Murfreesboro — Redemption for past failures is something that everyone hopes they have the opportunity to find. That opportunity doesn't always present itself, so when it does it requires courage and focus to take full advantage of it.
Cleveland's Eric Parker carried the weight of a disappointing performance at last year's state track meet for a full year. On Thursday, the senior got his shot at redemption, and he didn't miss.
Parker won both the 110- and 300-meter hurdles with times of 14.10 and 37.68 respectively at the TSSAA Division I-Large Schools track and field championship at the Spring Fling in Murfreesboro.
The future Tennessee Volunteer came into the meet seeded first in both races, and is ranked 19th nationally in the 110-meter hurdles.
“Sweeping the hurdles today feels great,” said Parker, who also placed fifth in the triple jump. “After what happened last year, everyone expected me to win this year. So to help my team out and have that big of an impact feels good.”
Parker was in a similar situation coming into the 2018 state meet as the top seed in the 110-meter hurdles. He fell over a hurdle and was disqualified, however, not only costing himself a chance at an individual state title, but hurting the Blue Raiders chances at a team championship as well, as Cleveland lost by just four points to Brentwood.
“It weighed on me a little bit this season,” Parker admitted. “I know that if I had won that race and gotten us ten points, we would've come home as state champs, so I felt like I let my team down. But I feel like everything happens for a reason. We have mistakes that we go through, and it helps prepare us for the future. It's kind of like hurdles, you fall down and you get back up because you've got another hurdle in front of you, and you have to jump over that one too.”
Blue Raider teammate David Dorsey also provided some exciting drama early Thursday in the long jump. Sitting in third place with one jump remaining, the senior unleashed his best jump of the day at 23'3”, giving him the championship.
“I just had it in my head that I am not losing this,” said Dorsey. “This is the last jump of my senior year and I have to go all out for it. I felt like I had it before they announced the distance, but I wanted to be sure. As soon as they said 23, I just took off sprinting. I was so happy.”
The Blue Raiders finished in third in the team standings with 49 points, just edged out by Whitehaven, who overtook them on the final race of the day to finish two points ahead of the Blue Raiders in second place. Brentwood repeated as the team champion, despite scoring all 77 of their points during field events with no points coming during the afternoon running events.
Cleveland's 4x100 meter relay team finished second, despite being less than 0.4 seconds off the state record in a time of 41.76. Walker Valley sophomore Skyy Craig followed up his fourth place finish in the decathlon last week with third place in the 300-meter hurdles and fourth in the 110-meter hurdles. Nationally-ranked distance runner and future Ole Miss Rebel Cole Bullock from Red Bank finished third in the 1600, one of the most highly contested races of the day with a number of athletes that will be top competitors at the collegiate level next season.
One of the unique aspects of track and field is that competitors don't have the ability to play defense on their opponents. Because of this, many athletes choose to focus on improving their times and distances each meet and each season, and when they hit a new personal best, they know that they did all they could do to win the race.
That was the case for Rhea County's Lesley Green. Running in her final races for the Lady Golden Eagles, the senior ran career personal bests in the 3200 (10:58.03) and 1600 (5:08.14), placing fifth and sixth respectively.
“I could not ask for a better end to my high school season,” said Green, who will run cross country for UTC in the fall. “I've had a rough season. I've plateaued and I didn't have good races, but all season I've kept working. So to come out and break 5:10 in the mile and 11:00 in the 3200, I can't describe how good it feels and how thankful I am. I've prayed a lot about this race, and then to come out and do it, I couldn't ask for a better way to finish.”
Red Bank's Kimbra Dunning ended her high school career on a high note as she reached the podium with a fourth place finish in the long jump. Walker Valley junior Sophie Frederick earned third place in the discus, a strong follow-up to her seventh place finish in the same event at last year's state meet.
Arguably the highlight of the day was the unified track and field meet. At the 2018 state meet, the TSSAA partnered with the Special Olympics to create unified track and field, giving students with special needs the chance they deserve to compete on an invitational basis at the highest level of prep track and field.
After an extremely successful meet last May, the TSSAA voted during the summer to make unified track and field an officially sanctioned sport, setting the stage for even more recognition for these tremendous young men and women.
Unified track and field partners a special education student, the “athlete”, with a regular education student, the “partner” (who can not be involved in any other spring sport), and adds their distances or times together to get a final result. The teams competed in long jump, shot put, the 100-meter dash, and the 4x100 meter relay, and had to qualify in sectional meets across the state in the same manner as all of the other athletes.
East Hamilton's unified team qualified a number of athletes for the state meet, and gave them a state send-off earlier this week where students lined the hallways to wish them good luck before their competition.
Aaron Young and Wesley Mason rewarded the Hurricane community with the school's first individual or team state championship in any sport, winning the boys unified 100-meter dash relay in a combined time of 26.43, just edging out Hardin Valley Academy by 0.07 seconds.
“I feel blessed because I did it for my school and for my team,” said Young. “I also feel proud of myself for bringing a state championship home.”
“There was a lot of pressure running in front of such a big crowd, especially not being typical track stars,” Mason added. “This all started with our win in the first meet at Soddy-Daisy. Now Aaron and I are as close as brothers.”
East Hamilton's shot put relay team of Cameron Baliles and Haynes Eller placed third, as did Soddy-Daisy's boys' long jump relay team of Austin Meadows and Joshua Taylor.
“This has been so much fun for our kids, but we're still learning more about the format,” said Sharon Carter, one of the Soddy-Daisy unified coaches. “One challenge we face is that we aren't able to practice after school like the other track athletes because many of our students don't have a way to get home, and at this time the county doesn't provide after-school transportation for us for practice purposes. We're hoping that can change in the future so our student-athletes can continue to show the community and the state just how extraordinary they are.”
Unified bowling will take place this fall, and there are also plans for unified basketball as the TSSAA looks to expand its partnership with the Special Olympics to give more opportunities for students with special needs to compete for their schools.