The Nottingham High track team ; proudly displays their Group III championship trophy after edging Allentown by one point in the Feb. 29 state group meet in Toms River (Facebook photo).
Mar. 3: Shamali Whittle was so excited, he almost embraced the wrong guy.
For a brief moment after Nottingham won the 4×400 relay in the Feb. 29 Group III Track & Field championships, “King Mali” watched Allentown finish right behind the Stars and thought the Redbirds had won the team title.
“I knew it had to be a two-place difference so I was pretty sad to lose,” the sophomore said. “However, I told my dad (assistant coach Curtis Whittle) that I watched a team in the race before us and asked him to check their time.”
That team was Pennsauken, and the Indians did indeed run .14th of a second faster than the Redbirds, elevating the Northstars to the 2020 Group III indoor champions. That led Whittle to his near-mistake.
“When my dad and I went to the board, we saw the Allentown coach and he told us we had won,” Shamali said. “I was so happy that I almost hugged the Allentown coach.”
Whittle regained his senses just in time and went over to hug his teammates, who took the title by amassing 33 points and edging Allentown by one.
“It feels good to finally win the state championship because it felt like we would always come second,” Shamali said. “To finally go over the hump feels amazing. The whole team works extremely hard and I feel like we really deserved it.”
For senior Dana Ridley, it was now or never when it came to the winter season.
“It means a lot, more than imaginable,” said Ridley, who garnered two medals. “We’ve been going at this for four years always putting our all into each one and being the runner up in each. Finally our dreams came to fruition. Moreover, achieving it as a senior for the first time that the school won an indoor group title, I believe is a cherry on top. You know, it kinda feels like a movie unfolding.”
With the ultimate happy ending.
Nottingham entered the relay knowing it had to win, and needed someone else to get in between itself and Allentown.
Jalen Corbin got the Stars off and running before handing off to Whittle, who then gave it to Ridley.
“My mindset was to ‘run’ and run like never before,” Ridley said.
He passed the baton to Kernley Charles, who kept Nottingham in front as he crossed the line.
“Kenley did a good job holding the lead,” Whittle said.
Two weeks earlier, it was Allentown who won the relay and the Central Jersey Group III meet.
“Going into groups we knew it would be a close meet between us and Allentown as they have an awesome team with great athletes,” Ridley said. “We knew we had to be ready to rock and roll in the four by four, just like at sectionals when it came down to the same teams and same amount of points. Even beside the point of winning the Group Three title, we wanted to come in first in the relay no matter what. The title was just another incentive to win.”
Ridley felt one of the keys to victory was switching up the lineup, at least where he was concerned. In sectionals, he ran the leadoff leg.
“I actually felt more relaxed than running first the meet before,” Dana noted. “So that really helped in just focusing on the race in the right way, just a positive mindset and race plan-oriented instead of being nervous for the wrong reasons.”
Aside from the relay, Ridley also took second in the 55 meters in 6.57 after finishing fourth in the prelims in 6.63.
“In the prelims I didn’t feel too good from a technical perspective,” he said. “My drive phase was back and I didn’t fully get into max speed, but I made it through and that’s what truly matters.
“Going into the finals I really just did a mental run through more than a physical warmup, trying to fix the things needed to run a better race. And when the race went off I felt that I did better. The drive phase was smooth and the rest of the race followed, which led to my second place, even though my coach and I expected it.”
And why didn’t they expect first? Probably because the amazing Louis Akpadago was also running in that race. Continuing to have a winter season for the ages, the senior took first in the 55 meters in a meet record time of 6.50. The old mark was set in 1983 of 6.30, but that was a hand held time; and Akpadago beat that when it converted to Fully Automatic Track (FAT) time.
No one was happier than his teammates.
“Louie has been working hard this year,” Whittle said. “He got injured last year and he deserved it and I expect nothing less from him.”
Even Ridley couldn’t get upset that his teammate cost him a gold.
“He’s a very talented athlete he doesn’t lose much – it seems like never!” Ridley said. “He has so far had a tremendous season in the 55 and also in the 200 and 4×200 and he holds the top times in the state even on a flat track. He’s also helping us have the number two (4×200) relay in the country. It’s been amazing to see and witness his accomplishments. And knowing his goal times and his capabilities . . . it’s only the beginning for him.”
Nottingham was truly the dominant team in the 55 meters, as Nottingham’s Judeson Mirac finished sixth in the event (6.67), while Whittle took fourth in the 400 meters.
Cory Jean-Louis just missed a medal with a seventh-place finish in the pole vault, but tied his school record of 12-feet in the process.
“I am humbled by this team’s heart,” Curtis Whittle said. “These kids are special.”
Hamilton West also brought home two medals, as Valentin Augustin took third in the 55 hurdles (7.60) after finishing sixth in the prelims, and Brandon Muir was fifth (6.58) in the 55 meters.
The top three finishers qualified for the Meet of Champions, meaning Nottingham’s 4×400, Akpadago, Ridley and Augustin will be headed for Ocean Breeze in Staten Island, the new site of the MOC.
Also joining them are wild card qualifiers are Whittle, Muir and Mirac, while Nottingham’s 200 meter relay of Akpadago, Ridley and Whittle have been invited for a special event, along with Jacquel Jupiter in the long jump and triple jump.