SPORTS>> Local harriers take next step toward nationals
Leader sports editor
One way to resurrect a track program is to get kids interested in the sport early. That’s what Walter Harris and the NCA Elite Track Club had in mind last fall, and if the early success of several young Jacksonville-area harriers is any indication, it just might be working.
Five area girls from nine to 18 years old will be heading to Joplin, Mo., this Friday for the AAU Region 8 regionals. A sixth did well enough to qualify but is too young to participate at regionals. Yet another overcame tragedy to have an outstanding track season before moving out of the area.
“The track programs are down in Jacksonville,” said Harris, a Jacksonville High School alum who serves as one of the coaches for the NCA Elite Track Club. “There’s just not much emphasis on track in Pulaski County like there used to be.
“We want to get to the younger ones and give them a love for the sport early, to get them to appreciate track, maybe give them an opportunity to go to college.”
Tatiana Washington, 12, said she was approached by Harris when he was substitute teaching at Jacksonville Middle School.
“He was asking who could run,” said Washington, who, like many of her teammates, is in her first year of track. “It’s hard, but it’s fun. I plan on running track for a while. Track gives you dedication and drive to do stuff better.”
Washington will compete this Friday in the 100 and the 400 meters in the sub youth division at Southwest Missouri State University. She will join Jacksonville-area teammates Daijah Harris, 8; Nikia Williams, 9; Ebony Cox, 13; and Kiara Zinson, 18.
Daijah Harris, Walter Harris’ daughter, is the state champ in the 200, the 400 and the long jump. She also has the fastest time in the 100, but each girl is limited to three events and she will sit that one out.
“A lot of the problem with Daijah is there’s really no one to push her at state,” Harris said. “I’m predicting she’ll see some competition at regionals and she’ll lock in and do a lot better. She gets bored being out in front.
“I think she’s on tap to be one of the best sprinters in Arkansas someday.”
The top three finishers at regionals qualify for nationals in late July in Detroit, Mich. Harris thinks several of his girls have a chance to break through. Williams currently owns the fastest regional time in the 400 (one minute, 13 seconds) in the Bantam division, and will also compete in the 100 and the 200.
Williams comes by her talents genetically.
Her mother, Danna Williams-Tillman, ran track at the old Jacksonville Southside Junior High and at Jacksonville High. She said Nikia loves to run, though she adds with a laugh, she sometimes needs an attitude adjustment.
“The 400 is her best event,” she said. “Now if we could just get her to quit whining about it. It’s a tough race and she gets that long face. I just tell her, ‘Suck it up, cowboy up and get it done.’”
In the youth division, Cox has the second-fastest time in the state in the 100, 200 and 400. The girl with the fastest times in those events — Tcara Malone of Pine Bluff — enjoys a distinct advantage with her long legs and 5-8 frame. But Harris doesn’t count Cox out.
“She might can beat her in the 400,” Harris said. “She has a great chance. At the state meet, she gave her all she could handle. It’s just hard for her to overcome her size.”
Though Washington finished second at state in the 400, she owns the best overall time in the state in the sub youth division at 1:10.31.
Zinson, who lives in Jackson-ville but attends North Little Rock, will run the third leg of the 400-meter relay as well as the 200. Zinson, 18, has qualified for regionals before but was unable to attend.
She said she is looking forward to the opportunity.
“I’m going to do my best,” she said. “I’m not really nervous at all because I’m just going to do what I’ve got to do. I have faith I can make it to the next level.”
Harris said that even though 8-year-old Lamya Bulliner will not be attending regionals, her story is particularly inspiring. At the start of the track season, Bulliner’s mother died.
“But she kicked butt in the 100, the 200 and the long jump,” Harris said. “She worked so hard this year and was able to overcome all of that. But her father moved her to Fordyce a week before we went to state. Hopefully, we’ll have her back next year.”
Alycia Shaw is just five, too young to compete at regionals, but she has enjoyed plenty of success in her first year as well.
NCA Elite is coached by Wilford Jones, the father of track sensation Whitney Jones of Searcy, who will run at the University of Arkansas next year. Jones missed most of her high school season and will sit out the summer season recovering from an injury.
All of the girls Harris coaches say Whitney Jones has been a real inspiration.
“Whitney told me that even though you’re tired, you have to keep running,” Daijah Harris said.
Zinson also said Whitney has inspired her in her running.
“She’s taught me how to use my arms and legs better,” Zinson said. “She told me, when I get tired, do not give up on it and keep pushing myself to the finish line. So that’s what I do.”
Wilford Jones, who began the Elite Track Club four years ago, said he sees in this crop of youngsters a similarity to his own daughter.
“It all depends on the talent you’re born with,” he said. “Yeah, it’s kind of rare in the first year of running (to reach regionals).
But coach Harris has done a good job getting these girls to understand track. And they were out there in the cold back in October and November. They persevered through all of that.”
The key, Wilford Jones said, is to get the youngsters through those first potentially overwhelming events when they first face large fields and quality competition.
“They went in there that first time and they didn’t get shaken,” he said. “They competed real well. Just going to regionals that first time is important. That’s how you know about the kids. When they go to the big meet, do they get up, do they get so nervous they don’t perform?
“A lot of times, it’s mental. But the experience of being there is important because the next year, it’s not new to them anymore. Half the battle is getting there.”