Bengal girls poised for banner season, may be on hold till 2021

The Blythewood girls track and field team had kicked the 2020 season off in fine form—for one week.

“My season expectations for them are always high,” head coach Aleshia Hawkins said. “We knew we could win our region, so our goal was to be in the top five in the state. I think we were on track with that.”

In that one week of the season, the Bengals won three events, all of them overshadowed with the coronavirus pandemic creeping into the State.

The deep Bengals team raced past 23 other teams to claim the Diamond Hornet Invitational at Lower Richland High School March 7. Arianna Williams won the 400-meter dash, Makeshria Brown took first in the 100-meter hurdles, and Teleah Moorer took first in the 400 hurdles. In the field competitions, Janyia Pinckney won the high jump and Kayla Ulmer took first in the triple jump.

Four days later, Blythewood claimed a 114-30 victory in a Region 4-5A match at home against Sumter.

Those two wins set up Blythewood’s top performance. The Bengals competed with crosstown rival Westwood at the Redhawk Invitational, which also featured teams from Clinton, Fairfield Central, White Knoll, Irmo, as well as individuals from other schools.

In piling up 165 points on the afternoon, Blythewood sprinters Moorer, Brown, Zhaire Casteal, and Sharell Cherry took the top four spots of the 100-meter hurdles.

Relay sprinters won the 4×100, the sprint medley, and the 4×800. Kayla Ulmer took first in the triple jump, with Kenia Harrison taking third an Ashlynn Scott fourth. Throughout the events, the placings were scattered with Blythewood participants.

That week turned out to be the entirety of the track and field season for the state. With the global pandemic newly arrived in South Carolina, nearly everyone involved with a school or a sport had a feeling that all school activity would be suspended at some point.

“I think we knew what was coming,” Hawkins said. “We had meets set up for the next weekend in Charlotte, and North Carolina schools had already been cancelled. What the coaches knew, the athletes knew.”

South Carolina’s school closings were made official March 15, when Gov. Henry McMaster announced his executive order that closed the schools for two weeks. That night, Hawkins used the team’s weekly online chat session to break the news. While she said everyone knew what was going on the day of the Redhawk Invitational, the news still hit hard.

“They were emotional. Sad and confused,” Hawkins said. “I use that group chat to give them the weekly plan, and that night I just put it in there that school was cancelled. I told them to stay in shape and train when they can.”

That suspension, originally for two weeks, eventually extended to the entirety of the season. Where there would have been region competitions, invitational meets, and the state qualifiers and state meet, the schools remained closed, and all athletic teams stayed off the fields.

Being out of school and off of the track was particularly hard for the team’s seniors: Jordyn Benson, Imari Jones, Teleah Moorer, Kezia Pointer, Teauna Thomas, Kayla Ulmer, Madison Wakefield,  and Kenia Harrison.

Hawkins said that for those seniors bound for college programs, the excitement is transitioning to wariness as athletic programs across the nation are figuring out how to bring people back to campuses and athletic fields.

“The ones who are going to run in college are a little excited, they want to continue, but they’re also a little unsure,” Hawkins said. “We don’t know whether colleges will run track in January. They could lose another season with this, so they’re up in the air.”

Particularly pained are those seniors who had not committed or signed with a college program but were hoping to.

“They are the most upset,” Hawkins said. “This was the point where they were most ready and able to get their times down, their jumps the longest, and get on the college radar. They missed out on that.”

To help remedy that, Hawkins said she and others have been reaching out to local schools, such as Columbia College, to see if there would be an interest. For the most part, those seniors have already applied to colleges as student and are likely preparing to attend them.

For the rest of the team, Hawkins keeps the group chat active with occasional messages. Still, the specter of the global pandemic will have long reaches into how schools will prepare and present sports for the next season, even as the South Carolina High School League advised school athletic directors statewide to begin one of three phases of bringing athletes back onto campuses for practices and summer activities. Even so, Hawkins said track and field doesn’t get worked into the schedule until whenever phase 3 kicks in. For now, all she can do is encourage the team to stay ready.

“I give them some things they can do at home, an encourage them to not get too far behind on their progress,” Hawkins said. “We know we may not be able to touch a track until January.”

Photos/Gregg Martin Photographic Design