By Matt Hill
Some people have what it takes to be a state champion. In the case of Cyclone shot and discus thrower Nikolai Simpson, Elizabethton track and field coach Craig Emmert believes he just might have the work ethic and determination to get the job done in May.
As the track and field season begins for local schools Elizabethton, Happy Valley and Johnson County, a lot of eyes are on Elizabethton High School as Simpson, who finished second in the state in the discus last season, tries to make that extra step.
Simpson is also outstanding in the shot and people around the Cyclone track and field circles are buzzing with anticipation to see if he can pull it off.
“He works hard every day,” Emmert said. “Angie Barker has worked with him a lot on techniques and things because she was a national champion, and toward the end of the season she comes over and starts helping her out. She has a lot to do with success and her mom (Vivian Norwood) has a good gene line as well — and she has showed him some things too throughout the years. I think his goal in his head is to be state champion and with hard work that can be a reality.
“His mom was a state champion in 1988. He is looking forward to having a good year, and he works hard every day in the weight room and throwing.”
Aaron Wood comes over to help Emmert and sort of be a co-head coach, and he will primarily be working with the distance runners.
Wood’s experience in cross country should carry over into track and field quite nicely, and the distance runners on the boys side are led by Stewart Clark and Colby Atwell.
“Colby just missed going to the state in cross country and Coach Wood is the cross country coach,” Emmert said. “They also play soccer, but they will be at a lot of the meets.
“Essentially we’re co-head coaches. I work with the sprinters and Aaron works with the distance runners. Jerry Jenkins is helping with sprinters and field events. It helps to have another coach and because we have another coach we have more numbers. We have about 40 kids. This is the most kids we’ve had out since I’ve been the track and field coach and the depth, especially on the girls side, is really deep.”
Clayton Smith and Hunter Hughes are solid sprinters for Elizabethton.
“If everybody sticks with it I think the boys could finish one or two,” Emmert said. “Basing off what I know what we have, we should be pretty good. When you get to regional you have University High, but the meet we want the most is the conference meet. We try to focus on the conference meet.”
Elizabethton’s girls won the conference last year and look to be even better this season.
“As long as nobody gets injured, there’s 10 or 12 girls who are very athletic and we can mix and match with relays,” Emmert said.
Katie May was third in the sectional in the 300 hurdles and Emmert has very high hopes for her.
“I think if she has a good year and works hard she can go to the state in the hurdles,” Emmert said. “She’s worked very hard and has improved a lot. We didn’t lose any solid contributor to graduation on the girls side.
“There are three four girls coming out who played basketball this year who are coming out and they should help out with the sprinting.”
One of those basketball players, Abbi Pierce, reached state in cross country and will be counted on in track and field.
“She trains hard every day and is one of the fiercest competitors on the team,” Emmert said. “She likes to compete when she gets out and run.”
The sky is the limit for these girls, who look to form a very dominant squad at Elizabethton High School once again.
“Our girls team is very deep right now and they’re goal is to win conference again,” Emmert said. “I think with hard work they will have a good chance to do that.”
The Warrior boys look like a group that could be good despite heavy graduation losses while the girls program is young with a team made up of a lot of sophomores, and they are in a little bit of a rebuilding mode.
“I think overall boys and girls combined we lost 12 seniors, and I would sort of like to reload more than rebuild,” Happy Valley head coach Matt Estep said. “Last year we had Landon Baker in state for hurdles and Josh Hubbard in state for shot put, and we’re looking to get some kids back there this year — but right now our biggest problem is lack of experience. For some of them it’s their first year, even the seniors.”
One kid that is back is Baker, who finished seventh in the state in the 300 hurdles. Baker is a powerhouse runner who Estep will not let settle for anything but the very best this season.
“The goal for him is to win it,” Estep said. “I think he can win it. He works as hard as anybody I have ever had and he’s a good kid. He deserves it, has a good attitude and I think he can win it. It will be very tough.”
Another possible state meet contender is Brady Potter, a senior sprinter.
“He helps us out a lot,” Estep said.
David Young is one of the better distance runners around and he looks to continue his success this season.
“He works very hard,” Estep said.
Baker may be a two-event star before long as he is working on the pole vault.
“He has the potential to also make state there,” Estep said. “We have about three or four pole vaulters every year who get into it and that’s usually the last thing we tend to do in practice, so they’re here after everyone has gone home and it’s usually us and Unicoi going at it for the conference championship.”
