TIFTON, Ga. — Hotels are booked as buses are fueled. Tift County is on its way to the Class AAAAAAA sectional track meet.
Tift is competing Saturday at McEachern High School in Powder Springs. McEachern is hosting the “A” sectional, which combines schools from regions 1, 3, 6 and 7.
The Blue Devils are sending 15 individual athletes to area to compete in 18 events. Twelve Tift girls qualified for 12 events. That is a higher figure than the amount who qualified last week, when they competed at the region meet at Lowndes. After region, several area athletes had a windfall at Camden County’s misfortune.
“Camden County has prom,” said Coach Mark Ledford, who handles theTift girls. Some athletes elected not to travel to faraway McEachern Saturday, opening up slots. It is a position Tift understands well. Its prom and sectionals were on the same date in 2015, which caused several qualifiers to drop out. This year, Camden is only sending seven from its roster.
Devils’ coach Josh Allen was thrilled for his squad to finish second at Lowndes. He’s even more revved up for what lies ahead.
“I’m excited to be going,” said Allen, a Tift alumnus who came back to his stomping grounds two years ago to coach. “I love these kids.”
Tift had 10 wins at last week’s region meet.
Dasia Flanders won the 400. Emily Golden was first in the 1,600 and 3,200. Tyler Ajiero won the 100 and 200. First place went to J.D. Bengston in the 800 and 1,600. Mike Jones won the 110 hurdles, Antonio Howard took the shot put and Azaria Smith soared to a career high in the high jump.
Smith’s leap of 6 feet, 6 inches in the high jump had both Allen and Ledford talking.
Allen said high jump was the last field event to be completed and, thus, began drawing a crowd. Smith dueled with Cornelius Wright of Lowndes. Both made 6-6. The bar was raised to 6-8. Allen said both missed all three attempts, but that Smith nearly cleared it.
“That was amazing,” said Ledford.
“He is a phenomenal athlete,” said Allen.
Even better for Tift is that Smith, a three-sport athlete, is only a freshman. Allen thinks he has a good shot of making the state finals in the event. He, Wright and Ian Jackson (of Brookwood) all have the same height going into sectionals. Ronald Jackson is seeded seventh. He made 6-4 at region, a height much taller than his own.
Howard has Tift’s next best seed in any event. He’s ranked fourth in shot put.
Golden has spent most of the season recovering from an injury, but still managed victories in both of her events at region.
Tift qualified the following for McEachern:
Ajiero (100, 200 and 4x100), Cade Anders (shot put), Beau Bengston (3,200), J.D. Bengston (800 and 1,600), Quay Clines (4x100), Cali Conner (qualified in high jump and pole vault), Braysan Doward (discus), Flanders (200 and 400), Golden (1,600 and 3,200), William Goodwin (discus), Danny Hill (110 hurdles and 300 hurdles), Antonio Howard (shot put), Makayah Howard (discus), Jackson High jump), Jones (110 hurdles), Kadarius McDaniel (4x100), Javien Neloms (long jump, 100 and 4x100), Deontae Overstreet (triple jump, 4x100), Smith (high jump), Alison Stone (300 hurdles), Alexis Tucker (1,600 and 3,200) and Rylee Watson (100 hurdles).
The Tift girls’ 4x100 team also qualified, but won’t be making the trip, said Ledford, because several members have other commitments.
Anders, one of the first-time qualifiers, is a sophomore. He’s been getting tips, said Allen, from teammate Howard.
“Antonio Howard’s been coaching him up,” said Allen.
That’s paid off. Anders’ region throw was three feet less than Howard’s — and three feet longer than what he threw at a quad meet in March.
Ledford said Watson is expected to compete. She had to drop out of the gymnastics preliminary last week because of injury. He said Flanders has only recently started competing in the 400, making her run remarkable.
The top eight at sectionals qualify for the state finals. That meet will be held at Valhalla Stadium in Rome May 9-11.