Columbia (N.J.) girls finish second at inaugural Nike meet

By Jack Pfeifer

pics by Margot Kelly

EUGENE, Ore. – The Columbia/Maplewood girls’ team – one of three New Jersey schools in the meet – finished second at the first Nike Track Nationals meet last Friday. The event, contested by 12 boys’ teams and 12 girls’ teams from around the country, was an attempt to name the best high school track teams in the country.

From the beginning, it was clear the Columbia girls had brought their “A” game, as Kayann Richards quickly jumped in front of favored Melia Cox  -- from similarly favored Long Beach Poly -- in the evening’s first event, the girls’ 100-meter hurdles. Cox, who entered the meet with the field’s fastest time, 13.75, had to catch Richards from behind. She finished with a time of 13.97 – worth 987.78 in the event’s confusing decathlon-styled scoring tables – to Richards’s 14.06, worth 977.78.

“When I saw her in front of me,” Cox said, “I said, ‘I’ve gotta go and get her!’”

Not far back was Desmonae Gray, of Western Branch (Chesapeake, Va.), in a PR 14.36.

When the 400 also went 1-2 for LBP and C/M, with the highly regarded Akawkaw Ndipagbor of Poly running a near-best 53.55 to turn back a PR 55.42 for Columbia’s Ty-Vonna Johnson, it looked like it would be a two-team competition all night. “I was going for 53.6, which is the thousand-point mark,” Ndipagbor said. “In each event, we’re just trying to score as many points as we can.” The 53.55 was in fact worth 1,001.88 points, the highest score of the day for any single performance.

“We stay humble,” Ndipagbor said of the favored Poly squad. “You have to bring fire to everything that you do.”

It turned out that Poly had an Achilles heel in the scoring approach used in this event. By subbing for their star highjumper Tara Richmond – a 5-10 jumper who was not available – they gambled with another member of their team, Alexis Dalton, and when young Alexis failed to clear a height, they received zero points, a disaster in this event. Poly was out of the running.

Columbia/Maplewood built a lead around the 800/high jump double by Brittney Jackson (2:11.12/5-1.75) and the weight double by Chinyere Ozuzu (32-2.75/126-6), but if you were in the stands at Hayward Field you wouldn’t know it, because the various announcers and scoreboards kept you apprised of everything but the point scores.

When the evening’s final race, the mile run, began, Columbia and Chandler (Phoenix, Ariz.) were neck and neck. Columbia had Adebunmi Gbadebo in the field, while Chandler – a field-event-oriented squad – was blank in that event.  If Gbadebo could run close to her 5:20 best, her team would win. She was under the weather, however, and Columbia requested permission to substitute for her at the last minute. The appeal was rejected, Gbadebo ran 5:40, and Chandler won by 193 points.

Chandler won all five field events – high jump, pole vault, long jump, shot and discus – and was led by a throws sweep by junior Hannah Carson (42-4, 132-4). Carson has also thrown the javelin more than 170 feet.

Western Branch, led by Keilah Tyson – who won the 100 in a PR 11.72 and finished second in the high jump – wound up third, 101 points behind Columbia, and South Brunswick (N.J.) finished sixth, 227 behind WB.

The third New Jersey team in the meet, the Delsea boys, finished sixth in that competition, 457 points behind the winning team from Vista Murietta, of California. There were no teams from New York state or New England in the meet. Selection was made by region, based on performances submitted by schools throughout the regular season.

The athletes and their coaches were all transported here by Nike and housed on campus, across the street from the famous Hayward Field track. The day after the meet, they were guests of the shoe company at the Prefontaine Classic all-star track meet, before returning home. Many of the athletes were dazzled. “This is amazing,” said the boys’ long jumper winner, Devin Harrison, from Dana Hills, Calif. “People were clapping for me!”

The event will, no doubt, be analyzed closely by its sponsor in the off-season. The July date was awkward for many schools, coming well after the close of the school year in some parts of the country. It is expected to move into June in 2011, but that month’s calendar is now crowded with the many postseason high school meets that have filled up the schedule. It will then have to conflict with something – the USATF Juniors meet? The New Balance Nationals (formerly also sponsored by Nike)? The NCAA/Golden West weekend, which is only one week after the important California state meet?  

The points system became confusing, but the new event had merit. The number of schools was about right, most of the country was represented geographically, the admission price was thrifty (there was no charge), the weather and setting were idyllic. “It’s 115 degrees back in Arizona today,” the winning thrower, Miss Carson, said. “This is much better.”