South Charlotte

Knights relay team caps off year with 4x800 title

Raphael Rojas stopped throwing up just long enough to look up to see Christian White with a comfortable lead on the last lap of the state championship 4x800-meter relay.

White crossed the finish line first, beating second-place Cary by more than five seconds and giving Ardrey Kell its first state championship in a track event. Soon after, all four runners - Rojas, White, Nick Kapur and Thomas McClean - were off to the side, bent over and emptying their stomachs.

"It was bad," said Rojas, a 17-year-old senior who signed to run at Appalachian State University next year. "I almost missed the award ceremony because I was throwing up.

"It was bad, but it was definitely worth it."

The Ardrey Kell relay team took the lead from the beginning and kept it the whole race, the runners pushing their bodies to the limit to win the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A 4x800 relay championship May 14.

Ardrey Kell's track and field team finished the meet tied for 24th overall.

For the relay team's two seniors, Rojas and Kapur, the championship was the culmination of the work they had put in for four years.

"It was my goal since freshman year to win states in something, I wasn't sure what," said Rojas, who also was a kicker for the football team. "Getting it senior year was really fulfilling to me because I finally reached my goal."

Coach Brian Zelk started the cross country and track program in 2006 when the school opened, turning a small group of runners into a championship-caliber program.

"He had to start the whole running program from five guys on cross country, and he's been building off that ever since then, building a better team," said Thomas McClean, a 17-year-old junior.

Ardrey Kell won its first track and field state title in a field event when Giavonni Scott won the discus competition in 2008.

The Ardrey Kell boys' team has won three straight Southwestern 4A conference championships, and the girls have won two in a row. Most years, the boys have relied on a few good field competitors and distance runners to carry the team, said Kapur, 18, who will go to N.C. State next year as a Park Scholar.

"This year we didn't have any real stars except for Rafi (Raphael Rojas) in the 400 ... so when we came together and ended up winning the conference, almost at the last second, it was kind of a surprise for us," said Kapur.

The Knights were down by about 30 points after the first day of the conference meet but came back to win. Rojas won the 400-meter race at the conference championship, White won the 800-meter, and the 4x400-meter relay won with Rojas, Daniel Jarrett, Dan Whalen and Kenneth Hunt. The 4x800 team also won with a time of 8:04.50 and broke the school record, set at 8:07.8 by McClean and Rojas when Rojas was a freshman.

"From the middle of the season on, I think we broke our record each meet," said Kapur. "We just kept breaking it again and again."

In the 4A West regional meet, the team ran broke eight minutes for the first time with a 7:56.22. At states, the team ran even faster, with a 7:49.8 - more than 14 seconds faster than their conference championship time and just four seconds off the state record.

The team stayed the same for most of the season except for McClean, who missed early meets because of an injury. Whalen filled in for McClean until he came back.

White, a 15-year-old freshman who also is a point guard on the junior varsity basketball team, spent most of the season in the second slot of the relay but moved to the anchor for conference, regionals and states. All season, the team put its fastest runner, Rojas, in the leadoff position. The Knights want to take the lead and never give it up.

"We wanted the lead because we knew we could run with it," said Kapur. "We could run by ourselves, and the motivation was to get to the next guy in first because you know you're going to win if you do that."

Rojas started the team off strong, handing the baton in first place after a personal-record split of 1:54.8. McClean had a personal record of 1:57.7 before handing off to Kapur, who also had a personal best of 1:59.6. White was the only runner to not set a personal record, but his 1:57.4 was the fastest he had run in the relay.

The team said its next goal is to win an individual title. McClean said he'd also like to win another relay title next year with White.

"We just have to find two guys to replace these two, and that's going to be hard," said McClean.

Just a few hours after winning the relay, Rojas and White also ran in the 800-meter race. Rojas was seeded second in the race and White was fifth.

If Rojas had run the same time from his relay, he would have finished third, .2 seconds out of first place. White would have finished 10th. Instead, Rojas finished 11th and White 12th.

"We were so dead after the 4x800," said Rojas. But the two had no regrets in giving it all in the relay.

"We knew we had more of a chance to win the championship" in the relay, said White. "It just creates more of a bond, because it's between teammates and it's something you share."