Move over Charles Jones Jr. and Michael Wells: make room for one more state champion from an inner-city school. Soldan's Traci Mills has joined you.
The odds were pretty prohibitive that after all was said and done at the Missouri state high school track and field meets recently, that Cardinal Ritter's Jones and Cleveland ROTC's Wells would claim multiple state titles in the middle distance and sprint races, respectively.
Barring an injury or false-start disqualification, their victories were considered foregone conclusions, and they lived up to the hype: Jones, dominated the Class 3 meet and Wells the Class 2 meet. The Public High League also got a first-time state champion in the boys division of Class 4 when Gateway Tech's Cortez Bolin won the 200 meters in 21.79 seconds, but he was the top-seed going into the finals.
Jones, a senior at Ritter, a a member of the Archdiocese Athletic Association (AAA) conference and Wells, a senior at ROTC, a city magnet school program in the PHL have carried the banner for the St. Louis city track and field athlete like few others in the area's once-storied history.
Jones captured the 400 meters in 47.01 seconds, the 800 meters in 1-minute, 50.98 seconds and his forte' the 800 meters in 1-minute 50.98 seconds. Furthermore, he ran the anchor leg to rally his 4x400 meter relay team to first place in boys Class 3, while Wells took home the 100 meters (10.87 seconds), the 200 meters (22.30 ) and the 400 meters (49.11)-meter titles in boys Class 2 at the state meet at Lincoln University in Jefferson City. Only Wells' 400-meter time would not been elite in a higher classification, but as his summer coach, William Upchurch of the Police Athletic League (PAL) has said, the only barrier encumbering Wells on occasion is the lack of a challenge.
"Mike Wells is not getting competition from anyone in Missouri on his level," said Upchurch.
Meanwhile for Jones, it was his third straight 800 meters, an event in which he holds the state mark, and also the third time he has led the Lions 4x400-meter relay team to a title. Likewise for Wells, it marked his third straight 100 title and the second time he has won the 200 meters.
But joining Jones and Wells as a state champion from a St. Louis city school this time around was Soldan's Mills, who captured the long jump in girls Class 3. In her final long jump competition of her Soldan career, her best jump of the afternoon of 17-feet,10.5 inches, was enough to claim the state title, ahead of Leketor Menah of Lutheran North at 17-8.
"It felt amazing to win," said Mills, who also anchored the Lady Tigers 4x100-meter relay to a runner-up finish.. "That was my goal at the beginning of the season to win state in the long jump and I was able to accomplish that. Actually it wasn't my best jump ever, but I was satisfied because I won."
Mills' best leap on the year was 18-9 and Menah of Lutheran South had cleared 18-7, but they had to settle for lesser performances at the state meet because of the scheduling logistics. Both jumpers also compete in their school's sprint relays.
"If they are running in a relay and also jumping, they are all at a disadvantage," noted McPherson. "Even if she didn't hit 18-9 again, she could have hit 18-2 or 18-1 consistently and still won it. But going in we thought she had a good chance to win it."
Mills' best clearance at last year's state meet was slightly over 17-feet, but the winning jump of 17-feet, 9.75 inches by Sydney Deeken of California, Mo. would taken runner-up status to Mills' best jump at this year's meet.
In winning the long jump, Mills helped end two 10-year droughts of sorts: She became the first St. Louis city's Public High League field event state champion since Vashon High's DeAlan Hicks took the Class 3 boys high jump in 2004 by clearing 6-feet-6-inches and she became the first Soldan female to win an individual state title since Ciara Jones completed the last of her sprint sweeps (100, 200 and 400 meters as a junior and senior) in 2004. Jones, who helped out with the team this spring, won eight state titles in her career overall, including an unprecedented "four-peat" in the 400 meter.
"I didn't realize she was the last Soldan girl to win a state title, but I knew she won a lot of medals and she's great to work with," said Mills, who finished fifth in the long jump last year. "But it was a surprise that we took second place in the 4x100 because we didn't so well before the finals.
Indeed in the preliminary heat of the girls 4x100-meter relay, Soldan's quartet of Haneefah Staples, Jasia Crawford, Tyesha Wallace and the anchor Mills staggered to sixth place with a time of 50.08 seconds, way behind pace-setter McCluer South-Berkeley's time of 47.32 seconds.
