May 30, 2010 12:28:00 AM
Dante Oliver and Tavaris Tate have a relationship that''s seen them take similar paths to prep athletic greatness.
Though not related through blood, the pair consider each other family after Oliver''s family met Tate''s family close to nine years ago.
The Olivers, an Air Force family of four with no immediate family in Mississippi, had most of their relatives based in the Grand Strand of South Carolina.
They were church families and friends, and it didn''t take long for the Tates to become the Olivers'' unofficial Mississippi family, instantly creating bonds that would see the two families spend Sundays together and ultimately have the children calling each other cousins.
Around that time, Oliver and Tate were barely 10-years-old. Tate was heavily involved in track and field through his father and coach, Russell, who''d helped train Tavaris'' brother Jeremy into an all-state track performer at Columbus High School.
Oliver, according to Tavaris, just liked to "chill" whenever the latter would try to get him to the track.
Oliver was the laid back kid with the mellow demeanor who enjoyed the high school band. Tavaris was the track prodigy who''d go on to be a nationally recognized high school sprinter at Starkville High School.
No one knew it nine years ago, but Oliver would end his high school career in much the same fashion as Tavaris: as a state champion 400-meter runner.
Oliver won the Class 6A race at Pearl this season with a time of 48.25 seconds. He beat South Panola''s Montez Griffin, whom he finished second to at North Half with a 47.05.
Oliver''s dynamite senior season came a year after Tavaris carried Starkville to back-to-back state titles, won junior national world titles and signed with Mississippi State as the nation''s most sought-after sprinter.
But Oliver''s final year at Columbus earned scholarship offers from top collegiate programs, a process that ended with him signing with Ole Miss on May 19.
It''s difficult to find a more interesting link between area athletes, as they raced at rival high schools and were tutored by Russell.
Oliver and Tate share the 400 as their premier event and signed with rival colleges.
And they each call Hannah Tate "grandma."
Oliver marvels at the story lines of his and Tavaris'' track and field development.
"Jumping in there with him kind of led me to racing the 400; it''s a great race and I love it," Oliver said. "I had chances to go to State, but Ole Miss just seemed like the place to go. His grandma is my grandma. I stay over there. I eat over there.
"Thinking about, it is pretty ironic."
Tate, who competed with the Bulldogs at the NCAA East Regionals this weekend, is amazed at how far Oliver has come.
"He''s young and with that lack of experience it''s incredible what he''s accomplished this year," Tate said. "This being his senior year, he understood the work ethic he had to put into being a great runner. He proved he has the talent and no one overlooks upcoming talent. But he proved he could work hard for it. If he didn''t want to work for it, he wouldn''t have won state."
Once an understudy to the touted Tate, Oliver had to break down sprinting much like he worked in the classroom, where his 4.1 GPA earned him an additional academic scholarship to Ole Miss. Everything about the way he ran required attention to detail. There''s technique to running the 400, much like there''s steps to Stoichiometry.
"(Tavaris) would always work real hard and go the extra mile," Oliver said. "When I was training with him, his dad would always coach technique. Even with the exercises, it was all about technique. Pumping your arms and getting your legs up and how to breathe coming out the blocks were things I had to learn."
Tate, something of an expert at the 400, provided an unusually season workout partner.
"A lot of people don''t understand how to run the 400 and how to really master it," Tate said. "I worked with Dante on his block-work and the first 200 of his race, which is so crucial to running a good 400. Dante is getting better and right now it''s more mental than anything. The talent is there."
Described as a late-bloomer by Columbus High School track coach Jim Hamilton, Oliver shaved three seconds off his 400 time his senior season. That kind of improvement isn''t seen very often, especially from an athlete who admits he was unsure if he would run track once soccer season came to a close.
"He got stronger," Hamilton said when Oliver inked with Ole Miss. "He really worked hard in the weight room and really worked hard on the components of running the race and broke it down to the things that generally bring down times.
"At the rate he dropped, it is almost phenomenal."
Oliver finished fifth at the 2009 Class 5A state meet, nearly five seconds back of Tate''s state-best 45.71. No one came within two seconds of Tate that day.
How Oliver closed the gap on that time and earned a collegiate scholarship in the Southeastern Conference gives the speedster the faith he can one day catch his closest track brethren. He''ll need to shave at least two seconds off his current personal best to run at the sub 45-second mark, where Tavaris clocked at NCAA Regionals this weekend.
A rematch of the the 2009 Class 5A final could happen as soon as next track season.
"Right now, the times are no comparison," Tavaris said jokingly. "I mean, I''m not being cocky, but you got to understand how much time difference there is. But when it happens, he knows I''m out there to beat him. Me being a Bulldog, that''s our rival.
"Thing is, he''s just now tapping into knowing he can beat me and knowing he can be a champion. He''s going to be great for Ole Miss."
Chasing Tate in the Southeastern Conference won''t be Oliver''s motivation at Ole Miss. To chase is to get away from your gameplan; a common track slip-up that can cost valuable tenths of a second and a spot on the podium.
"When we trained last summer, it would get competitive when we did exercises together and ran," Oliver said. "We would run 400s and 200s and stuff and I knew my pace just wasn''t exactly the same as his. Even with that, his dad always told me ''run your own race.'' He had more training than me, so he was on a better level and able to do more.
"Once I go and get under that collegiate coaching, I''m confident my time will drop to the range where I can compete with him. I would love to shake his hand, wish him luck and be ready for a beautiful race."