Vance High track and field coach Derrick Eure had spent the last $190 in his bank account to get his 4-by-200-meter relay team to the Virginia Tech High School Invitational in Blacksburg. The team had no intention of letting him down.
The starter’s gun sounded. Daquan Gladden-Clark took off for the first 200 meters, handing off to O’quan Bratton, who had the Cougars in the lead by the time he finished his portion of the event. Next up was Milik Massey, and Donnavan Spencer anchored the final 200 meters.
In the moments after Spencer crossed the finish line, the four Cougars – as well as their alternate, Robert Lowery – gathered in anticipation of the results.
“They announced (the teams) that had qualified for nationals,” said Eure. “And for that one night, (my athletes) put it together and kept their story going.”
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It was then that a different race began for the Cougars.
Most people who live around Vance don’t know anything about Eure, or his up-and-coming track team. That’s frustrating to him and his team because they’ve already accomplished so much.
And far too few seem aware that Eure’s team is trying to raise $2,000 to send its 4-by-200 relay team – the fastest in North Carolina – to this year’s Indoor National Championship in New York City on March 14.
Vance is a Title I school, which means at least 75 percent of the students – including most of the track and field team – receive free or reduced-price lunch because of low household income.
Schools with established athletic programs often have solid alumni support that is able to finance a trip like the one Eude hopes to take. But because Vance came into existence in 1998, that’s not its situation.
Eure is a relentlessly optimistic 24-year-old history teacher and first-year head coach of the team. He grew up in the same neighborhood as his mentor, Mallard Creek coach Londell McClary; ran for the UNC Charlotte 49ers; and spends his time and money trying to improve the lives of his student-athletes.
“You wouldn’t get me if you looked at my bank statement,” said Eure. His motto is: “Humility with dignity. Humbleness with pride,” a phrase his father taught him at an early age.
“I measure my life on what you do for others,” he said. “For the month of February, I can’t tell you how many Top Ramen (noodles) I’ve had. I’m getting creative with it. But it’s about putting the kids first – because someone did that for me, and I’m trying to pass it on.”
The Cougars track and field team trained and ran outside for most of the indoor season. More than half the meets were canceled because of bad weather. They share jerseys. And the team has an athlete – Imante Eichelberger – who participates in the pole vault without the safety of a landing mat.
“Imante must be one of the bravest kids I’ve ever met,” said Eure. “He’s clearing 10 feet after training in a sandpit. Coaches from other schools have just marveled at him.”
The Cougars posted their national qualifying time in the 4-by-200 (1:31.00) without having run the race in competition before – and on a track that was both shorter and differently shaped from the one they’d practiced on.
“I’m not complaining about the money of my own I’ve put up,” said Eure when asked about using his money to bring five students to the Virginia meet.
“I’m just happy to keep this thing afloat. As a teacher, I’ve learned to get by on what I have. I’ve been eating the school lunch. I’ve never once had any second thoughts,” Eure said. “For these kids to have a chance to live out their dream means so much more to me.”
After the Virginia Tech meet, Bratton – the team’s lone senior – collected money from his squad to buy their coach dinner, telling Eure, “We’re all broke, but you’re still going to eat, coach.”
Bratton has a quiet determination. He’s drawn interest from his coach’s alma mater, as well as Fayetteville State University.
“After my portion of the 4-by-200 we were, like, totally back in first,” he remembered. “Basically, I got the baton, and I just saw that we needed to catch up, and I ran for my team because of all the hard work that we’ve put in.
“Someone has to see that,” he added. “They can’t ignore us anymore. We’re trying as hard as anyone.”
Bratton ran his leg of the relay in 22.10 seconds, a personal record.
“I will get faster, and people will see,” the 5-foot-9, 145-pound team captain said. “I hope people are looking forward to seeing us strive among the high, because we’re going to. Coach Eure is one of the best coaches I’ve ever had, and I know he’s going to help us, and we will shock many.”
Eure has been able to set up a free viewing of the Empire State Building, as well as a trip to Ellis Island for his team.
They just need to get to New York City first.
On Feb. 28, Eure led his team to downtown Charlotte, where they’d planned to host a carwash. The high that day was 49 degrees.
“Man, it was good until that water started spraying, and then it was so cold,” said Eure. “Those people were too kind, because some cars left looking the same because my kids couldn’t feel their hands.”
As of March 1, the Cougars had raised $580 toward their goal. They’ve been meeting each day after practice to come up with the day’s fundraising plan.
“People will see,” said Bratton, sounding determined. “We deserve to show our talents.”