Nobody around the powerhouse Ruston High School track and field program will forget the last trip to compete in the LHSAA Region I, Class 5A championships in Natchitoches two years ago.
The Bearcats won the regional crown and the Lady Bearcats were runner-up to Lafayette.
But that took on much greater meaning because it was done in the immediate aftermath of the devastating overnight EF-3 tornado that mangled portions of Ruston 36 hours earlier, taking the two lives — the mother and younger brother of 2019 Bearcat senior competitor Cameron Murphy.
He accompanied the team, and ran a leg on the 4×100 relay, after the squad gathered before its trip to consider whether the best course of action was to compete — or mourn.
“We were highly motivated then,” said Ruston coach Allen Whitaker, “and we are again. We’re going in there with a lot of emotion, with those memories.”
There were no district, regional or state championships in 2020 due to the pandemic. Today’s eagerly-anticipated regional championship sets the stage for Ruston’s possible runs at state titles, with the top four finishers in each event qualifying for next week’s competition at Bernie Moore Stadium on the LSU campus.
Field events begin at 1 p.m. today in the 2021 Region I meet, with running starting at 3 p.m. at the Walter P. Ledet Track Complex at Northwestern State.
Whitaker does not back away from the obvious. For RHS track and field, the standard is the standard.
“On the boys side, I’m looking to win it,” Whitaker said. “We have enough guys (22) qualified from the district meet to have a run at it. We have enough kids to have a shot at winning state, and the first goal is to qualify enough to be in position to do that. Winning the region would be even better.
“With the girls (20 qualifiers), we’ll have a battle with Lafayette. I was speaking with their coach and he told me we would win it, and I told him they looked like the team to beat. I hope he’s right,” chuckled Whitaker.
Lafayette won the girls regional title in 2019 and Ruston was the runner-up.
“We want the big one Wednesday, but if it’s a runner-up trophy and we get a lot of kids qualified for the state meet, we’re good,” Whitaker said.
As for individual entries, Whitaker starts with Bearcat junior Brandon Green, whose 50-3 triple jump opening the outdoor season would rank first nationally if there had been a wind gauge at Catholic High. There will be at NSU and there’s reason to believe something impressive could unfold.
“He had to cut his second phase short at the district meet at ULM because he came from a 32-foot board. I’m going to make sure he’s coming off a 36-foot board at NSU, and he may be back over 50 feet if he has a good day,” said Whitaker. “I expect a big jump out of him.”
As for other boys who should shine in field events:
“I expect Bull Hargrove to excel in the long jump,” Whitaker said. “We’ll do well in the high jump with Jamarion Reed.
“The shocker may be Jed Allen in the javelin. He won district with a big PR (personal record), by 10 feet, and he’s throwing it with confidence. I would not be surprised, but everybody else will, if Jed is the regional champion.”
The Bearcats have plenty of firepower on the track, including Green in the 300 hurdles, but headlined by LSU signee Dyllon Nimmers, a stalwart in the 800 and anchoring the 4×800 relay.
“You start with Dyllon, who is expected to win the 800 and Josiah Whitaker should be right behind,” said Josiah’s proud dad, “so we’re looking for 18 points there. Dyllon in the 3,200 is ready to roll.
“The relays (4×100, 4×200, 4×400, 4×800) will do well. We should score well in the individual sprints and distance races. Caleb Babineaux will be tough to catch in the mile (1,600). I have high expectations and confidence our team is ready,” he said.
While Green and Nimmers each won two individual titles at the District 2-5A meet last Wednesday, so did Lady Bearcats Lily Garrett and Jada Williams, who are also strong contenders for regional crowns.
“Jada Wiliams is going to have a big race in the 400,” said Whitaker. “We had her shut it down when she was in control at the district meet, but recruiters want to see her against good competition and we’re not putting on the brakes at regionals.
“You know Lily Garrett is going to do well in the mile (1600) and two-mile (3200),” he said.
The Ruston girls may catch opponents by surprise in a relay.
“We had a mishap in the girls 4×200 at district so we’ll be in the slow heat in that event. We’re running about 1:39 and the other teams are several seconds back, so getting some clean handoffs and running alone in front will be essential,” said Whitaker, “but I believe we can finish in the top four against time and get to state.
“Tyra Fields will be back on our relays, at full strength, and she’ll have a shot to beat Jada in the 200. Both should advance to state.
“Our distance girls are good. We should go 1-2 in the 800 with Kiona McCallister and Zoie Holstead,”
He’s looking for Tyana Jackson to surprise in the long jump, and perhaps in the 100, where she made it to regionals out of a slow heat. Whitaker believes Corlasia Scott in the 300 hurdles should be ready for her best race.
At just the right time. Because Ruston’s program is built for this.