Having turned every baton they have exchanged to gold, St. Thomas Aquinas’ record-setting 400-meter relay and 1,600- meter relay girls' teams, led by superstar anchor legs Kendall Ellis and Krystal Sparling, are poised to throw down a five state record-setting gauntlet on Saturday.
Defending its Class 4A state title at the University of North Florida has almost become an afterthought as Ellis tries to break former Aquinas great Sanya Richards’ state mark in the 400, Sparling bids for state records in the 100 and 200 and both National Track Athletes of the year candidates try to set the Raiders’ relays apart from the all-time greats.
“We come to track meets to show up and show out,’’ said Sparling, a junior who holds the nation’s leading times in the 100 (11.34) and 200 (23.34). “We push each other. We feed off each other’s energy. We are just trying to break records, basically.”
Few sprint trios in the nation, if any, carry the star power of Sparling, a state runner-up in the 100 and 200 last season, Elllis, a three-time 400-meter state champion and Diamond Spaulding, who transferred from American Heritage after winning the 200 and finishing second in the 100 at the Class 2A Finals last season.
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Sparling has drawn comparisons to a young Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the 2013 IAAF Female World Athlete of the Year, for the explosion Sparling is able to generate from a diminutive 5-1, 115-pound build.
Sparling ran 11.34 in the 100 at the Region 4-4A championships which puts her in position to challenge the 11.39 state record.
Sparling watched Kali Davis-White set the 200 state record (23.05) last season when she finished second and will try to follow suit this time around.
Breaking the 400-meter state record (52.51) is the only bullet point missing from Ellis’ illustrious resume. Ellis ran a personal-best and nation-leading 53.09 at the Region 4-4A championships and will probably have to run by herself with no viable threat in the field.
“I have spoken to Sanya about the record and told her I am going for it,’’ Ellis said. “She gave me some advice on how I need to run the race to accomplish that. I would like to hit that record. I’d love to go out a four-time state champion in the 400 meters.”
The Raiders, who are favored to win their 10th state championship, earned their swag and a mythical national girls’ relay team title by taking two of three head-to-head matchups against perennial national power Long Beach Poly (Calif.) at the Texas Relays.
In the 1,600-meter relay, Sparling, Ellis, Spaulding and Narinah Jean-Baptiste clocked a nation-leading 3:38.26, well under the state record (3:43.68).
Although the 800-meter relay is not a FHSAA event, it didn’t stop the Raiders from lowering their 800-meter relay national record set at the Texas Relays by clocking 1:33.43 at the Florida Relays.
While the Raiders relay teams operate like a well-oiled machine, it's much more than just putting All-American talent on the track.
One of the most overlooked attributes of Raiders coach Alex Armenteros, who has revitalized the Aquinas program with six state titles, is his knack for pushing star runners to their potential and getting them to place team goals over individual accomplishments.
“One of our biggest concepts here is the strength of the wolf is the pack and the strength of the pack is the wolf, meaning that we are only as good as that one individual,’’ Armenteros said. “And that one individual is only as good as the rest of the team.”
Aquinas is also in good position to break the 400-meter relay record (45.71) after Sparling, Spaulding,Kristen Laidlaw and Khalifa St. Fort clocked a season-best 45.50 (U.S. No. 3) at the Region 4-4A championships.
“I knew coming over here that the relay teams would be real special,” Spaulding said. “St. Thomas already had some of the top sprinters in the nation. Running against them in practice has pushed me because we all want to be the best. Either you get right, or you get left.”