The Nansemond River rises

Published 9:29 pm Thursday, December 19, 2013

Nansemond River High School has entered the 2013-14 indoor track and field season with a participation boom.

“At tryouts, we had a total of 83 kids there,” Warriors head coach Justin Byron said.

Nansemond River High School’s Xavier Williams will represent the Warriors with his jumps during the 2013-14 indoor track and field season.

Nansemond River High School’s Xavier Williams will represent the Warriors with his jumps during the 2013-14 indoor track and field season.

The level of difficulty and pressures of school schedules inevitably whittled that number down, but even so, the roster currently includes 67 athletes. Last year, 38 kids tried out.

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Byron said in the first two meets this season, he has been able to run 16 girls in the 300-meter dash, not including standouts like sophomore Brandee Johnson and junior Kara Lyles. Last year, he ran seven girls total in the event throughout the year.

What is exciting to Byron about the turn out is that “with numbers you just get probability,” he said — in other words, the probability of finding another Kieaira Middleton, who was the senior on last year’s 4×200-meter relay team.

Part of the increased participation undoubtedly stems from that team last year bringing Nansemond River its first-ever state championship in a relay event.

Losses to graduation include Middleton, who will compete for George Mason University in the spring, and Jason Philson, who is currently with the University of Alabama.

Like last year, there will be some key seniors, but Byron said, “I would still consider the bulk of the team junior and down.”

Returning from the girls’ 4×200 team are senior Mia McClain, Johnson and Lyles.

“They’ll be working hard to get a very young team on track,” Byron said.

He has been working since September to fill the Middleton-shaped void on the 4×200 team, but it is still a work in progress.

Junior Zakiya Rashid returns, competing in the shot put. Though she was already a standout in a crowded field, her standing has changed a bit due to the Virginia High School League’s realignment. The change moved Nansemond River from the 10-school Southeastern District to the Ironclad Conference 18, featuring five other schools of like size.

“With the new breakdown, she comes in as the No. 1 thrower,” Byron said.

He sees both cons and pros to the VHLS’ move.

“For track, it really waters it down,” he said, referring to the competition. “You don’t want to come out of high school with the mentality that I’m only going to run against schools my size.”

Positively, though, it gives Nansemond River a much better shot at team wins. In Group AAA against larger schools, NR’s girls’ team has finished third and fifth at states the last two years, respectively.

“Now that we are the larger school, now we’re expected to do well at state,” Byron said. However, he believes the girls may struggle in the conference where points are more concentrated per team because Phoebus High School has great depth. However, he believes the boys have a great chance at winning.

Another realignment benefit is that it “does give more exposure to some kids,” he said.

Additional key contributors for the girls include junior Candice James in the 300, 500 and 4×400, and senior Kara Dixon, who leads up an impressive distance running corps.

“This is probably our best distance program on the girls’ side in a very long time,” Byron said.

It includes up-and-coming freshmen Casey Williams and Caroline Hubbard, as well as sophomore Ashley Hiltabrand and James’ twin sister Courtney.

All five girls were part of the cross country team, which along with the boys’ squad won the conference championship in the fall.

“Coach (Kurt) Straub did a great job with the cross country team,” Byron said.

For the boys, this included seniors Airrin Davis and Benjamin Littlejohn and sophomore Kevin Tohak and five or six other runners whom Byron believes can contribute at the conference, regional and state levels in track.

Sophomore Terrence Lambert will be a leading sprinter on the team, particularly in the 55, 300 and 4×200.

Junior Kadeem Middleton will compete as a long sprinter in the 300, 500 and 4×400.

“He’ll be kind of filling Jason Philson’s shoes, and also following in the footsteps of his older sister, Kieaira Middleton,” Byron said.

Junior Keion Roberts competes in the high jump, and he also runs.

Junior Xavier Williams will be featured in the long jump and triple jump. He will help out on sprints with senior Malcolm Sheppard. Sophomore Kenneth Smiley will compete in jumps and the shot put.

Nansemond River begins competition today in the Boo Williams Winter Break Invitational in Hampton.