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TRACK: Area athletes excel at nationals (08/05)

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By Josh Claywell

Winning three state titles in May showed Kianna Gray was one of the best athletes in the state.

Now, the North Hardin junior can count herself among the best in the country.

Gray, who competes for the Radcliff-based Kentucky Elite, was 1-of-5 area athletes to medal at the AAU Junior Olympic Games at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti last week.

Gray placed fourth in the girls’ 17-18 200-meter dash in 24.30 seconds and seventh in the 17-18 100 dash (12.11 seconds). Her 200 semifinal time (24.26) is the best all-time in the state, according to KYTrackXC.com.

“It was life-changing,” Gray said Sunday evening. “I pushed myself a lot more than I’m used to. I did pretty well. I had never heard of those people before, so I just came in with a clear mindset and did what I had to do.

“I was very anxious and it was an eye-opening experience. But I was ready to run each day.”

Gray wasn’t alone.

Elite teammates Eric Avant, Tyler Breeds and Bryce Meers also picked up medals in the eight-day meet. Avant placed sixth in the boys’ 17-18 400 hurdles (55.44), Meers finished sixth in the boys’ 17-18 110 hurdles and Breeds was seventh in the boys’ 17-18 steeplechase (6:46.16).

“When you have a meet with over 5,000 athletes, it makes you feel good to see your team do well,” Elite coach Chris Jelks said. “I’m thrilled. All in all, I was happy with everybody.”

Rineyville resident Thor Newsome also picked up two medals, finishing second in the boys’ 9 high jump (3 feet, 10 inches) and eighth in the 1,500 run (5:30.93). Complete results will be in Thursday’s edition of The News-Enterprise.

What makes the Elite’s performances even sweeter, Jelks said, is where his athletes were ranked entering the meet.

Gray was seeded 16th in the 200 and 14th in the 100, while Meers was 20th in the 110s. Avant was ranked 24th in the 400s and Breeds 25th in the steeplechase.

Jelks said the biggest surprise came from Breeds, a North Hardin senior.

“For him to come out of the slowest heat and finish in the top eight in the country was just amazing,” Jelks said.

Avant, a John Hardin graduate, made it to the finals despite running in one of the slower prelim heats of the 400s. He qualified with a time of 56.22, placing sixth.

“When I saw my heat sheet, I saw one guy had run 54 (seconds),” Avant said. “Everyone else was like me at 57 or slower. I didn’t know if I could run a 54 in prelims; that was really intimidating. But I saw my opportunity and I attacked it. I didn’t think it was going to be good enough to go to the finals, but it got me there.”

Avant finished 3 seconds behind Baltimore’s George Flaviano in the finals, but Avant said he wouldn’t change anything about his experience.

“It was just a mind-blowing, great experience,” he said. “I’m blessed to be a part of it. I never thought that I would be at this level. It still hasn’t set in fully. When I stepped on to the track for the finals, I had to get in the right mindset. My mindset was just to go out, attack everything and leave it all out on the track.”

Like Avant, Meers qualified for the 110s finals out of the last heat. He was sixth in qualifying with a 14.75, then was just .02 seconds off his personal best time (14.67) in the finals.

“Going in, I didn’t really know what to expect,” the North Hardin graduate said. “I’ve learned rankings don’t really mean much. I’ve gone in an event ranked first and not done so well, and I’ve gone in an event ranked low and come out with a medal. I just wanted to do my best and I felt like I had a good race.

“I wasn’t really nervous about it,” Meers added. “I knew what I could do, I knew what I had done and I knew if I could just run at that level again that I would have a pretty good chance of getting to the finals. I did, and I’m happy with that.”

The Elite certainly are happy and already looking forward to doing even better next summer, when the event moves to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

With Jelks at the helm, Avant is confident the Elite will reach new levels.

“Coach Jelks has been the Superman of this program,” Avant said. “Without him, none of this would be possible. He’s awesome. He got up every day last week to take everyone to the track. I just want to thank him for the job he did.”

Josh Claywellcan be reached at (270) 505-1752 or jclaywell@thenewsenterprise.com.