Leader Blues

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

SPORTS >> Friendly foes

By JASON KING
Leader sportswriter

BFF stands for best friends forever in the busy world of teenagers. Cabot High School seniors Marissa De La Paz and Reilly McAtee consider themselves BFFs, and insist that becoming rivals at the college level will do nothing to change that.

Both are heading to the Sun Belt Conference, but while McAtee will become a Lady Red Wolf at Arkansas State this fall, De La Paz will run track at UALR.

All of that, of course, can wait with the 7A state track meet looming this Saturday at Conway High School.

De La Paz qualified for the 4x800 along with McAtee, and will run in the 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter events, while McAtee won the 800 meter at the 7A Central meet and will compete in that as well as the 1,600 on Saturday Both will also run in the 4x800-meter relay.

“We’ve been saying that it’s going to be UALR, ASU, and then us,” said McAtee, referring to the school meets that the two will be a part of starting next spring.

“Those two have been together since the eighth grade in one form or another,” said Lady Panther track coach Leon White. “They’ve either competed against each other or run together. They are very close friends. I feel like it’s going to be hard on both of them going different ways for college; it’s going to be hard for them not to be together anymore.

“It’s kind of the same thing for me. I’ve coached them both for five years now. We’ve become so close that it’s going to be like losing family in a way.”

It is a friendship that has blossomed only in the past two years, though both have been a part of the Cabot track program since junior high. McAtee began in the seventh grade at Cabot South and De La Paz started running for Cabot North in the eighth grade.

McAtee was forced to sit out her sophomore year to recover from surgery to correct compartment syndrome in her calves. During that time, De La Paz quickly made a name for herself in the Panther track and cross-country programs, earning all conference honors.

She also made all state her junior year with conference meet wins in the 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter events, just as McAtee was getting back up to speed. While both have had strong senior campaigns, it has been McAtee who set a school and 7A Central Conference record in the 800-meter run at last week’s conference meet.

“Those two have switched roles,” said White. “Reilly spent her sophomore and junior years recovering from injuries. This year has been Reilly’s year. She’s had the better overall year, but Marissa has been solid every year she has been here. She was a triple-winner last year. She won the 800, the mile and the two-mile, and that has never been done before here at Cabot.”

McAtee has spent her life in Cabot, while De La Paz, an Air Force kid, has seen the world in her 18 years. Born in Spain, De La Paz and her five siblings have also lived in Japan for two years, as well as in Ohio and Maryland, before parents Lori and Conrad moved them south to Arkansas.

“I’ve blended in well,” De La Paz said. “It was kind of nice knowing that we weren’t going to have to start over again somewhere else. We actually talked about moving at one time, and that was kind of scary because I like Arkansas a lot.”

Her best showing this season was a third-place finish in the 800-meter run at the Central meet last week. She chalks up not having a win to tougher competition this season, but is far from ready to throw in the towel on her high-school career.

“I’ve learned to never give up through running track,” said De La Paz. “I’ve learned to motivate myself and be responsible, but the biggest thing I’ve gained is the special relationships with my teammates, and with coach White.”

It is clear the two girls think highly of their coach. It is just as evident that the admiration is reciprocated.

“If I told somebody what I wanted in future girls for this team, I would tell them to be just like Reilly McAtee and Marissa De La Paz,” said White. “They are both dependable and work hard all the time. If I ask them to do something out on the track, they try their best to do it. They have been great models for future runners here.”

Both lived somewhat in the shadows of high-profile long-distance runner Emily Carpenter last year, but upon Carpenter’s graduation and subsequent departure to college in Texas in the spring of ’08, De La Paz and McAtee became the big dogs.

Going to opposing junior high schools across town and a lack of familiarity with one another as sophomores made for a bit of rivalry, but sharing the spotlight and leadership duties in their final season has not been a problem for either.

Before becoming a track athlete, McAtee was an avid soccer player.

“That made me realize that I liked running,” she said. “I thought I was a sprinter at first, but coach White made me realize that I was a long distance runner.”

Both received offers from UCA, and even discussed the possibility of rooming together and becoming teammates on the Sugar Bear track team. Both ultimately decided that their friendship was strong enough to renew their old rivalry at opposing schools.

“Our senior year has been really fun,” said De La Paz. “Reilly and I have become closer and bonded. Pretty much everything has happened the way I hoped it would. It went by really fast.”

What once was a rivalry is now a bonded friendship, but the competitive spirit still lingers on the track, according to McAtee. Yet it is a healthy and mutually beneficial competitiveness.

“Even on days that are supposed to be slow, we still push each other,” said McAtee. “Without her pushing me, sometimes I realize I’m not doing as good. We are like each other’s support system.”

Going separate ways will not harm their relationship in the least, they say.

“We will stay best friends,” said McAtee. “We are like sisters. Marissa’s mom is like my mom number two.”

“I will still need Reilly,” De La Paz said.