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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The old and new of Putnam County track in one state meet

My first experience in covering a state high school track and field meet was in 1985. It was the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II and III championship meets at Hammonton High School. All I did was take sheets of paper that were being passed around on this particular day and copy them off onto a notepad.

It was what we called "agate" meets. In other words, you never saw much in terms of the events being run in person, but you sure knew what the results were. And then it gets embarrassing when you're actually there and you can't actually view it, but you're asking questions to the young man or woman who just competed and succeeded in the event.

I grew a disdain for covering track and field. At the Observer, we had 15 schools to cover and they were all spread out among the four classifications. The big school at this meet was Manchester in Group II, where coach Bob Conover could talk all day and all night about his Hawks if you allowed him to. Chatty man to say the least.

Don't get me wrong – I appreciated the athletes who competed, just not the process of a long, long day at a warm complex in which you need to stay protected or else there's a good chance you'd fry.

By the time I moved from one paper in one state to another paper at another state, this time the Key West Citizen, I got to work with a true lover of track and field ... a great coach in the sport named Dave Perkins. He coached Key West High's team and I got to do the 2001 FHSAA championships, which were held at Coral Springs High School. I had two schools I was covering that day – not a multitude like I had in Ocean County, New Jersey. It was just Key West and Coral Shores.

Finally, I got to watch a track meet. I wasn't having to play the role of an agate clerk.

And when I got to my next gig in Palatka at the Daily News, it was more the same, except it was now three schools (Palatka, Interlachen and Crescent City). In my second year at the paper, I watched not one, but two of our county athletes, Crescent City Junior-Senior High high jumper Mickey Gilyard and Interlachen High 3,200-meter runner Jeremy Criscione, win state championships on that same Coral Springs High School track I had been years before.

One year later, I almost watched another athlete, this time Palatka's Ki'Aaron Session, do well in the triple jump and high jump, but late jumps in both events by other athletes stopped him from gold medals as he finished second in the long jump and third in the triple jump at Showalter Field at Winter Park High School.

Every year, I'd go to the state meet with the hope of seeing gold medal glory, but it'd be taken away by much better athletes from other areas of the state.

Then came a young lady named Kayshia Brady. She was a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. As a seventh-grader in 2007, she made the blocked shot on the final shot attempt of the game to give Crescent City its first district girls basketball championship in 22 years. As an eighth-grader, she earned an eighth-place medal in the shot put at the FHSAA 2A state track meet after she was ranked 16th and last of the competitors in the field that day. And as a five-year starter in the middle for coach Holly Pickens, she had an amazing volleyball career in which she won our paper's player of the year honor three straight years and won the honor of the top volleyball player in class 1A in her senior year, 2011, where she led Crescent City to district and region championships and to the first Final Four for the program in 25 years.

Overall, she was an eight-time Daily News athlete of the year in her three sports total, volleyball, basketball and track. This young lady was special.

But there was one thing she had not accomplished in her time at Crescent City -- a state championship, whether as a team member or individually representing Crescent City. After her mom forced her away from doing track as a freshman (it's a long story, I still don't understand why that happened then), she came back as a sophomore to finish third in the shot put at the state meet. She duplicated that feat as a junior in the same event at the 2011 state meet.

Now all that was left in her incredible career was the state championship. And leading up to the state meet, she went up against Victoria Reiman of Jacksonville's The Bolles School. And on Reiman's home turf, Brady beat the fellow senior by 6 3/4 inches, 41-foot-8 1/2 to 41-1 3/4. It made Brady the favorite to win the event, representing little, middle-of-nowhere, farm-land Crescent City against Reiman from plenty-rich, highly sophisticated private institution Bolles School.

Kayshia Brady was more than the price of admission for the FHSAA 2A championships, which were held on Saturday afternoon, April 28, 2012, at its new host site, the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. So I had an easy one-hour trip from Palatka to UNF, which I took off from work the day before so I could get a good head start for the next day.

But she would not be alone representing Putnam County at this meet. Palatka was to be represented at the meet by triple jumper Leroy Owens, who had placed third in that event in the region meet, not making him a favorite to win a medal, and Jaquille Melton was a state qualifier in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes after taking third in both events at the meet. Again, he wasn't a favorite to win a medal in either event. And Interlachen High had Jennifer Roberts, a sophomore, competing in the long jump.

More on those folks later.

Field events were taking place first and the shot was under way as I arrived at UNF. I was getting acclimated to a new place on this beautiful, sunny, warm Saturday. I parked somewhere close to the front gate, came upstairs to the press box to drop my backpack with my laptop and battery inside, then marched back down to where the competition was being held all around the track. The shot put was being held on a field away from the track itself and you had to weave your way around a maze of fences to find the right opening. By the time I arrived, Raiman was up for her second throw.

