When Cameron Auten was named the long distance running coach for Vance High’s track and field team, the first runner he heard about was the one people called “Grasshopper.”
When he saw Marquise McGee’s long, lanky legs, Auten knew why the Cougars’ previous coach gave him that nickname.
It was those long, lanky legs that helped turn McGee into one of the state’s top long distance runners this year. On May 2, the junior finished second in the 1,600 meters at the 3A West Regional at Watauga High, which qualified him for the state championship meet.
This summer, McGee will compete in AAU and USATF meets and prepare for his senior year of cross country and track and field.
Vance has had some successful track and field teams in the past, with the boys’ team winning state championships in 2000 and 2010. But long distance running was not a specialty on those teams. The Cougars were always known primarily for sprinters.
Since he arrived at Vance three years ago, McGee has been one of only a handful of distance runners on the team. Auten said Vance never had more than three distance runners at a practice this season.
“He had never really trained for distance,” Auten said. “They didn’t really have a distance program. Now we’re creating a system for him, something that is going to benefit him.”
McGee was introduced to distance running as a fifth-grader. He was hooked by the time he arrived at Vance.
As a freshman, McGee ran the 1,600- and 800-meters. He considers breaking the five-minute mark in the 1600 meters (one mile) as his greatest accomplishment as a ninth grader.
The following year, McGee posted a personal best time of 4:37 in the mile, which was good enough to qualify him for regionals, where he placed ninth. As the most advanced distance runner on the team, McGee felt his training didn’t match his passion.
“The workouts we did were more geared toward sprinting,” McGee said. “I didn’t feel it helped me. Sometimes I researched my own workouts.”
Enter Auten, who was named coach two weeks before this track and field season. Auten was a distance runner at Monroe Sun Valley, graduating in 2008, and at Pfeiffer University for two years.
“Everyone was talking about Grasshopper,” Auten said. “He puts his greatest effort into everything he does. If he’s not satisfied with the results, he’ll work longer and harder until he is satisfied.”
McGee won his first race of the season, a small meet at Mallard Creek High. In his second meet, the Queen City Relays, McGee placed second in a 15-runner field.
With the exception of the prestigious Taco Bell Classic in Columbia, S.C., in April and the state championship meet, McGee would finish in the top three in the mile in every race. He also strengthened his times in the 800 meters, an event in which he would also qualify for the regional meet.
At the MECKA 8 4A Conference meet at Mallard Creek on April 21-22, McGee placed second in the 800 meters. He won the 1,600-meter race, making him all-conference for the second straight year.
At regionals, McGee finished fifth in the 800 meters, one place out of qualifying for the 4A state meet. He was the runner-up in the mile with a time of 4:29.45, a new personal best.
“I felt I could have done a little better (at regionals),” McGee said. “I felt I could have won it if I would have started my end-phase a little earlier.”
At the 4A state meet in Greensboro on May 9, McGee ran the first 800 meters of the mile race at the adequate pace of 2:11. But his seasonal allergies caught up with him during the second half of the race and he ran the final 800 meters in 2:21. He placed 11th.
“It was a blessing to have someone of his talent to work with,” Auten said. “It made my job worth doing. Without him, it would have been a dull and boring season. He sort of saved the season for me.”
Joe Habina is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Joe? Email him at email@example.com.