Coach of heavily favored Northwestern girls still gets nervous before state track meet

Miami Jackson High School’s Tiara McMinn wins in the girls 100-meter hurdles during the GMAC Track and Field Championship at Traz Powell Stadium in North Miami on Saturday, March 25, 2017.
Miami Jackson High School’s Tiara McMinn wins in the girls 100-meter hurdles during the GMAC Track and Field Championship at Traz Powell Stadium in North Miami on Saturday, March 25, 2017.

Legendary Miami Northwestern girls track coach Carmen Jackson has won eight consecutive state titles, a state-record 13 overall since 1999, and has one of the greatest track and field teams in the country this season – if not the best.

But she still gets awfully nervous before every meet. That’s why even after her team cruised to a victory of more than 100 points at last week’s regionals, it was hard to get her to smile.

“The stress starts all over again. The pressure starts all over again. Prelims get me so nervous,” Jackson said last Friday after one of her top 100 meter hurdlers – senior Taranique Alexander – took a tumble in prelims and failed to get to state. “You've got to be in the finals to score points. So I don’t get too happy until it’s all over.”

In order for the Bulls not to win their ninth state title in a row and 14th overall, it’s going to take quite a few tumbles during Friday’s first day of action at Bradenton’s IMG Academy. Northwestern is as close to a slam dunk state champion as there is.

Among the many Northwestern standouts: USC-bound senior Twanisha Terry, the two-time defending state champion in the 100 and 200-meter dashes; the fastest hurdler in the state in freshman Markalah Hart (she set the state record in the 300-meters last week at regionals), the defending state champ in the triple jump and the state runner-up in the long jump last year in Alexander (Cal-State Northridge recruit) and the favorite in both the shot put (senior Kaylah Clark) and discus (junior Chanel Dawson).

Plus, the Bulls have the three-time defending state champions and a state-record setting 4x100m relay team (45.46), the third-fastest 4x400m relay team in the country this season (3:39.95) and the fastest 4x800m relay team (9:09.94) in the state regardless of class.

While Northwestern should cruise, the fight for the team title in Class 4A figures to come down to regional champion Southridge and runner-up St. Thomas Aquinas.

The Spartans, seeking their first state title since 2008, are bringing 16 individual state qualifiers and two relay teams to Bradenton. The Raiders, the 2015 state champs, are taking 14 individual qualifiers and three relay squads.

Nobody is more gifted in the group than Southridge sprinter Symone Mason. The University of Miami-bound senior owns the nation’s fastest time in the 100 (11.24) and 200 meters (23.0) and the second-fastest in the 400 meters (52.42).

Teammate Shaniya Williams, headed to UCF on a track scholarship, is usually right behind Mason in the 100 (11.59) and 200 meters (24.02) and should be once again. Then there’s senior Kayla Johnson, who has fourth-fastest time in the state this season in the 400 meters (54.51) and who owned the nation's fastest time in the 800 (2:07.19) until Jacksonville Bolles junior Caitlin Conner topped it last week at regionals (2:05.29).

The Spartans also have one of the fastest hurdlers in the class in junior Jonae Harris and one of the best long jump and triple jumpers in senior Courtney Gibson.

The Spartans-Raiders battle for the team title in 4A could ultimately come down to the last race of the night the 4x400m relay. Aquinas owns the nation’s fourth-fastest time this season (3:40.67). Southridge owns the ninth-fastest (3:43.03).

“Winning the state title would be a big finale for the girls before walking out and going to the college level,” Spartans coach Erin McCray said by phone Thursday as his team was driving up to Bradenton. “We’ve been trying to get over that hump get back to the tradition of winning team titles and we could use it as a way to build the future, show the young kids this is what hard works lead to.”

Aquinas, meanwhile, has talented young sprinters in freshmen Zatoria Thompson and Zahria Allers and four qualifiers in the hurdles in Jaysha Carter, Nikia Smith, Kristen Laidlaw and Imani Christian, who enters with the fastest time in the 300m hurdles (42.51) in the class. Thompson is also the favorite to win the high jump (she owns the state’s highest jump at 5-feet, 9-inches). Junior Kendyl Kerekes also has a shot at scoring major points in the pole vault.


▪ Jackson senior Tiara McMinn will look to defend her Class 2A state titles in the 100 and 300m hurdles and the high jump. McMinn has top 14 nationally-ranked times in both hurdles events (13.72 and 41.50) and is tied for the biggest high jump in the state this year (5-9).

▪ Northeast junior Jan’Taijah Ford is the defending champion in the 400 in 3A and she’ll try to double up in the 200 meters. Other sprinters to watch: Chaminade’s Briana Williams (100), American Heritage’s Morgan Rhett (100, 200m) and Danielle Bess (200m, 400m), Florida Christian’s Sydney Pereira (100m, 200m) and Hollywood Christian’s Kaylen Clark (400m).

▪ In the distance races, Mater Academy eighth-grader Jinah Mickens-Malik owns the fourth-fastest time in the country this year (2:08.05) in the 800 meters and should have no problem defending her state title.

Gulliver freshman Natalie Varela, the fastest mile runner in Miami-Dade history (4:54.79), and Pine Crest freshman Tsion Yared, who owns the second fastest 1600m time (4:54.10) in the state and the third-fastest in the 3200m (10:45.48), will try to take down Bolles’ Collier, the defending champion in both races at the 2A meet.

▪ In addition to Northwestern’s stars, six local girls have a good shot at winning a state title in the throws: Douglas’ Shannon Moise (4A shot put), Monarch’s Sophia Gustely (4A discus), Ransom’s Debbie Ajagbe (2A), Hallandale’s Amani Heaven (2A), Archbishop McCarthy’s Madison Malone (2A, discus) and Highlands Christian’s Sydney Blackburn (1A). Ajagbe, a University of Miami recruit, is looking to win her third state discus title.

▪ In the pole vault, Pine Crest’s Taylor Logue, Heritage’s Sidney Lampert and Ransom’s Anne Gutierrez will all make a run at the 2A title. Westminster Christian senior Samantha Rodriguez enters with the second-best vault in 1A.

▪ Flanagan senior Devin D’Oliveira owns the state’s best long jump by more than 6 ½ inches (19-9.5). It’s the longest long jump in Broward high school history. She also was the regional champion in the triple jump. Hallandale’s Takira Williams and Keausa Bradley-Macklin enter the 3A meet in the triple jump with the third- and fourth-best performances in the class.

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