When Vance High School’s 4x200 relay team qualified to run in this year’s New Balance Indoor Nationals in New York City with the fastest time in North Carolina, it began an entirely different kind of race.
The Cougars needed to raise $2,000 to pay travel expenses and registration fees.
For weeks, the team would train directly after the school day, then head to uptown Charlotte to raise money.
Thanks to the hard work of the athletes and generosity of those who heard about the team’s struggles, the Cougars hit their fundraising goal with three days to spare.
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On March 12, O’Quan Bratton, Daquan Gladden, Spencer Donnavan, Milik Massey, Jawan Miller, head coach Derrick Eure and two chaperones boarded a Greyhound bus in Charlotte destined for Brooklyn, N.Y.
The group arrived around 6 p.m. March 13 and went right to the Armory, where the championships would take place the next day.
“My guys were just in awe when we walked in,” said Eure. “All the other teams were there with their badges that said where they were from. I just kind of let them take it all in.”
The Cougars then took to the track and practiced their handoffs, while Massey – who had a sore hamstring – tested his legs.
The next day, Eure and his team awoke early to go to breakfast.
“I ate because I was starving, but none of my guys did,” said Eure. “I think they were pretty nervous.”
Eure then made each of the runners call home and update their parents before the group piled into a 15-passenger van to go to the track.
They arrived around noon, knowing their heat was scheduled for 5:30 p.m.
After watching Massey struggle to loosen up, Eure sat down with the 6-foot-2-inch-tall junior, and together they decided to let Miller run the relay in his place.
“That was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” said Eure. “Milik was part of the group that got us here, and for him to take a step back gave me a whole new level of respect for him.”
Miller, a sophomore, had trained with the team as an alternate but had never been pressed into action before.
As 5:30 p.m. drew near, Eure brought the team together.
“I told them how proud I was and how I knew what they could achieve,” he said. “I told them that this moment was for them and that people wish for these kinds of moments. I told them to live it to the fullest and to give it their all and leave it all on the track.
“Each one of them looked me in the eye, and I knew I was going to get their very best,” said Eure.
The starter’s gun sounded, and Bratton took off. “I have never seen him run so hard in my life,” said Eure. “He blew the field away and finished his 200 meters with a time of 22.3 seconds.
“O’quan’s was the only split I got to time, because after I timed him I was just screaming from the top of my lungs.”
Bratton handed the baton to Donnavan, who passed it to Gladden, with Vance and one other club neck-and-neck for first.
“Daquan had the worst running form I’ve ever seen,” Eure said. “He had his head back, but he took off like a bat out of hell, and by the time he finished he had gotten us a good 10-meter lead.”
As Gladden passed to Miller, the two fumbled and lost some time, but with such a large lead the sophomore was able to hold on for the heat victory.
The team finished in a time of 1:32.55, which wound up being the 13th-fastest in the U.S. – 2.61 seconds off the nation’s top time set by Long Reach, Md.
After the race, Bratton uncorked a celebratory backflip to the delight of the packed arena.
“I couldn’t be happier with our finish,” said Eure. “That was probably the happiest moment of my life. I knew that, not only myself, but the entire community was able to rally around these kids and make their dream a reality.
“A lot of people don’t get to feel something as monumental as this,” Eure said. “I cried. It was the first time I’ve cried as a coach; I was so humbled and happy.
“I’m getting emotional talking about it still, and I didn’t even run it.”
Eure said he made sure to thank everyone who helped make the trip to New York possible.
“It was remarkable how people rallied around us,” he said. “I’ve never seen so many jump behind a group of kids they don’t even know. It’s powerful to know that there are people in this community that still care.”