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Saturday, April 30, 2011

2 Putnam County track state champions in 1 great day

The 2004-05 scholastic sports season in Putnam County was one of the best seasons I ever witnessed in my sportswriting career. In my time here in Palatka, it's been easily the best prep sports season I've ever written about.

Crescent City Junior-Senior High School's football team came out of nowhere to win a district title. Interlachen's football team ended a long drought of winless seasons on the field. Crescent City's volleyball team made the state tournament. The Crescent City boys soccer team won the county's first-ever district tournament championship in the sport. A couple of weeks later and within five miles of each other in the Daytona Beach area, BOTH Palatka High and Crescent City won district basketball tournaments on the same night. Peniel Baptist's volleyball team made the state tournament for the first time, then in the spring the school's baseball team went unbeaten (18-0), capping its season with the Florida Christian Athletic League championship in dramatic fashion. And Palatka's softball team surprised everyone when an underclassmen-dominated team won a district tournament title.

All that happened and not once in that long-winded paragraph did I mention the excellence of Interlachen High School's star distance runner Jeremy Criscione, who crafted one of the greatest stories ever in my career when he won the state 2A cross country championship in 15:02, winning the championship just three months after his head coach and the man who talked him into running cross country as a freshman, Dwayne Cox, had passed away.

So with all that happening in a six- or seven-month scholastic year period, you couldn't think any of that could be added on, like another scoop of ice cream on a huge cone or having another day or two added on to a week-long triple-park pass at Disney World.

Well, we'd all be wrong.

The proof of that came on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon in South Florida. On April 30, 2005, the Florida High School Athletic Association state 2A track championship was taking place at Coral Springs High School in upper Broward County. Now rarely are we allowed far away from our northeastern Florida home area to go cover something.

But this day was to be the culmination of a great career because Criscione had qualified for the finals in the 3,200, where one again, he would be paired up in his battle with Tampa Jesuit rival Andrew Biladeau, who he out-dueled by seven seconds in that state 2A cross country race the previous November.

It was more than him, though. Interlachen had another competitor, Greg Oats, who was a candidate to take home a medal in the long jump. Crescent City had a couple of athletes going to the same meet as well. One was a young sophomore hurdler named Kendrea Washington, a girl with a lot of potential. And Crescent City boys track coach John Thomas had a senior going with him to the meet named Mickey Gilyard.

Ah, yes, Mickey Gilyard, who that previous fall was the starting quarterback for the football team after he had transferred in from Menendez High School, located in the southern part of St. Johns County. Here's what I did know about Mickey Gilyard -- he came in to help the football team as a senior, threw for 9 yards in his opening game of the season, the team lost that opener, and somewhere along the way in the next week or so, he was no longer on the team.

So for all I knew, that was the end of him. That was, until the track season when he showed up on coach Thomas' roster. In Putnam County, the track and field season is not as important as it is in most areas of the state. There was no county championship this particular year, so the real excitement of the track season here doesn't happen until we get to the postseason.

And Gilyard shined in the district and region meets that April. He won the long jump and tied for second in the high jump at districts. Then in the region meet, he won the long jump again and finished second in the high jump to qualify for the state meet.

Throughout the season, Gilyard's rival in both events was Tavares High three-sport star Jermaine Taylor. Taylor was an All-State first-team star in football as a wide receiver and a superstar on the basketball court where he was already signed, sealed and delivered to play for the University of Central Florida the next year.

And all through that winter/spring, Gilyard would beat Taylor in those two events and triple jump and Taylor would get Gilyard in those events as well. A true back-and-forth rivalry for one season.

So three days before the state meet in Coral Springs, I was at Crescent City Jr.-Sr. High for a couple of reasons, one of those being a column on Mr. Gilyard. Where did he come from? Where was he for those months between seasons? It was as if Bigfoot had re-emerged from the wilderness and I had a chance to find out what common people wanted to know.

Turns out he needed to bring his grades up and there was no rift between he and the football coach. So during the winter, he was trying to become a better student (yeah, that is always refreshing to know) and that he would be able to come out for track once his grades improved, which they had. And coach Thomas, as cool and as casual a customer as you will ever come across, was willing to allow his "new" runner to come out and make a name of himself.

Wanna talk about a contrast in styles? Here it was -- the laid-back Thomas and the everything-and-a-bag-of-chips Gilyard, who was not afraid to tell you he was with a Muhammad Ali swagger. I was amazed that it even worked all season, but you have to understand coach Thomas -- as long as you work hard for the man in either track or with the boys soccer team that he coached, he was more than fair. And Gilyard worked his tail off.

