Mount Pleasant sprinters are fast, but together they're faster

If you put Jake Heintz, Chris Lau, Hunter Furr and Dakota Penley on a running track and told each to run 100 meters as fast as he can, you might not be impressed with the results.

If you string the four Mount Pleasant sprinters together, however, and have them pass a baton between them, what you have is the 3A state champion relay team in the 4x100 meters.

Neither Heintz, Furr or Penley, all seniors, nor sophomore Lau won any individual race all season. As a relay team, they hadn't won a race until this year.

On May 13, they became the first Mount Pleasant High male athletes to win a state championship in any track and field event other than the pole vault.

While many of their opponents train to be fast, the four said, they train to be efficient. Their achievement lies all in their handoffs of the baton, a skill that took them two seasons to perfect.

Penley is the ranking track athlete of the current 400-meter relay team. He was a member of the Tigers track team in 2009, as a sophomore, and competed in the 200 meters and the 800- and 1,600-meter relays.

Penley looked up to his teammates who ran the 400-meter relay and broke the school record (43.74 seconds) that year: Jake Hunt, Gary Freeman, Dalton Brandon and Josh Furr. Knowing they would be graduating, Penley encouraged a couple of his speedy football teammates, Heintz and Hunter Furr, to go out for the track and field team.

Early in the 2010 season, coach Michael Johns was seeking 400-meter relay candidates and had them run a 100-meter sprint against each other. Penley, Furr, Heintz and Lau, then a freshman, were the fastest four.

The fastest time they ran in a 400 relay last year was 44.92 seconds, not even good enough to qualify them for the regional meet. When the fleet foursome returned for this season, they were believed any success they could achieve would most likely come in the relays.

"We kind of knew that there were other (teams) faster than us," Penley said. "So we didn't care about the open events. We just focused on the 4-by-100."

The team's most reasonable goal was to break the school record in the 400-meter relay, set in 2009. It took them only three meets to do it, and they eventually broke their own record three more times by the end of the season.

The Tigers' only loss came early in the season to Kannapolis Brown. An awkward handoff between Furr and Penley pushed them to second place.

"That's when we realized we weren't losing again because of a handoff," said Furr. "Teams would have to be faster than us."

Sprinters focusing on individual events spend a lot of time working on getting out of the starting blocks. Not the Tigers team: Heintz, Lau, Furr and Penley spent extra time at practice working on their handoffs.

Word started to spread around school that the sprint relay team was something special. Students were attending the meets in greater numbers to support their schoolmates.

All four members of the relay team volunteered to practice during spring break, when it was purely optional. By the time the regionals came around, at Mount Pleasant on May 7, the Tigers were peaking.

Building on the South Piedmont 3A Conference championship they had won, Mount Pleasant also captured the 3A Midwest regional title. The Tigers' time of 43.21 was good enough only to seed them fourth at the state meet, however, making them a long shot to win gold.

Competing at N.C. A&T in Greensboro, Heintz ran the first leg and sprinted ahead of the competition. Lau and Furr maintained the lead, and Penley merely had to keep the pace to secure the victory.

Penley crossed the finish line 0.25 second ahead of a runner from Kings Mountain. The Tigers' school-record time of 42.54 was also fastest in the state that day.

"I am very pleased with their progress and improvement," Johns said. "It truly has been a team effort. They pull for each other, they work diligently on their handoffs, and they wanted it.

"As they continued to improve during the season, they put themselves in a situation to win. It is a remarkable accomplishment."