All photos by Jon Fleming
Feature stories by MileStat.com freelance writer Cory Mull from the Liberty Flames High School Invitational on some of the top performing athletes including Blacksburg's Kenneth Hagen, Battlefield's Galissa Gause, Colonial Forge's Crystal Jones, Blacksburg distance girls, William Byrd's Marcellus Fletcher, James W. Robinson's Macey Schweikert, and Parkland's Ebony Williams.
Kenneth Hagen (Blacksburg)
With his legs burning and his lungs pounding, Blacksburg runner Kenneth Hagen took a jacket, went outside with his teammates and continued to move.
At first, it was a brisk walk, about six minutes in length. Then he and few runners began to jog, this time for another six minutes. From there, his muscles were tightening and aching, so he began to stretch, for longer than he could count.
Finally, with a few minutes to spare before his next race, an all-out 500-meter run, Hagen jogged again, this time for about five minutes on the track.
If the senior proved anything on Saturday at Liberty University during the Flames Invitational, it was that he could handle an intense workload. Just over a half hour after a win in the 1,000-meter run, which he secured in 2:33.42, Hagen jumped right back into action and won the 500 in 1:05.91.
The day before, he claimed the 1,600-meter run in 4:19.90, which completed quite a haul for the runner.
“Going into that race, I was pretty tired,” Hagen said of the final 500. “My hamstrings were really tight from the 1,000. But after that race we had a bit of a recovery and there were a bunch of heats, so it helped. “
Blacksburg head coach James DeMarco said Saturday’s events were established in part to see how well Hagen could adapt with the workload.
He certainly answered the challenge.
Hagen intimated he will eventually move up in distance over the outdoor season, transitioning out of the 400 and into the 1,600, which he has rarely raced during his career.
So the indoor season is important, Hagen said, because it will teach him how to race and strategize, while also putting him in big situations. Never having won an individual state indoor or outdoor title, he said that remains a realistic goal moving forward.
“I definitely want to go for the individual races this year,” Hagen said. “I’ve always been more of a relay guy. But this year I hope to race well. “
On Saturday, his approach on his last race was to keep cautious early, then hammer home the last 400. He positioned himself third out of four runners after the first 100, then turned on the jets with just 200 to go.
“I sprinted for a little while when I first started track and I also played soccer, so I had some speed work built in,” Hagen said of his natural tendency to pick off runners in the final meters. “That’s always been one of the better parts of my races.”
Galissia Cause (Battlefield)
She left her best shot-put throws for last. Partially, that’s because Galissia Cause was focusing on footwork. Another reason was that she had fouled a few times.
But eventually, the Battlefield senior, who committed to East Carolina University on Friday, found the throw she was waiting for at Liberty University. She tossed an event-winning 41-foot, 9.5-inch throw, two feet better than the second-place finisher.
The main ingredient to her success on Saturday was a change in attitude, Cause said.
“Early in the season, I wasn’t throwing like I wanted to,” Cause said, “and little techniques, little things were off. So when I came in here, I just realized that early in the season I wasn’t being positive. I wasn’t getting as far as I wanted. So I realized I had to be more positive about the whole situation or it wouldn’t go as well.”
Battlefield throws coach Mike Fronckel, who’s also Cause’s US History teacher, said her main roadblocks were technique. Once she hit her marks, her throws began to flourish.
“Getting that right foot back underneath her when she’s gliding,” Fronckel said. “Working on keeping the right foot on the throw as she drives through the throw. She’s starting to mesh the good technique with some better distances.”
Cause was a little worried early when the throws wouldn’t hit, but she kept her frame of mind on the goal at hand. She used her recent commitment as a tool for driving her to accomplishment bigger goals.
“When I hadn’t committed, I was stressed and worried,” Cause said. “I wouldn’t have a good throw and I would think whether schools were still interested. But now that I am committed, I think at this point it’s pushing me to be better for college. Maybe I can get a new PR.”
A four-time outdoor state qualifier and a two-time state champion in the shotput, Cause is looking to capture her third title. She says that’s all the motivation she needs to keep going.
“Standing out has never been the issue,” Fronckel said. “Sometimes dealing with the high expectations has been hard. But she’s always looking up.”
Through good throws and bad, Cause always remains a leader, which tells Fronckel that good things will eventually fall in place.
“She’s strong,” he said. “She’s an athlete. She’s coachable. She’s a leader. She’s exactly he kind of girl you want on your team.”
Crystal Jones (Colonial Forge)
On one especially cold and rainy day recently, Colonial Forge co-head coach Sean Hill took Crystal Jones, his two-time state high jump champion, inside the school for a teachable moment.