Still, it was refreshing to hear Gilyard be boastful about his chances to win a state title. He didn't think anyone could beat him on his best day. That statement was nothing compared to what his "training regimen" was.

"A double cheeseburger at McDonald's, hold the tomatoes and add onions and mayonnaise."

Yeah, the moment I printed THAT in my column I was immediately going to make people sick and, yeah, I knew it. If all 17- and 18-year-olds had that kind of a stomach and energy to eat that.

By 7:15 a.m., I had my car ready to go. Left my apartment to head down State Road-100 into Flagler County, then onto US-1 and onto I-95 where it would be a 232-mile trip to Exit 41. Rides now are enjoyable thanks to my Sirius-XM radio, but I was eight months away from getting mine, so I think I changed radio stations four or five times on this loooooooooooooooong trip. Since coming to the Palatka Daily News in 2003, I had gone south this far only one time when my girlfriend and I went down to Stuart to see my cousin Marcia, her husband Jim and my folks, who were in Florida for a few weeks in November 2004.

As Martin County became Palm Beach County, then Broward County, I so remembered why I didn't like South Florida, especially I-95 -- mainly the traffic. The meet was to start at noon, but I didn't get to Coral Springs High until 12:15 p.m. By that point, the long jump was being contested, though it had just started.

Gilyard gave it his best effort, but it would not be enough to win a state title. He finished third with a best jump of 23-foot-1 1/2 to Zephyrhills' Bryan Thomas (23-6) and event winner Terrence Moore of Key West (23-7 1/2).

Ah yes, Key West High School. Goodness, did I mess that track program from the three seasons I was at the Citizen as sports editor. I missed Dave Perkins, one of the best track coaches I've ever come across, a true motivator of young men and women. Though unhappy for Gilyard not winning, I was actually happy that Perkins had a state champion in the long jump.

In that same event, Oats finished sixth to go home with a medal, so I was pleased for the Interlachen High contingent and its ever-affable head coach, C.S. Belton.

The day was already good, but a little on the disappointing side. Why? Because I contended that Gilyard's better event was the long jump, not the high jump. At the region meet, he jumped 6-4, which was great, but six inches -- SIX INCHES -- less than what Taylor had done at that meet.

And with Washington eliminated from reaching the finals in the 100-meter high hurdles, I figured I'd have to wait until nightfall for my main story of the day when Criscione took the track in the 3,200. He, by the way, was nowhere to be found as the hotel the Interlachen team was staying at overnight allowed him to sleep a few hours while the sun beat down hard on the Coral Springs High track.

Speaking of which, the memory I have of being at this school was all the police and fire engine sirens going off every 10 minutes to respond to some sort of incident. You'd thought Coral Springs was the most crime-riddled, accident-prone town in America.

So far, I had a nice story, but not THE story. Nonetheless, I had gone down to the high jump pit with my boss' camera to take pictures of the event. The class of athlete there was pretty strong and very, very tall. Taylor, for instance, is 6-5. And most good high jumpers are over 6-foot tall.

Gilyard, on the other hand, is 5-10, an inch shorter than ME. But you never measure an athlete's ability necessarily by how tall they are, as soon was found out when the taller competitors started going out and Gilyard was leaping 6-2, then 6-4, then 6-6. By the time we had gotten to 6-6, it was Gilyard, Taylor, Tallahassee Godby's Bryant Gant, Brooksville Nature Coast's Mike Kursteiner, who was actually a co-favorite in the event with Taylor, and Andrew Bachelor from nearby Coral Springs Charter High.

The bar was set for 6-8. Already this was a great competition. It was only going to get better once Gant, Bachelor and co-favorite Kursteiner bowed out at that height. Somehow, Gilyard willed his way over the bar, while Taylor made it look rather easy.

It was now the two season-long rivals. And the bar was about to go up to 6-10, an entire foot taller than Gilyard. Both young men had their chances to clear 6-10 three times, but neither could. So it became a jump-off.

The bar came down to 6-9. One shot, one shot only. Neither could get over the bar without knocking it down. So the bar came down another inch.

Gilyard was first. All the while, he had walked around the high jump area like he was about to become a first-time father. If there was another athlete in an individual sport that I saw with that much nervous energy in him or her, I don't remember. That's how hyped up Gilyard was, talking to anyone or anybody within ear shot that would listen to him, even me.

Gilyard approached the bar like he had so many times that late afternoon at Coral Springs High. Took off properly. Leaped at the right spot. And wouldn't you know it -- he came down without hitting the bar.

