MOBILE, Ala. -- For the 20th time this weekend, prep track standouts from the Southeast and beyond are converging on Mobile for the Challenge of Champions, which will take place Friday at UMS-Wright high school (Open Division) and Saturday at St. Paul’s Episcopal (Invitational Division). Despite the double whammy of rare competition with the Arcadia Invite and the Challenge taking place on Easter Weekend, Director Steve Schoenewald’s baby will draw nearly as large a gathering as usual from all over the region and as far away as New York.
Highlighting the Invitational Divsion will be an intriguing mix of the “old” – three of the defending champions are among the best in the country in their specialties – and the new, as multi-talented superstar Kendell Williams makes her Mobile debut.
What do Carmen Carlos, Kavarha Holmes and Cameron Thornton all have in common?
They were all 2011 event winners at the Challenge – and all have returned to defend their titles. But each has also raised their national profiles significantly since their victories here last April.
Take Carlos. The junior from local McGill-Toolen, she’ll actually be going for her third win here in the 2-Mile. But until last month, she wasn’t really known outside of the Southeast. That changed in a hurry at New Balance Indoor Nationals, where she edged Rachel Paul of New York with a 10:25.30 for the title – concluding a winter where she lowered her PR by 18 seconds.
Though she might be hard-pressed to find anyone to push her, Carlos could chase the 2002 meet record of 10:23.05 by Laura Zeigle. She will also anchor her school’s 4x800 relay, which also has a great chance to win with a best of 9:20.36.
Consider Holmes. A year ago at this time, the Breaux Bridge (La.) then-junior had a best of 47.66 for 400 (won the Challenge in 47.98). By his state meet a month later, he lowered his best to 46.31 and in July, he clocked an eye-popping 46.07 to win the AAU JOs that elevated him all the way to #2 in the country. An LSU football signee, he’s kept a low profile so for in 2012, but Schoenewald has made sure he doesn’t think he can cruise. The 400 field will include Sprayberry (Marietta, Ga.) senior Michael Newton, who just clocked his first sub-47 at 46.93 a few weeks ago
And then there’s Thornton. When the Whitefield Academy (Smyrna, Ga.) then-junior won the Challenge last year in 1:54.28, he was carrying a 1:52.53 PR. A month later in his 1A state meet, he came out on the short end of a photo finish, but with a staggering new best of 1:49.63. He would go on to finish second at the World Youth Trials and then just missed the final at the World Youth Champs. That said, he was an unremarkable sixth at the Brooks PR 800 indoors, then got down to 1:52.71 in his county meet, putting him about where he was last year.
Like Holmes, Thornton will face a great challenge in Butler (Louisville, Ky.) junior Tre’Tez Kinnaird. As a soph last spring, Kinnaird made a dramatic three-second jump to 1:50.88 at New Balance Nationals Outdoor, then surprised Thornton in the WY Trials with a 1:50.56 win. He also bowed out in the WY semis and, like Thornton, he clearly wasn’t super fit in taking eighth at Brooks PR. The two should have a great battle here, but if either or both should falter, there’s a deep field of sub-1:55 talent waiting to spring a potential upset.
Four other defending individual champs return. Baton Rouge Magnet soph Mikiah Brisco – sister of graduated 2011 Challenge MVP Dominique – will try and repeat in the 100, while Pine Forest (Pensacola, Fla.) junior Johna’ Whitaker will try and win the 100H again. Brisco is also among the favorites in the 200. Huntsville (Ala.) junior Berta Amelinaite and Gulf Breeze (Fla.) junior Austin Droogsma will each go for their second discus titles.
When she leapt 20-0.5 (nwi) at the Cobb County champs, Kell (Marietta, Ga.) junior Kendell Williams joined a very small club of prep girls who have high-jumped 6-0 or better and gone over twenty in the long jump. Saturday will be a great opportunity for her to become the first to do it in the same meet (and get her first wind-legal 20-footer at the same time). Williams’ accomplishments are too lengthy to mention, but she was also with Team USA in France last summer, taking bronze in the 100 hurdles and 11th in the heptathon. She’s coming off a winter where she claimed her second pentathlon title at NBNI as well as winning the high jump there. She’s also currently US#1 in the 100H with a 13.57. She has a great chance there to break one of the oldest meet records: 13.60 from 1995 by Char Foster. In fact, she could top Challenge standards in all three of her events.
The two biggest obstacles to Williams’ triple hopes: The aforementioned defending champ Whitaker in the 100H, and Louisa County (Mineral, Va.) junior Javanique Burress – who has not only long-jumped 20-1 (US#4 indoors, plus third at NBNI), but also has gone under 14 in the hurdles.
Whitaker, by the way, is also the top seed in the 300 hurdles with a 43.00 best.
The Challenge also welcomes one Jeryl Brazil, joining Holmes as part of the Louisiana contingent. The Loranger junior will go for the short sprint double, currently standing US#2 with a 10.41 100 best after dashing a US#3 6.25 55 indoors. However, Brazil might be even more motivated to atone for his NBNI showing, where he false-started in the 60 semis after turning in the fastest prelim time. Could the 10.34 meet record from 1999 by the legendary Casey Combest be in jeopardy? We’ll see.
In the 200, Brazil will be pressed in battling McEachern (Powder Springs, Ga.) senior Amba Etta-Tawo (21.17 nwi best) and Lassiter (Marietta, Ga.) senior Alexander Reese (21.20 nwi best).
Etta-Tawo’s McEachern team, incidentally, brings in the US#2 4x100 at 40.95. They have a great shot at the 41.27 meet record by Tri-Cities GA in 1999.
Some other stars and events to watch:
Girls’ pole vault favorite and Columbus (Ga.) senior Megan Clark has vaulted “only” 12-4 this year, but carries a 13-0 PR from 2011 indoor season. This could be the meet she breaks out. Host St. Paul’s, with a great vault tradition (grad Neal Tisher), counters with 12-7 junior talent Chanel Krause. There are four boys’ vaulters in the 16-0 range.
The contingent from Newburgh Free Academy (Newburgh, N.Y.) features Simplot high jump champ Xavier McAllister (6-10 best) and a 4x400 team that was third at NBNI in 3:19.10. They were third in this event last year and will face the same rivals who beat them in Catholic BR (La.) and Smiths Station (Ala.) – as well as McEachern and Hoover (Ala.).
Clinton (Miss.) senior AJ Ward notched a dramatic 24-9.75 long jump PR at the Mississippi State Invite, but there was no wind gauge and it was more than a foot beyond his legal best. He’ll have a chance to confirm that talent here, but Auburn (Ala.) junior Cameron Luper (23-10.75 indoors; 24-0 nwi outdoors) and others will make it tough.
St. Paul’s stars competing on their own track have a great chance to win some medals. Besides Krause, senior Lacey Dent is the top seed in the triple jump and is entered in both hurdles and the long jump, as well.
Kell (Marietta, Ga.) junior Jordan Chambers is favored in the shot with a 61-7 best and could challenge the 2003 record: 62-10 by Andy Fryman of Mason Co., Ky.
Kendell Williams’ senior brother Devon is top seed in the boys’ 110 hurdles.