By winning the 55 and 300 at last weekend's Class 4 State Indoor Track Championships, Churchland sophomore Layla Anderson seemingly emerged out of nowhere to become the up and coming star from the Class of 2021 - ranked #2 among Virginia sophomores in the 55 meters just behind Na'Taja Ballard of Western Branch whose 7.06 time is only .03 ahead of Anderson's.
While Ballard has been on the cusp of the spotlight as the younger sister of Class 6 sprint and hurdle champion Shadajah, Anderson's rise to the top has mostly occurred under the radar. In fact, up until the Region 4A meet two weekends ago, Anderson had never won a championship race.
What a difference a year makes.
Anderson enjoyed a moderately successful middle school and AAU career in Virginia Beach, even qualifying for the Junior Olympic regional 200-meter hurdles for her age group between her seventh and eighth grade years. In eighth grade, she stuck to middle school competition, and while Anderson was "winning all the time," track had not developed as an important part of her life. It may have helped that she couldn't do the hurdles in Virginia Beach because safety concerns eliminated the event at the middle school level.
"I don't like hurdles," confessed Anderson. "But I have been good at them and the coaches keep putting me in."
Anderson's high school career started at Bishop Sullivan, a Virginia Beach school in the Tidewater Conference of Independent Schools. While Sullivan has gained athletic traction because of the success of its football team in recent years, the indoor track team ran a truncated schedule that culminated with the Virginia Independent Schools championships. Participating in just four meets, Anderson stuck to the 55 meters, as endurance was a problem for the freshman, and sported a best time of 7.40 while also placing third in the VISAA championship meet.
A mid-year transfer to Churchland High marked the beginning of her ascent. Unfortunately, Anderson didn't know how hard the work was going to be.
"I was completely new (at Churchland)," said Anderson. "All I knew were the two new coaches, Coach (Amani) Harper, and Coach Q (Quinton Harper)."
She quickly learned how poor her conditioning had been.
"Honestly, I was completely out of shape. I'd be walking during practice. Yes, it was a nightmare."
How bad was it? "Coach would have us running 800's at practice, and I had a hard time breaking five minutes!"
But a new mental attitude toward track was starting to permeate in the youngster's mind.
"In the past, if something started hurting or it started burning, I wanted to stop. But I started to realize that the top athletes have to do this all of the time, and if I want to be just like them, then this is what I'd have to do."
Progress was slow, but steady, and Anderson's 100-meter time hovered in the mid-to-high 12 second range for most of the season. However, she finished third in Region 4A, and then captured runner-up at the Class 4 States with a then-best time of 12.50. Two weeks later, she dropped her PR to 12.39 at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals.
Anderson entered this year's Region 4A meet with best times of 7.36 in the 55 and 42.23, good, but not good enough to be considered championship caliber, as she won neither race. While the 7.36 earned her a second place at the Gloucester Pre-Holiday Invitational, the 42.23 only placed her 39th at the Virginia Showcase.
So it was a surprise when the Trucker blasted through her 55 prelim in 7.20, good enough for the top seed, and then took the gold medal with a 7.17 in the final. More surprising was the 40.91 winning time in the 300 which instantly put her into state champion contention. As a team, the Truckers shocked their competition with second place finishes in the boys and girls standings.
Anderson's momentum carried into States. At Friday's preliminaries at Roanoke College, she set another PR, with a 7.09 time that put her over a quarter of a second ahead of the next challenger. "I didn't expect to run 7.0," said Anderson, whose look of amazement was evident as she looked up at the result scoreboard.
With that much of a gap, her finals win and time of 7.10 turned out to be no surprise, but the 300 loomed ahead.
"I was pretty confident going into the 300, but still nervous," said Anderson. "After all, someone could go out and run a 39."
Midlothian sophomore Dasia Hardy won the second heat in 41.64, and then Anderson held off Heritage's JahNiyah Thomas (41.44) and Hanover's Makenzie Joiner (41.63) to claim her second crown with a time of 41.34.
No longer in a position to surprise her opponents, Anderson looks ahead. She will compete in the 55 at the New Balance Indoor Championships ("I didn't qualify in the 300 - that's my goal for next year") before settling for the 100 and 200 for outdoors. Her goal in the 200 is especially lofty as she enters the season with a personal best of 26.81. "I want to get in the 23's and make Nationals."
And if that happens, maybe she'll get out of doing the hurdles every now and then.