Those close to Brady -- her mom sitting in a chair taking pictures along with her brother, who coached her personally in the event -- were ecstatic that she was able to break her personal-best throw of 42-0 with a launch of 43-4 on the first throw of the day. That was a gauntlet-setter.

But Raiman let loose with her second throw. There was no doubt she nailed it.

"Forty-three feet, 10 inches!"

There was a silence from the Brady camp. Turns out Raiman had just nailed her personal best. And there was no doubt that with her next five throws, the Crescent City senior was going to have to throw her all. On her third throw, Brady delivered her best throw.

"Forty-three feet, six inches!"

It wasn't as far as Raiman's throw, but it gave her hope as the 16 competitors were chopped down to nine for the final. Turns out, though, both had given it everything they had early on. There were scratch throws within their last three throws. And Brady just couldn't deliver another throw that was as good as the 43-6 she had just put out there moments earlier.

Raiman had won the state title and in the cruelest of cruel fates, Brady was left to finish second, probably wishing the roles had been reversed from the week before when she stunned Raiman in the regional meet.

No matter how many honors she won in her illustrious high school career, the lack of a state championship would remain a void. I waited until after the medal presentation to talk to Brady. I took a picture of it with a stoic Brady on the second-place block next to a hands-held-high Raiman, who was on the first-place block, smiling with her medal draped around her neck.

Brady made no excuses in the end.

"I'm upset. I'll admit it," she said. "I've been going for first place since eighth grade, but I still left high school with a lot and I PR'd on my last day. I'm completely grateful. These six years of school have gone by so fast and I'm just so happy for everybody that came (to the meet that day) ... my coaches, my family. I'm just grateful."

But honestly, she was ready to cry. I can see it. She did a great job of holding it in. She said all the right things a good loser should say. I reached out to her and gave her a hug. She deserved it. I felt bad for her. She may have thrown her best ever at that track meet, the last one of her life, and yet, someone else took the glory away from her.

I can feel the slight tremble in that hug. Like many great athletes I've covered in 30-plus years, Kayshia Brady was a true gamer. I loved that quality in her. On this warm afternoon, it wasn't enough. (And to make matters worse for her, her favorite basketball player, Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose, damaged his ACL in Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference first-round playoff against the Philadelphia 76ers, and yes, she knew about it before she left UNF that day.)

I saw Raiman soon after and decided to interview her after her momentous win.

"Last week, I was struggling with my practice (throws)," Raiman started. "I don't think I threw well. (Brady) threw better and I didn't have a great day so I commended her for it. She had a great day, too, today. This week, I bounced back, got my practice throws back and threw well here."

Then I found out Raiman was going to be throwing the discus, which she won the 2A state title in later that day, and shot put at the University of Kentucky on scholarship. Not bad. Brady, meanwhile, was signed, sealed and delivered to start her education at Florida Southern College on a volleyball scholarship, part of many scholarships she got for her athletic and academic prowess.

That would be the last time I saw Kayshia Brady in athletic competition. It makes me sad to even type that sentence. She enjoyed a great career at Florida Southern and graduated in 2016 from the school.

But her career wasn't the only one I was watching end on this day. Owens was about to take center stage as part of the triple jump competition. He had been our county's football player of the year and was signed to a scholarship at Florida International University for the sport the next year. And he was a member of the All-County boys basketball team in his one year playing for new coach Donald Lockhart.

Track and field was to get him prepared for the next football season at FIU. But Owens had issues with new Palatka coach Steven Gonzalez. Unlike previous coach Kyle Rice, who was a football coach disguised as a track coach, Gonzalez was a track coach who dabbled in coaching football. And Palatka High athletic director Matt McCool hired Gonzalez strictly as that track coach to make track athletes better and bring back the glory that was once in the sport in the early 1980s.

As a matter of fact, in the middle of the season, Owens quit track. Yes ... he quit the track team! Ultimately, though, the light switch went on in his head and he realized that his new track boss was only trying to help him be better. Gonzalez always maintained that in that first year as head coach – a position he claimed just a few weeks before the 2012 season began when Rice suddenly quit after he found out he was not being retained as the school's head football coach – he had trouble trying to get the athletes to work with him.

So it was amazing that Owens was even here! His athletic ability guided him to the state 2A championship meet at UNF. As a 13th seed out of 16 competitors, it sure didn't look like he'd advance beyond the first round of 16. Though he qualified for the state meet with a leap of 43-10, both Owens and Gonzalez believed if the senior could pull out a 45-foot leap, he'd have a good shot at qualifying. That was his best shot, actually.