The purpose was to show Jones what could be accomplished with the right mentality. It was a traditional tactic, one that has inspired plenty of athletes before her.
He projected an image of the high jump on a blank wall, telling Jones to visualize the correct technique to approaching the bar. Then he told her to walk through her steps, making sure each one was succinct.
“It’s not so much about jumping with her,” Hill said. “For Crystal, it’s more about visualizing what’s going on. She can do pretty much anything herself, because she’s good at adjusting on the fly.”
The drill apparently worked. On Saturday, Jones secured one of her best jumps of the season, scoring a 5-foot, 8-inch leap to capture the high jump and meet record at Liberty University. It currently stands as a US#2 mark.
“I’ve been practicing well,” Jones said. “And I had confidence in myself.
The former gymnast felt her steps were “were right” and her form “was good,” so everything kind of just fell into place. Sometimes it just happens like that, she said.
Hill felt he saw flashes of even better technique. He says the eventual goal is for Jones, who won outdoor state titles as a freshman and sophomore, to reach 5-10 or 5-11.
He believes that’s reachable by the end of the indoor season.
“She’s a lot stronger and faster than she was at this time last year,” Hill said, “so it’s about getting used to coming into that and being explosive. She’s adjusted really well in the past few weeks.”
Practice is where Jones’ ability starts to shine. As she works on technique, Hill thinks the jumper begins to understand what works and what won’t. So the visualization, while somewhat tedious, is an important step in helping her continue to grow.
“My focus is to PR on all of my events by the end of the year,” Jones said. “And to just get better.”
So far, so good.
Blacksburg distance girls
They hadn’t been tested that much over the indoor season. But the Flames Invitational at Liberty University presented a viable opportunity.
James Robinson standout Macey Schweikert, one of the state’s top milers, was in the 1,600-meter field.
So James DeMarco, the Blacksburg head boys’ and girls’ coach, simply told his group of distance runners to “take it out and not think about pacing or splits.”
For a Blacksburg team which was just transitioning from a successful cross country season, which included a state title and a trip to Nike Outdoor Nationals in Portland, the strategy was perfect timing.
There was no big strategy. They just had to run.
“We were looking forward to that, because in the past we’ve had to be very tactical with our races,” said Blacksburg senior Claire Ewing Nelson, who finished fifth in 5:09.90. “So we were really looking forward to gaining fast times. James told us to go out and hold on and be brave and hope for the best.
While no Blacksburg runner beat Schweikert, the team did accomplish something rather impressive. They scored four runners within the top five.
Bonnie Angermier was second in 5:03.60 – just a tenth slower than Schweikert’s winning time of 5:03.50 – while Jenn Fleming was third in 5:07.98 and Emily Beatty was fourth in 5:09.62.
Blacksburg’s Olivia Hodge added a ninth-place performance in 5:24.73.
The race was filled with strong promise, something DeMarco feels he can take and run with. Ultimately, he said, his goal is to have this entire group under five minutes at the state meet.
“They’re really fit, so they just need to see competition,” he said. “A lot of the races have been them and girls similar to them, but no one better. So it was a good opportunity for them to go out and go hard.”
Having teammates amid the fast race also gave the Blacksburg team a sense of relief. It showed them that they weren’t alone.
“We were nervous about where we were,” Angermier said. “ We didn’t know, because this is pretty much the first fast mile we’ve gotten to run. So I think with going into it and having a chance to run fast, it was nice to have teammates there. It was a good gauge that told us how it was going.”
Portland taught the team a valuable lesson. While they were good enough to reach cross country nationals, they still had work to do. DeMarco said the team finished 21st out of 22 teams, essentially “getting our butts handed to us.” But the experience was a commodity, since it showed the team how much it needed to go to improve. The first step, Ewing Nelson said, was to get better in the mile.
“Portland was a really great experience, but we obviously didn’t run how we wanted to, or how we thought we were capable of running,” she said. “We came into indoor really hungry to prove ourselves.”
DeMarco said the team has goals it still wants to reach. And because it’s early in the season, they haven’t been met yet. That gives the team room for growth.
“We have benchmarks that we want to hit, where we want to be in outdoor, where we want to be in indoor, to keep closing that gap,” he said.
Marcellus Fletcher (William Byrd)
The five events he had to accomplish over Friday and Saturday didn’t scare William Byrd's Marcellus Fletcher. What scared him was running the 300-meter dash sandwiched between the triple jump, his main event.
He consulted with his coach, Junius Pannell, a former triple jumper for Norfolk State. What was he to do?
