May 14, 2010 8:33:00 AM
CRAWFORD -- Two years ago, East Oktibbeha High School didn''t have a track program.
Saturday, the Titans have a chance to win a state track title.
A district title and runner-up regional and Class 1A South State finishes have positioned the Titans to bring the school its first state title -- regardless of sport -- since the girls and boys basketball teams each won state crowns in 2007.
Head coach Randy Brooks jump-started the program last year, and with a small group of freshmen sprinters totaled nine points at the state meet last season.
At this year''s South State, the Titans took second with 100 points, just 20 off champion Montgomery County.
"My goal when I started track was to put this track program on the map," Brooks said Thursday. "Alexander and (B.L.) Moor used to have great track programs, so I knew there was talent here."
Sophomore Arthur Gillespie won the 110 and 300-meter hurdles events, and along with Terrence Rice, Kortland Petty and John Outlaw he helped bring home the 4x400 relay title.
In nine of East Oktibbeha''s 10 state-qualifying events, the Titans either won or finished runner up.
The surprise of the group was sophomore thrower Jalen Peterson who, in his first year throwing shot put and discus, took fourth at South State.
Eighth-grade distance standout John Outlaw took second in the 3200, giving East Oktibbeha a diverse group of nine athletes this weekend at Pearl.
As important as the number of events in which the Titans will participate is the experience of runners like Gillespie and Rice, who were part of the 4x400 relay team that qualified for state last season.
That experience has a twist, though, as the team has just one senior in open 100 and 200 state qualifier James Finley.
"We started out with a bunch of freshmen last year. Now, we''re an experienced young team," Brooks said. "Last year, we went down there with big eyes not knowing what to expect. It''s our second year now and I don''t think there''s the same type of nerves heading into it. We''ve got a strong contingent going to Jackson, and it''s a good feeling knowing how far these kids have come."
The Titans will be tested by South State rival Montgomery County and North State champ Myrtle, which scored 115 points last week.
Brooks is confident the competition between the state''s top four will balance out the points and put his squad in position to win an overall title.
While Gillespie is "just happy to do something for the school," he realizes the importance of the events he''s running on Saturday.
If he could win both hurdles events and help the 4x400 team duplicate its South State title, 30 points would result from just three events.
Gillespie owns a three-second advantage over North State 300 champ Anthony Wilbert of Greenville St. Joe and is just two tenths of a second off Coffeeville''s Micah Taylor''s time in the 110.
The 4x400 team is 10 seconds faster than second-ranked French Camp.
"The team has grown a lot because we''re more advanced and we have improved our speed since last year," Gillespie said. "We know we''ve got a chance to make history."
East Oktibbeha would get a big boost if Peterson can place in the shot put, but the X-factor Saturday could be Finley. Besides the fact he''s a senior, Finley believes he can take both the open 100 and 200 titles. He took second in both events at South State, but will have to shave nearly eight tenths of a second off his season''s best if he hopes to win the 100.
He isn''t lacking for confidence, however.
"For one, I already beat most of those guys before," Finley said. "If I go down there with the same mindset wanting to win state I should win. My competition is the dude from Ray Brooks (Wayne Holmes) and guy from Montgomery County (Anthony Thompson), but I beat him already."
Lexie Edwards and Juwan Roberts will run legs on the 4x200 team, while Petty has the second-fasted open 400 time (54.82).
Brooks is hopeful the family-fun atmosphere continues Saturday.
"I always tell them on Saturdays we go to a picnic and a track meet breaks out," Brooks said. "The parents are great -- they fix the kids sandwiches and buy the Gatorade for the kids. The support is incredible and I know it helps these guys relax. They know everyone''s pulling for them."
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