when they head down to Jefferson Memorial Stadium in Jefferson, GA for the state meet, they’ll each be carrying two big pieces of pride on their shoulders.
“It’s a humbling experience to be the only boys relay team in Henry County going to compete for a state championship,” Pinch said. “We feel like we’re not only going to represent Stockbridge, but also the county as a whole.”
“It feels good for us to know we’re going to be there,” he said. “We feel like we’re the champions already. We know there are a couple of other teams we’ll have to compete with, but we’re not worried about them. We just want to go and represent Stockbridge.”
If you’ve seen the Stockbridge 4×100 squad compete this season, you’ll know the speed is there. It’s football speed, with all four sprinters coming from the Class AAAAA semifinalist Stockbridge football team. Mitchell, a 1,000 yard rushing tailback who transferred over from Jonesboro, is the lead-off man.
Rockett — aptly named for his track prowess — anchors. Rising junior cornerback Jamari Clark and senior wideout, and Georgia State signee Jacob Pinch run the two and three spots, respectively.
And although sprinters coach Aundre Pickering — also an assistant football coach — is acquainted with their speed on the gridiron, he found himself having to make adjustments to how he coached them on the asphalt.
“It was hard for me, because when I first came out here to coach them, I didn’t understand that I couldn’t treat it or them like football,” Pickering said. “It’s speed, but it’s not football. I wanted to dictate everything just like in football, and I learned that you’ve gotta let them kind of manage their own bodies. I can tell you this right here: These kids are like coaches on the track. It hasn’t been too much of what I’m doing, but what they’re doing that’s got ourselves in a good position.”
What the football side of things has done for this group, however, is taught them how to be a family.
“Like Jamari said, we know we’ve got some competition out there, but we don’t have to worry about that if you’re working together as a unit,” Pinch said. “And once we do that. Once we focus on our selves, our handoffs, our reaction time, and get all that on point, if we do that, we might just come out on top.”
Rockett liked the family narrative Pinch portrayed so much that he could hardly wait for him to stop talking before expounding on what he said. Perhaps he had a flashback of the 2014 adversity that drew them close.
“And, then again, we’re family,” Rockett said. “We are bros. We stick together. We have faith in each other, just like last year. We didn’t even expect to make it to state at all last year. We ran the slowest time we had all season, but we had faith. We still made it and because we stuck together, and now we know that that’s still what we have to do.”
Although this season has been more of a picture of what the Tigers’ squad can do when running at peak performance, it still hasn’t been a year without obstacles.
Both Rockett, who will also compete individually in the 100 meters, and Mitchell have nursed injuries. Rockett’s was a hamstring that he said is just starting to return to 100 percent. It caused him to miss about four weeks of action.
Enter Palmer, the alternate.
“Actually my boy Nic helped us out when I had injuries,” Rockett said. “He was our first leg for a good minute, and he was out there bringing it home for us, so we really can’t forget about Nic. That’s why he’s an alternate now.”
And Palmer, a junior, doesn’t mind the fact that, barring the unexpected, he won’t get the chance to touch the track in Jefferson to help his team push for gold.
He’s perfectly content just coming along for the ride, most likely because he says he feels the strong family vibe too.
“I really do see us that way,” Palmer said. “Like, I didn’t really know Jake (Pinch), other than just being the real cool White guy on the team.”
“Oh, that’s what I am?” Pinch interjected, while the others laughed.
“Being on the track team with him now,” Palmer continued, “I just feel closer to him, and to all of them on the track, talking at school and all. I definitely feel the connection with these guys. It really doesn’t matter to me whether I run or not, as long as I’m a part of this and get to see them and sport them anyway I can.”
Combine the family feel with the natural track speed and desire to make up for last year’s debacle, and Pickering believes he’s got a recipe for success.
“The thing is we’ve just got to keep getting better,” Pickering said. “We’ve been getting better every week, and if we run well and run the way we know we can, I believe we’ll have no problem coming in first.”
STOCKBRIDGE GIRLS GOING FOR GOLD
While the Stockbridge boys are preparing for their state meet next weekend, the girls 4×100 squad will be taking to the track Friday in Albany, hoping to take care of some personal business.
“We definitely want to get through prelims, but not only that, we really want to find a way to PR in Albany Friday,” said first year coach Erica Allen.
She figures that if her girls achieve their personal record — “anything under a 48.3, because that’s our fastest time so far,” Allen says — they’ll stand a good chance at making some history for themselves.
The Lady Tigers come into Friday’s state preliminary rounds ranked No. 6 in Class AAAAA as far as 4×100 relay teams go. Their fourth place finish in last weekend’s sectionals has the Stockbridge foursome confident in their ability to do what they haven’t done.
“We’re hungrier this year, I guess, because we always make it to state, but we can never get out of the prelims,” said sophomore and third-leg runner Maya Davis. “So we want it really, really bad this year.”
That statement coming from Davis alone says a lot about the tenor and mood of the girls’ 4×100 team heading into Friday. That’s because Davis is described as the “optimistic one. The one who’s always cheesing, and I don’t know why,” as junior Jessica Akintunde put it.
While Davis is the smiley one — her nickname really is Smiley, juniors Kayla Smith and Shamaya Verden are the laid back ones, according to Akintunde. Th junior describes herself as sort of the high strung member of the team.
But they all turned serious when discussing the prospects of making sure they don’t repeat some of their most recent misfortunes.
“We’re definitely more humble,” Davis said.
“That’s because we’re always making it to state, but missing in prelims always by like .2 seconds or something like that,” Akintunde added. “But this year, I’ve looked at other teams’ times, even though I know I’m not supposed to, and going in, I feel like we have a much better opportunity to make the finals and get out of the prelims.”
Akintunde’s coach thinks so too. Not just because of their hunger, but perhaps moreso, their increased attention to detail.
“For one, with these girls, it starts with their discipline,” Allen said. “Track is a sport that requires a lot of discipline, and once they got that, they began to listen more. Their technique, and form and endurance began to get better. And they got stronger in their core too, as we took them to the weight room two days a week.”
Allen said she also saw their confidence shoot up exponentially as the season went along.
“I think just their motivation as a whole really got better, once they realized and saw for themselves that they’re just as good as anybody else out here that they’re competing against,” Allen said. “I feel really good and confident about what they can do going into this week.”
Hence the goals the girls say they’ve set for themselves.
“We basically just want to leave it all out on the track,” Verden said.
“Making it to the finals and getting on the podium,” added Davis.
And then there’s using this year’s performance as a spring board to what the girls — all of whom will be seniors except one — believe should be a dominant season.
“We’re definitely going to go out and do our thing this year, but we’re going to really turn up, especially in the 100 next year,” Verden said. “It’ll be our senior year. We want to go out good this year and next.”