On May 7, Vance High's track and field team won the Western 4A Championship for the second straight season. After losing the conference's best runner from a year ago, they knew the second title would take a team effort .
"We always had the talent to do it, but this year we do not have the depth that we had last year," said head coach Jupiter Wilson before the meet. "We can win a few early races, but the depth may be a problem."
It wasn't: The Cougars defeated nearest competitor Hopewell by 20 points.
"We have almost the same team as we had last year, except we lost a couple of key seniors," said senior sprinter Jamil Ray.
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Ray, with senior Cameron Tate and standout senior girls' sprinter Dominique Weathers, has set the tone all year.
"Everyone is way more motivated to win this year," said Tate. "People have told us all year that we won last year because we had the best runner, but we want to show them that we are a team.
"Last year we won because of our relays. This year we have more people doing more events."
The seniors have shown their younger teammates what they have to do to be successful, and the effort paid off: The Cougars look to be loaded with talent for several years.
"We are much more of a team this year and know that we have to stick together if we are going to be successful," said freshman Erin Jennings. "We have been shown by the seniors how to do it and we can be really good when we work together."
While Wilson will join the seniors in leaving at the end of this year, the future of Vance track and field still looks bright, led by Jennings and junior Lamar Johnson.
Wilson, who played football on the offensive line for North Carolina and later in the Arena League, will return to alma mater Hickory to become the head football coach.
"We want to pay tribute to what they have done and what they have meant to us," said Johnson of Wilson and the departing seniors. "I think I speak for all of us when I say we are a family, and we push ourselves every chance we get in practice to be the best we can."
Weathers, one of the senior leaders for the girls' team, said she feels the Cougars have been one unit since the first day. "Track is an individual sport, but we work as one," she said.
Vance, which lost the best runner in the conference in Jarrett Samuels to graduation last year, used his absence as motivation early. By the end of the year, what started as an excuse had become its biggest strength.
"We are much more of a team this year," said Jenkins. "Everyone is a leader on this team. We lost one great runner, but we are not about that."
It helped that the injury-plagued Cougars now are almost entirely healthy.
"We are stronger right now than we have been at any point this year," said Ray. "Everyone is back from injury and the seniors are determined to leave on top."
Wilson came to Vance as a coach who knew little about the terminology and strategy of track and field; he will leave the envy of his peers as a two-time champion.
"My whole thing is about team, and this team has grown right before my eyes," said Wilson. "I have always tried to make it team, discipline and commitment, in that order."
"They have taught me a lot and I have learned a lot right here on this track. I will take this and remember my time here fondly."
Although the Cougars will miss Wilson and the seniors, they say they will look to add to their winning tradition next year.
"We came into this season under a lot of pressure," said Jenkins. "We knew that if we stuck together as one unit and one team, we would be fine."