Manatee County is nearly 12 full months removed from a somewhat historic season, which ended at IMG Academy Field.
Manatee High School won its second consecutive state title in the 400-meter relay at IMG Academy in 2016. Lakewood Ranch won two individual gold medals — one by Sophia Falco — and the team state championship in Bradenton.
For the first time since they hoisted trophies and adorned themselves with gold medals, the Hurricanes and Mustangs returned to IMG Field on Saturday for the IMG Academy Invitational — a midseason benchmark for where some of the county’s best stand on the first day of spring break.
With less than two months until the state championships return to IMG in May, the area’s top contenders were its most impressive performers.
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“We’re looking forward to the latter part of the season,” Lakewood Ranch head coach Mark Napier said.
The Hurricanes’ past two Class 4A champions in the 400 relay were bound by a single common thread: Kavious Price, the anchor leg, consistently posted one of the fastest 100 times in Florida, covering warts elsewhere on the relay.
Boys team scores 1. Hallandale, 137 2. Lakewood Ranch, 59 3. Manatee, 49 15. IMG Academy, 14 T-16. Palmetto, 13 T-28. Southeast, 3 T-28. Bayshore, 3
The 2017 iteration of the 400 relay is entirely different from the group that won the 4A title in 2016. Sir Williams, who leads off the relay and serves as its captain, was part of the team through most of last season before a back injury kept him out of the state championship. The other three — Javarious Pollock, Tarique Milton and Keyon Fordham — are newcomers, either to the relay or to track, in general.
Girls team scores 1. Hallandale, 135 2. IMG Academy, 111 3. Lutz Steinbrenner, 82 7. Lakewood Ranch, 27 11. Palmetto, 17 12. Braden River, 14 T-19. Manatee, 6 T-23. Bayshore, 4 T-28. Southeast, 1
Back at IMG on Saturday, Manatee ran its fastest race since the state championship. The Hurricanes blew away the competition in 41.89 seconds — better than the time last year’s team ran at this point in their season.
“We just know we’ve got a chip on our shoulder for the 4x1 to come back and do it every year,” Williams said. “We know we have to get that done.”
The Hurricanes’ boys finished third with 49 points, beaten by Hallandale’s 137 and the Mustangs’ 59. Manatee added individual champions in the field with Chase Main in the high jump and Seth Walter in the shot put. IMG Academy’s Patrick Dougherty was the area’s only other boys champion with a win in the 800 run.
It’s possible that for the Hurricanes relay this will be the highest profile event until the postseason. The Hurricanes are unsure if they will travel to Gainesville for the Florida Relays at the end of the month, so Manatee head coach Mike Smith called Saturday “a good benchmark.”
“If we chip down time,” Williams said, “we’ll be all right.”
Falco, Lakewood Ranch’s only returning individual 4A champion as a long jumper, spent her Saturday exclusively on the track, where she won two other state medals in 2016. As she reworks her long and triple jumps, Falco is focusing on speed during meets. At IMG on Saturday, Falco earned a pair of gold medals, winning both the 100 and 200 dashes.
“Most of my jumping is part of my running,” Falco said. “If I can get that good and I’m fast, then I’ll be able to jump far.”
The Mustangs treated Saturday as a developmental meet without a full roster and settled for a seventh-place finish. The Chargers completed the sweep with 135 points on the girls side and IMG took the runner-up spot with 111, led by Sara Absten’s gold in the high jump and the Ascenders’ win in the 400 relay.
Falco’s sprinting is on track after hitting a season best of 11.73 seconds in the 100. She’ll return to action with the long and triple jumps during the coming weeks, as she and Napier continue to tinker with her technique. She won a gold medal in the long jump — and silver in the triple — despite unrefined technique, but Falco and Napier are thinking about her career beyond Lakewood Ranch at Vanderbilt.
Falco had to take a step back to move forward.
“Sometimes when you’re on top it’s difficult,” Napier said. “It’s not as hard when you’re climbing to the top, but when you get on top your expectations — and people’s expectations of you — are higher, so she’s just got to take it in stride. She’s doing fine.”