Two attempts had not gotten Owens where he needed to be. But as the case in field events, it takes just one leap or one throw to cause enough chaos and shake up rankings. And with one more jump left in the third round, Owens took off furiously down the narrow stretch of paved ground toward where he would skip twice, then leap as far as he could.

On this third attempt, everything was nailed. I can remember him getting up excited knowing he nailed his leap. Then the announcement from the person holding the measuring end of the tape came.

"Forty-five feet, six inches."

A smile came over his face. He knew he made it to the final round. And though he would not do any better than this jump, it would still give him a medal to go home with as he finished seventh. And it wasn't as if he could've gotten sixth or better – Jacksonville Ribault's Josh Anderson was a full foot ahead of him in sixth.

It made history. Owens was the first PHS boy or girl to go home with a state medal since Session's double in the triple jump and long jump at the 3A state meet six years earlier.

"I had to think bigger," Owens said to me afterward on the leap. "You don't give a target (number), but you think bigger. This medal means a lot to me because I worked hard for it. I worked all four years for it. Not everyone gets a chance to go after a medal at state, so I'm satisfied with what I did."

So was his 30-year-old coach who waited for this moment after spending his entire adult life involved in track and field. He said, "I'm definitely pleased that he took it to the finals. He made his magic work. We talked about getting to 45 (feet) as his goal and he made it."

Gonzalez, though, still had Melton left to run in the sprints. He qualified for the finals in both the 100 and 200. But on a track with nine lanes, the PHS junior sorta got lost out there. He missed out on taking home a medal, finishing ninth in both events, a bummer indeed.

As for Roberts, she did not put her best effort forward in the long jump as she finished with a best leap of 15-11 for 13th place. But it was the young lady who won the event with a state record 20-6 1/2 jump that suddenly had my attention.

Her name was Robin Reynolds and she was competing for Miami Jackson High. By the time her day was over, she had become the most decorated female track and field athlete in state high school history winning four gold medals and finishing her career with 14 golds total. But here's the thing – her parents were both standout athletes at Palatka High School.

Suddenly, I had a column for next Saturday. After they put that last gold medal around her after winning the 200-meter dash, I finally cornered her, told her who I was so I didn't scare the Bejesus out of her, and we ended up chatting for about 15 minutes. Her mom, Robbie, went to the state meet one year as a hurdler at Palatka. Her dad, Clifton, was Palatka High's three-year starting quarterback, including in 1981 as a sophomore when the Panthers went 14-0 and won the state 3A championship with a senior leader at running back named John L Williams. Two years later as a senior, he quarterbacked Palatka to the state 3A title game before the Panthers lost to Titusville, 28-21.

The conversation and column both worked out very well by the end of the next week.

It was a joyous day. It was a sad day, too. Not many track meets I've ever attended had a lot of ups and downs like this one did. But I didn't know it at the time until years later how special this meet was on UNF's track.

While this would be the last hurrah in the high school career of Kayshia Brady, this would be the beginning of an outstanding coaching career for Steven Gonzalez.

In 2015, Gonzalez coached his first state champion when Eron Carter won the state 2A championship in both the discus and shot put and the Panthers finished fifth in the state 2A team standings at UNF. A year later and now at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Carter won his third state title, repeating in discus, while on the girls' side, his standout speedster, Ka'Tia Seymour, would win the 100- and 200-meter dashes and would anchor a team involving Kari Rasher, Tazarryia Poole and Jaelyn Hendrieth to the 4x100 relay championship. They would be the first three gold medals ever won at a state track meet by PHS girls.

At the end of that 2016 meet, PHS took third in the final boys team standings behind American Heritage of Plantation and Cocoa, while the girls would finish in eighth place. Even better, of the 15 boys and girls who traveled to Bradenton, 14 of them went home with a medal.

Just ... simply ... wow. Sadly, Gonzalez's claim of a "lack of support" from the PHS athletic department forced him to quit as both boys and girls track coach. He eventually took on the head boys track coaching job at North Marion High School. And wouldn't you know it – who would replace Gonzalez as the PHS girls track coach? Yup ... Robin Reynolds.

Small world.

When the meet was finally done for me by around 8 p.m. ... and it was a long day ... I packed my stuff and headed out of UNF and back to Southside Boulevard to a sushi place I had a number of meals with along with my friend Summer, who had moved on just the weekend before to take a job in Dallas. It was called Yummy Sushi. I forgot what I ordered, but damn, it sure was good. As I ate, I took a picture of my meal for Summer to see and texted with her throughout about that first few days in Dallas.

Just a small part of what made that 2012 2A state championship one that I will always remember.

It was the day I got to appreciate track and field more than I did before.

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