It’s a family affair

With new young additions, Hawks track team ready to soar again

by C. Jemal Horton

The West Mecklenburg High School girls track team includes (kneeling) coach Sam Willoughby and (standing, from left) Michaela Williams, Star’Asia Baskins, Naya Tapper, Toni Thorn and Alvonna Blakney.

Before the 2011 season began, things looked bleak for the West Mecklenburg High School girls track and field team – relatively speaking, of course.

The Hawks still had some of the state’s most gifted runners on their squad, and thanks to a regimen implemented by fourth-year coach Sam Willoughby, they had a reputation for out-working most of their competition.

But in recent years, things have changed for the West Meck track team; success is measured by championships.

So when the Hawks lost half of last year’s state-championship-winning 4×100-meter relay team – star Joann Blakney to graduation and promising sophomore Noel Tapper to a serious knee injury – a small cloud of uncertainty hung over the team. It especially thrust a scare into the returning members of the relay team: juniors Alvonna Blakney and Naya Tapper.

Then, freshman Star’Asia Baskins and sophomore Toni Thorn stepped onto the track for the first time in their high school careers. And while the neophytes haven’t exactly been saviors, they’re ability to assimilate with the more experienced runners and carry their part of the heavy load on the track – especially the relays – have the Hawks once again poised to make some long postseason runs.

“I was kind of nervous about the team,” Alvonna Blakney said, “because we lost my sister, and I thought, ‘Oh, we lost a strong leg! We’re not going to have anybody else to step up.’ Then we lost Noel.

“But I feel like we’re still strong with Star and Toni. I feel like we can come out on top at the states – in any of our relays. I truly believe that.”

The Hawks currently have the No. 1-rated 4×400 relay team in the state (3 minutes, 59.50 seconds). That quartet includes Baskins, Thorn, junior Micheala Williams and Blakney. In the 4×100, Blakney, Naya Tapper, Williams and Thorn are No. 2 in the state (48.25 seconds), while the same foursome is fourth-best in the 4×200 (1:44.10).

The key to maintaining West Meck’s high level of success, Willoughby said, is maturity – veterans such as Blakney, Naya Tapper and Williams have been mature enough to handle their young counterparts’ success and even serve as mentors, while Baskins and Thorn have been mature enough to take the advice in stride and put in the work to prove they deserve to play such important roles on such an accomplished roster.

“As a coach, it’s just been wonderful to see,” Willoughby said. “It’s been amazing. It makes you proud.”

Welcome committee

Before this spring, Baskins and Thorn were more known on the West Meck campus for their prowess on the basketball court. In fact, it was on the hardwood that Thorn first caught the eyes of the members of the track team.

“The only reason I came out for the track team was because Alvonna, Michaela and Coach saw me running up and down the basketball court really fast and told me to come out for the track team,” Thorn said.

Thorn had been fast all her life, so she didn’t expect anything drastic when she attended her first track practice. She was mistaken.

“Oh, it was rough,” she recalled. “I wasn’t really in shape. As I started practicing more and more, I got better. I just decided I was going to do everything they said – no back talk.”

Williams appreciated that because, as she now admits, she initially was skeptical when Thorn went out for the team.

“When those two first came, I thought, ‘Toni’s a basketball player; she really doesn’t want to be out here running with us,’” Williams said with a laugh. “Every time she would run, she would smile all the time – even in practice. But after the first two meets, I could tell she really started liking it because she started getting more serious about it.

“Finally, the smile stopped. It was all business, and she’s helped us a lot.”

Baskins planned on joining the track team shortly after school began in August. Having briefly run in middle school, she knew she had some ability. In fact, she was a bit overconfident about it.

“When I first came (to West Meck), everybody said, ‘You’ve got long legs – are you going to run track?’” the 5-foot-8 Baskins recalled. “I told them I was, and they said, ‘Oh, well, wait until you see those girls out on the track – they’re smokers!’ I said, ‘Well, wait until I get out there. I’m going to start smoking them girls!’

“And then I got out here, they were fast. I said, ‘I’m going to have to get faster, too.’ That’s what showed me I had a real passion for track. Now I feel like I’m a part of the family, even though I’m just a freshman. From Naya, I’ve learned to listen when she tells me to pick up. From Michaela, I’ve learned not to complain so much.”

Baskins flashes a wide grin.

“I’m always so happy to go home and show my mom all my medals,” she added. “I just love my team.”

Veteran leadership

The feeling appears to be mutual, with the veterans often taking a protective role with the two underclassmen. Blakney, Tapper and Williams express admiration for the younger runners’ willingness to put in extra work and trust the older team members’ instincts.

“To see them come out and run track with us, and be good at it so soon, I was happy and excited, because then I knew we were going to have a good relay team,” said Naya Tapper, who also is one of the state’s top 100-meter runners. “But I mostly was happy for them because they’ve stepped up as underclassmen. That’s something a lot of people can’t do, especially with our team.

“We give them a lot of advice about how to stay committed, because track is not an easy sport. A lot of people think about it as just running, but it’s hard to just run all the time. So we had to explain that to them; we had to convince them that, ‘You have to warm up, you’ve got to stretch, because it’s going to help you make a strong impact.’ They caught on, and that’s why the team has been so successful.”

As the Hawks head into this weekend’s 4A Western Regional meet at Providence High School, they feel more confident than ever. And that, they said, is because they have a connection that extends far beyond being able to speed around a track.

“I think we have the best family connection among the sports teams on the West Meck campus,” Williams said. “We’re always together, even on the weekends. We have that bond in practice and at meets. If something is wrong, we straighten it out as soon as we can. We’re all straightforward with each other.

“I’m just so happy. Last year, we had Joann and Noel, and with those two gone, we thought, ‘What is our 4×4 going to look like?’ But since these two came along, it’s like, ‘OK, we’re back in the groove. We can do something serious.’”

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