Gabe Oxendine is a good sprinter and jumper for the Warriors and will help Estep, along with distance runner Tyerell Hughes, thrower Jesse Hensley, thrower Tyler Hubbard and thrower Eli Hyder.
On the girls’ side, the Lady Warriors only have two seniors, with one being a very good high jumper named Alexis Campbell.
“She was at the point last year where she was jumping five feet and then she hurt her ankle,” Estep said. “She wasn’t the same after that, but if she stays healthy she may have a shot at state.”
Distance runner Nicole Campbell and sprinter Emily Holstclaw should also continue their success from last season.
“Nicole is a hard worker and good distance runner,” Estep said. “Holtsclaw won the 200-meter dash at the conference meet last year and she’s trying to pole vault and she is coming along. She enjoys it.”
One disturbing thing for Estep is the fact there are no freshmen girls.
“We had a couple on the boys squad, but the girls just weren’t interested,” Estep said. “It’s not a glamour sport in this area, but the kids we do have work very hard. We tend to be competitive, but our team total hurts in the bigger meets.”
The following is a complete list of the Happy Valley track @ field team.
Girls: Mikayla Babb, Nicole Campbell, Alexis Hammons, Katie Hodge, Chelsea Holiman, Emily Holtsclaw, Kaitlynn Kincer, Logan Ledford, Faith Linthicum, Emily Mangrum, Kaitlyn Simerly.
Boys: Matthew Albritton, Tyler Atkins, Landon Baker, Hunter Buchanan, Jake Griggs, Jesse Henley, Tyler Hubbard, Tyerell Hughes, Eli Hyder, Zac Hyder, William Luster, Chaz McCracken, Timmy Morris, Ryan Mungwira, Gabe Oxedine, Lukas Oxendine, Brady Potter, Will Rhew, Jaylen Simmons, Ozzy Thompson, Garrett Wood, David Young.
Just like Simpson at Elizabethton and Baker at Happy Valley, the Longhorns have a pretty special athlete that they expect to go very far in Mikey Edington.
Edington has been on the outside looking in of a state berth after winning conference championships in the 800- and 1600-meter runs, but now this very dedicated young man has JCHS track and field coach Penny Gentry thrilled about the excitement and attention he could bring to Mountain City.
“This is the year that Mikey will go to state in the either or both the 800m and 1600m,” Gentry said. “Mikey is a wonderful athlete who has the mindset that he is going to state this year. I have all of the confidence in the world in him.”
One thing about Edington, he is working very hard to not just make himself better, but also everyone around him.
“Mikey has a wonderful work ethic,” Gentry said. “He is working hard at home as well as at practice. The thing with Mikey’s work ethic is that he is a silent leader, he has the respect of all of his teammates and they enjoy training with him. We have a couple of freshmen this year that are wanting to compete in the same races with Mikey, and Mikey has just taken them under his wing. He is a great asset to the track team and I have enjoyed getting to coach him and getting to know him as a person and an athlete.”
Darrin Gary on the boys’ side and Samantha Cornett along with Adhara Guzman for the girls are three very promising track and field athletes for Gentry and have already tasted some success as Longhorns.
“Darrin Gary is also a senior this year that we hope will go far in the shot put, short distance and/or hurdles,” Gentry said. “Sam Cornett is a senior who does short distance and long distance. Adhara Guzman, who missed sectionals last year by only one-hundredth of a second. We have a couple of freshman who are looking good from the start and they are Mackenzie Bauer and Greg Roark.”
“Samantha can go a long way this year — Samantha is very fast and a smart runner. I look forward to finding her niche race this year.”
Jordan Roark and David Eller are two strong throwers who have a chance at sectionals.
Many people reading this might be unfamiliar with Johnson County’s track and field program, but it has been rebuilt into a solid team first by Matt Bray and continuing with Gentry. In a county where other sports are prioritized more, the track and field team has definitely held its own.
“I believe it hurts us that we do not have a regulation track,” Gentry said. “Therefore we can only practice there without hosting any meets. It is hard for the fans to have to travel to Sullivan North, Unicoi or even Daniel Boone to watch our athletes perform. We are a small group of diverse athletes and appreciate all of the support that we get from our community.”