By Zack Huffman
There may not have been much time to catch one's breath since the end of the high school season, but sure enough, the summer track and field is well under way. Leading the pack in Clayton, once again this summer, is the Running Panthers Track Club.
The Running Panthers, which boasts just over 70 athletes this season, features competitors young enough to be starting middle school next fall, to those old enough to be graduating high school this weekend.
As most seasoned track and field athletes will attest to, the key to competing in high school at the state level involves plenty of training outside of the regular.
That's where the Running Panthers came in.
For the 14th consecutive season, head coach Marc Nichols is back, training many of the top Clayton County names in track and field.
Although taking members of the Running Panthers to the national championships to compete and often win, has become a bit of an annual habit for Nichols, the last thing he wants is to become complacent in his expectations for team.
"I don't like to predict that we're going to do very well, but I've seen some things that look positive," he said.
According to Nichols, his Young Women, Intermediate Boys and Midget Boys groups will all be competitive.
Aubrielle Wright and Shani Chandler, who won the gold medals in the GHSA state meet this season in the 800-meter run and the 300 hurdles, respectively, will lead the Young Women.
Although this won't be the case for every member of the team, the Track Phi Track Invitational at Westlake, which begins Saturday, will be the official season opener for many of the Running Panther's top competitors.
This year, the Georgia High School Association moved the state track and field meets later in the school year, leaving less time between the meets and the beginning of the summer track season.
As a result, many of Nichols' runners who compete in high school sat out for last weekend's Mark Trail Flying Eagles Invitational at Landmark Christian Academy in Fairborn.
Just in time for the Nichols' and his Running Panthers to catch their breaths, the following weekend will jump start a series of alternating weekend AAU or USATF meets, starting with district meets that build up towards both the USATF and the AAUF Junior Olympics at the end of July, following a two week break.
"June is really rough. We have back to back meets," said Nichols, who has to deal with an avalanche of paperwork and preparation in May in order to be ready for June.
"I haven't slept more than 3 hours in the last week," laughed Nichols.