Hattiesburg claims back-to-back track state title

By CAMAL PETRO,

PEARL – Hattiesburg came into Friday’s 5A State Track Championships as one of the heavy favorites to claim the title. However, its trek to claiming back-to-back state titles almost hit a snag after the first running event – the 4x800-meter relay.

The Tigers finished second in the race, but out of frustration, the last leg of the relay team spiked the baton, which disqualified the team. That cost them eight points in the team standings, but the Tigers didn’t need it.

“I knew we had a cushion, and that was kind of going to be the cushion,” Hattiesburg coach Charles Green said of the DQ. “I knew it was going to be a little tight at the end. North Pike, they’re very strong in the field and they have some good athletes on the track. Their field made a strong push early, and we were fighting back to get back in front.” 

Hattiesburg finished with 84 points to claim the 5A State Championship, and it knew another trophy was coming back to Hattiesburg before the meet was complete. With two events left, the Tigers had a 12-point lead over North Pike, and Christon Jenkins gave Hattiesburg three more points with a sixth-placed finish in the 200-meter dash, which secured the championship.

Going into the final event, with the maximum a team could earn was 10 points, Hattiesburg led North Pike by 11 points.

While it’s the second straight state title, Green isn’t satisfied with where his program is at currently.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “I won’t say we’re exactly where we want to be. You never want to be satisfied with where you are, because once you get satisfied, someone will come up and beat you. We’re always working to get better and improve. We’re trying to develop into one of the elite programs.”  

Coming off the 2018 championship, the Tigers had a tough regular season in 2019. They dealt with an unusual amount of injuries to key athletes, but everything came together Friday in Pearl.

“It’s been a long year,” Green said. “We’ve dealt with injury after injury. I told (Hattiesburg football) coach (Tony) Vance that I felt like a football coach because I had so many injuries. I guess we kind of developed the next-man-up mantra throughout the season.”

Hattiesburg senior Keirston Paige was one of those key injuries, too, but he brought home two individual first-place finishes, as well as help place first on a relay team.

Something about the 300-meter hurdles race that makes Paige stumble, though. Last year, he fell to the track after clipping a hurdle but still claimed first place. In 2019, again, he stumbled over a hurdle but he stayed on his feet to win the 5A state title in the event with a time of 39.12.

Luckily, the experience of falling in the event last year helped him Friday in the state meet.

“It wasn’t as bad as last year,” Paige said. “Last year, I was close to the hurdle and this time I was as well, but from experience, I’ve learned how to control it. As I leaned forward, I was able to hold my back up to stay on my toes. I knew if I were to fall or roll over, I wouldn’t have time to get up and recover.”

Paige missed a lot of the track season due to an injury, so Friday was only his third time running in the 300-meter hurdles. While he believes he could have done better, he recognizes he hasn’t put in enough work to hit the time he wants.

“I’m kind of upset, but I haven’t worked hard enough in the 300 hurdles to master my footing,” Paige said.

The 300-meter hurdle first-place finish was his third of the day. He captured first in the 110-meter hurdles and was part of the 4x200-meter relay team that won. His 110-meter hurdle race, however, was the most noteworthy.

The Southern Miss track signee ran a blistering 13.89 to claim the state record for all classifications.

“I give all the glory to God,” he said. “I’ve been praying, and with me being out, there’s been a lot of pressure. People would ask, ‘When are you going to hit 13?’ It was kind of rough, so I’m just thankful that I could finally hit it. I’m thankful that I was blessed enough to keep my form and didn’t touch a hurdle the whole race.”

Wayne Carter’s efforts in the 800-meter run most likely sealed Hattiesburg’s fate in the third-to-last event of the day. He came in with the second-best time, and he used a strong finish to overtake first place to win the event.

He took the lead after the first 400 meters, but the strong finish was still needed.

“I was just trying to hold (the lead),” Carter said. “I was going to start sprinting with 200 to go, but he started kicking at the 300. If I wanted to win, I had to stay with him. I stayed with him and then I started kicking it at the 150. I just held it because it as my last run.

“I’m a senior and I’ve never won a state championship. I just had to do it.”

Hattiesburg’s Camrun Norman became the first Tiger of the day to earn a first-place finish. After placing second in the high jump, he won the long jump competition with a jump of 21 feet, 11.75 inches. He beat the second place finisher, North Pike’s Alijah Martin by an inch.

“I’m only in 10th grade and this is my first year as a real track athlete, so it feels good,” Norman said. “I really haven’t had much practice, so I wondered what the future had for me.”

Martin got the better of Norman in the high jump, however. Norman finished second with a 6-foot-4-inch jump, while Martin claimed first by clearing 6-6. Unlike Friday, Norman usually competes in the long jump first then the high jump, so he’s more warmed up for the high jump event once it starts. He’ll use the state meet experience for next year, though.

“I feel like I could have done better,” Norman said. “I really don’t know what happened, but next year I got it.”