Now it was up to Taylor, the soon-to-be-bound UCF Knight to play basketball who would one day make it to the NBA with both the Houston Rockets and currently the Sacramento Kings, to match Gilyard's 6-8 jump. Taylor took off and hit his spot, but just as he was able to make it over the bar, his foot clipped it and the bar came off.

The shock set in -- Mickey Gilyard, all 5 foot, 10 inches of him, had just slayed the great 6-foot-5 Jermaine Taylor to win the state high jump championship. And the swagger was on. He jumped up and down, began to pose and he wanted me to get a great pose of him in all-swag mode, which I did ... just one or two steps away from falling over a golf cart that just happened to be behind him that he never saw.

The crowd around him laughed. A lot of athletes would have been red-faced over what had just taken place, but Gilyard simply brushed it off and started to celebrate wildly. He had just won a state title no one thought he could win and he wanted to let the entire complex know it.

I asked Taylor afterward about what happened and why Gilyard was better on this day. His answer: He had gone to Walt Disney World's Grad Night celebration with his classmates the night before and may have been out a little too long celebrating. That was his story and he was sticking to it, even in the classy manner he was telling it in.

So over to Gilyard I walked and I told him what Taylor told me. His response: "Our Grad Night was last night, too. But I had a responsibility to be at my best. I talked to my girlfriend there and she was having a good time. That's all that mattered."

Just when you think you've learned something about a student-athlete, they take it to another surprising level. Here I was wondering what happened to this kid during football season as the team's starting quarterback and now he was ending the year doing the right thing for himself and bringing glory to a school he was at for just one year. In the time I have worked at the Daily News, we've only had one split for Track Athlete of the Year. That was that spring between Gilyard and Criscione.

While Taylor has gone on to a fantastic career at UCF and now to the NBA, I have no idea whatever happened to Mickey Gilyard. I miss seeing his smile, his exuberance, his swagger. I don't miss that "training meal," but I'm sure he's doing OK somewhere in northeastern Florida.

So now, I have a story! Yaaaaay! And the terrible part is it may have made whatever Criscione did that night into nothing more than an afterthought. Imagine that -- another state championship as an "afterthought."

But as daylight came and went and nighttime started to fall on Coral Springs High, the finals were to take place in all the track events. And for Criscione, who had arrived in the late afternoon right after Gilyard's heroics, it was time to run the 3,200. The heat was gone and this was to be a battle royale involving him, Biladeau, Miami Gulliver Prep's Bryan Sharkey and Fort Pierce Lincoln Park's Matt Hensley.

And just like the state cross country meet almost six months earlier in Tampa, the other so-called "main competition" fell back in the pack of the 3,200 -- eight laps around the track. For the last three or four laps, it was Criscione and Biladeau battling for position, another amazing race among two respected rivals. And like six months earlier, Criscione found another gear to pull away and win the 3,200 in 9:14.75, a couple of seconds ahead of the 9:16.17 done by Biladeau, who probably had a lot taken out of him in winning the 1,600 earlier that night.

Just like that, one of the greatest prep sports careers had come to an end at Coral Springs High with a second state championship in the same year. And Belton, a longtime coach at Interlachen High, put it all in perspective.

"You can win a state championship, even in a one-(traffic) light town like ours," he said. If you've never been through Interlachen, Fla., you'd understand. Since 2005, the town has added a "second" traffic light, not far from the first one on State Road-20.

For myself, the long day was over. But it wasn't really over just yet. I grabbed myself a sub at a nearby restaurant owned by a man who originally grew up in Lakewood, N.J., but don't press me on the name since it's been six years when I was there last.

I ended up going afterward to a 24-hour Kinko's to write the story since it was all fresh in my mind still. The Daily News does not print on Sundays or Mondays, so I had a couple days to write it up.

But when you have an exciting day like I experienced, you always want to make sure you have all the details right and don't want to make your brain have to remember things again that are currently present. So it took over an hour, but I got the job done. For the $12 I spent for being on a Kinko's computer typing the story up, it was more than worth it.

It was just past midnight by the time I was able to leave Coral Springs and head home, but the lack of sleep made me pull off the road once to get some rest. By the time I got back home and had visited Wal-mart to get some stuff and then shower and hit the bed, it was close to 8:30 that morning.

I had been up practically 26 hours straight. The reward was worth it, though.

Then again, almost anything done the entire 2004-05 Putnam County prep sports season was worth it. And two state track championships in one day was the icing on the cake.

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