“I told him to keep working,” PannelI said. “I told him after he ran the 300, get your mind together and rest your legs and come back and jump.”
The pep talk must have worked, because Fletcher swiftly took note of the conversation and proceeded to score on his best leap of the day, on his second try, netting an event-winning 47-foot, 3-inch triple jumpon Friday at the Flames Invitational at Liberty University.
Fletcher also scored a win in the long jump on Saturday, leaping 21-5.5 and scored a sixth place performance in the 55-meter hurdles in 8.33 seconds. He also featured in his team's 800-meter relay.
“He’s a very humble kid and all he wants to do is make the team better without glorifying himself,” Pannell said. “And that’s all I ask of any of my athletes. Help your team to get better so you can get better every day.”
Mostly, though, Fletcher concentrated on the triple jump, where he excelled on Friday. His jump currently ranks him US#7 and it’s an event which he has seen major improvement over the years.
Last year, he claimed an outdoor state title in the triple jump, scoring a leap of 47-9. On Friday, his foot position on the board at takeoff was a foot away, he said.
Which means, Pannell said, that Fletcher could have easily scored a 48- or 49-foot jump.
“That’s what we’ve been practicing all year long," Pannell said. "He’s really put in the work and he’s showing me he can be a state champion again."
For his efforts, Fletcher simply remains calm. He doesn’t get too high, and he doesn’t get too low. That balance has allowed him to secure big marks in key situations.
“Pretty much, if stay focused on what I’m trying to accomplish when I’m here, I’ll do well,” he said.
He credits his distance between his phases in the triple jump as his biggest strength. It’s there, he said, where he creates space to allow him to pop.
“My speed approach to the board was good,” he said. “I didn’t hit the board and I think I could have gone further if I did hit it. The distance between the phases was really good.”
The next goal, according to Pannell, is for Fletcher to reach for 50 feet.
“We’re trying to get there before states,” he said. “I think he can do it."
Macey Schweikert (James Robinson)
This is a little known fact. In the fall of her freshman year, James Robinson stud miler Macey Schweikert was a cheerleader.
Yes, a cheerleader.
“It’s true,” her coach Mike Kiernan said. “She didn’t pick up track until the winter of her freshman year.”
Of course, it was all over from there, as Schweikert , an Elon University commit, soaked in the sport and began to excel, thereby giving up cheerleading. On Friday, she scored a winning time of 5:03.50 in the 1,600-meter run at the Flames Invitational at Liberty University.
She also anchored the team’s 3,200-meter relay winner on Saturday in 10:00.98.
Her winning mile time was one of the first chances she’s had all season to race fast against tough competition. The race included four Blacksburg distance runners who all scored below 5:10.
“It’s a matter of the competition this year,” Kiernan said. “She would rather not lead the whole point like she did today. But from that standpoint, you just have to understand, we set out and this is our goal.”
Coming off a rocky cross country season, Schweikert said her goal in indoors was to stay goal-oriented and motivated to get back to 4:56, which she ran a year ago in indoors. An outdoor state title in the 1,600 this past spring likely gave her confidence moving forward, but Kiernan is quick to note that it’s still early in the season.
“Because she ran all the way through state and cross country, and this being only her second or third race, we’re fairly early in this process,” he said. “We need to continue to get better.
Her race on Friday was pretty steady, she said, as she hit 37 second splits for most of the race. Her fifth and sixth laps were a little down, she said, but she soon picked it up after hearing Kearnin yell that a competitor was “10 meters behind me.”
As she moves forward, Schweikert says she needs to concentrate on the small things to get better.
“I’m trying to work on the little things, like form and not getting freaked out,” she said. “When you get to your junior and senior years, it’s hard to PR, so all the iddy bitty things matter.”
Ebony Williams (Parkland)
Ebony Williams almost quit hurdling last season. She took too many falls, she said.
But her coach kept her in it, and thankfully so, considering the Parkland athlete has gone nowhere but up since.
She scored a 8.21-second first-place finish at the Flames Invitational at Liberty University on Saturday. The mark currently puts her at US#9 in the event.
“I wanted to quit last year because I fell so many times,” Williams said. “It was so rough. But my coach, he would not let me quit for anything.”
Williams says her clearance over the hurdles has gotten much better, as has her block starts, which she worked with exhaustively on Friday, when she had time to spare.
“That’s what kills most of my races,” she said. “But I worked on them all yesterday and that really helped.
So did the competition. Williams was so worried about Morgan Knight of South County, who was to her right and finished second, that she barely realized she had won the race.
“That girl, she is so fast,” Williams said. “So I just told myself, ‘Run, run, run.’”
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