By Brian Paglia
In Henry County, they are preparing for one of the most competitive and anticipated track and field county championships in recent memory. In Clayton County, teams are preparing for a county meet where opponents largely remain a mystery.
Preliminaries begin Monday for the Henry County meet at 4:30 p.m. at Union Grove, and at 4:30 p.m. at Tara Stadium for the Clayton County meet.
Few coaches in Henry County have seen such parity amongst track and field teams as they have this season, they said, a departure from recent history when Stockbridge has dominated. The Tigers have won the last four county championships in girls and two of the last three in boys.
But other teams have caught up, they said, creating an unpredictable outcome that intensifies each event. Adding Eagle's Landing Christian Academy for the first time, bringing the field to nine teams, only compounds the drama.
"This is my eighth year, and every year the county gets more and more competitive," Union Grove coach Eric Daugherty said. "In the past, we could kind of handicap the two teams who were going to place, and usually you were pretty close. But this year, the top four places team-wise are just really wide open."
"This may be the best Henry County meet in a long time," Woodland coach Shurrod Dickey said.
Each coach has their opinion on what will be the marquee event. Some say the boys and girls sprints should be electric, where nearly every school has a strong sprinter to contend with Union Grove's Jordan Vaughn in the boys and Brianna Vaughn in the girls.
Others say it will be the middle and long distance races, where the top cross country runners, like boy runners Luke Baker (ELCA), Joe Cromer and Zack Sims (Eagle's Landing) and girl runners Alison Bishop (Woodland), Rayna Green and Madeline McCane (Union Grove) and Joy Diaz (Luella) spill over into the 1600- and 3200-meter runs.
But the Henry meet will showcase elite talent in other events, from Union Grove's Caitlin Jordan, an already accomplished discuss and shot-put thrower, to Henry County's Jamal Patterson, who won the 110-meter hurdles and finished second in the 300-meter hurdles in the state meet last year.
"We've had some good county meets, but this really will be a high-level, elite-level meet," Eagle's Landing coach Claud Spinks said. "You've got some really top-notch kids."
So does Clayton County, though Clayton teams aren't nearly acquainted with each other as those in Henry seem. Several coaching changes and inconvenient weather robbed Clayton teams of a chance to see each other's talent.
"We haven't really seen a lot of each other, because every time we have a chance to run against each other the weather doesn't permit that," Mt. Zion boys track coach James Davis said.
But coaches still expect the sprints, relays and jumps to be competitive. Dramatic individual match-ups abound, from Mt. Zion's Quarterrio Morgan and Morrow's Jarrell Alexander battling in the 200-meter dash, to Mt. Zion's Alycia Prior and Mundy's Mill's Breanna Hubbard facing off in the 100 and 200.
But without much knowledge of opposing teams, few coaches can predict how the final standings will unfold.
"I would have to say the boys side is pretty much in the air," Riverdale coach Dwight Calloway said. "We haven't seen each other enough yet."
They all know they're hoping to prevent Mundy's Mill from sweeping the boys and girls championships as they did last year. Strong girls teams from Mt. Zion and Morrow, and solid boys teams from Mt. Zion, Riverdale and Jonesboro make that outcome unlikely again.
"I don't know if they're going to do that this year," Mt. Zion coach Jason Battles said. "I'm going to do everything I can to stop that."