"Even though we did return three of the four legs (runners) from last year, we had a freshman (Wallace) on the relay and she really ran well in the finals," said Mills.
"Tyesha Wallace had been running pretty consistently and she had some good performances," said McPherson. "She had probably one bad performance all year in the prelims, with the baton. But Tyesha Wallace did a great job as a freshman. All of the girls did a great job in the finals of the 4x100."
After working through the baton exchange problems of the prelims, the Lady Tigers improve from sixth place and 50.08 seconds to second place and 49.25 seconds in the finals, albeit a distant runner-up to Berkeley's 47.19 clocking behind the quartet of Octavia Cato, Raven Fletcher, Raheem Westfall and Kamira Franklin.
"Our girls ran out of lane 7 and still finished second, which isn't easy," explained McPherson. "They're tough girls. I told them that nobody was going to knock off Berkeley, but that's another story."
Meanwhile in the boys divisions of the state meets, the usual suspects, Ritter's Charles Jones in Class 3 and Cleveland ROTC's Michael Wells in Class 2 were their usual spectacular selves. Jones won the 400 meters in a blazing time of 47.01 seconds, way ahead of second place runner Jordan Barber of Cape Notre Dame at 48.47 seconds. Then with little recovery time in between, Jones came back to win the 800 meters for the third year in a row, with a time of 1-minute 50.98 seconds, comfortably ahead of second place Deon Johnson of Jennings who clocked in at 1:54.77. Jones also helped rally his club's 4x400-meter relay to a first place with a split of slightly over 46.8 split on his anchor leg to pull his club out of a fourth-place hole after three laps.
Chico Jones, Jones' father and a Ritter assistant coach and team trainer, has maintained his son is driven by the mere potential of defeat.
"Just the fear of losing pushes him to another level," assures Chico Jones of CJ. "I don't take anything from him. I give him all the credit."
Not surprisingly, rival Jennings coach Daryl Williams, whose aforementioned runner Deon Johnson has to consider it a moral victory to keep up with a national pace-setter like Jones, is one of Jones' biggest advocates.
"He's an outstanding track athlete," said Williams of CJ. "I wish I had me one of them. The man is awesome. I take my hat off to him."
A week before the victories by Mills and Jones in Class 3, though, Wells left his mark in the Class 2 meet by enhancing his legacy as a sprinter by winning the 100 meters in 10.83 seconds, the 200 meters in 22.30 seconds and the 400 meters in 49.11 seconds,while taking second place in the long jump with a closing leap of 21-feet, 11.50 inches, after three false jumps.
Wells' best times on the season, though, were achieved earlier in the spring with marks of 10.49 in the 100 meters and 21.58 in the 200 meters, in meets with more diverse large-school and out-of-state competition in open invitationals.
"I told you guys Mike is going to have a lot more gold medals before he's done," said Commanders coach Le Torre Swinney. "The only thing holding Mike back is himself. He can be as great as he wants to be.That's why the younger guys look up to him."
Wells leaves ROTC as the last PHL repeat sprint champion since Soldan's Ronnie Pines completed the feat in the 100 meters in 2006, after winning it the previous season. By coincidence, Wells has signed to run at the University of Oklahoma, where Pines also ran and had a solid career, particularly in the indoor seasons.
A current Soldan runner who also had a banner season, within the confines of PHL competition, was boys distance runner Dariyon Plair, who swept the distance races at the league championships, known as Field Day. Plair had a field day alright in taking the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 meters. Back in the fall, Plair also won the league's cross country championship at O'Fallon Park in North St. Louis. Plair qualified for state in the 1,600 meters, but finished ninth in a 16-man field in the finals with a time of 4 minutes, 31.29 seconds. Thus a top-10 finish among the state's elite Class 3 distance runners is no small feat.
"Since my freshman year I've been running track," said Plair. "It was more so my middle school teacher at Busch School, Karen Snyder, who got me involved. "It's (distance racing's) nothing difficult. It's pretty much what I've been accustomed to doing now. Having a teammate like Sean Jackson (a 2013 graduate and also a league distance champion) really helped me develop. It was real beneficial knowing him and letting him set the pace."
Of course Mills and her relay comrades made sure Soldan's school didn't leave Jefferson City empty-handed.