P.J. Lotharp started running track when he was a freshman at Sun Valley, “just to stay in shape for football.”
Two seasons later, Lotharp, 17, has established himself as one of fastest sprinters in the state – and in the country – in both indoor and outdoor track.
This winter, Lotharp ran a personal-best 6.43 seconds in 55-meter dash at the N.C. 3A state meet preliminaries, nabbing the state’s fourth-best time and the 26th-best time run in the country indoors this season, according to milesplit.com.
In the state finals, Lotharp ran a 6.45 to win the 3A state indoor title.
The Sun Valley junior accomplished all this while running with a pulled groin muscle.
“I was definitely hurting that week leading up to states, and then even after warming and after that preliminaries,” said Lotharp, who stands 5-foot-6, 150 pounds. “But once I got the finals, my adrenaline was pumping, and (I) wasn’t thinking about it at all. All I was thinking about was getting that (state championship) ring. …
“When I get on that (starting) line, I try to zone everything else out and focus on the finish line. It’s like I’m running by myself.”
Lotharp was eager to join his family’s state championship tradition.
His father, Kevin Lotharp; his mother, Tiny Chambers; and his older brother, Jamael Lotharp; all won state championships at Forest Hills.
Kevin Lotharp (a 1993 graduate) is a five-time N.C. 2A outdoor track state champion who won the 100-meter dash (1992), the 200-meter dash twice (1992, 1993), and two relay crowns: the 4-x-100 meter (1991) and 4-x-200 meter (1992).
Jamael Lotharp was a two-time state champion, winning the both 4-x-100 and 4-x-200 outdoor 2A state titles in 2012 as a Forest Hill senior.
Chambers, also a 1993 Forest Hills graduate, won the girls’ 4-x-200-meter relay 2A state title in 1992.
“I definitely messed with P.J. a lot, telling him that all of us had (state championship) rings and that he had to get his,” Chambers said. “Then he went out and did it. His ring actually looks a little better than ours, being an individual state championship.”
“I knew I had to get that state championship ring because my mom always talks about it,” said P.J. Lotharp, laughing. “But I also put a lot of pressure on myself. I’ve been able to push myself to levels I thought I never could on the track, and it’s starting to pay off. …
“Just because I won one state championship, I won’t relax. I want to win even more and start in outdoor (season) by taking the 100 and 200 (meter dashes).”
Lotharp should be a contender in everything he runs in this spring. Sun Valley track coach Michael Williams says Lotharp will likely also compete in the 4x100- and 4x200-meter relays.
Last year, he finished third in the outdoor state 100-meter dash and sixth in the state in the 200-meter dash. He also was 3A Midwest Regional runner-up in both the 100 and 200, and was the Southern Carolinas conference runner-up in the 100.
Lotharp, who also wants make it to New Balance Nationals this summer, knows nothing is going to come easy.
“As a sprinter, you are only as good as your last race,” said Lotharp, whose favorite sprinter is Usain Bolt. “The difference between winning and losing (a race) can be the smallest detail. So every time you get on that line, you have to believe ‘I’m the fastest one out here.’”
Williams says Lotharp’s confidence has been a big factor in his success.
“I’ve always seen P.J. (Lotharp) as a born athlete,” Williams said. “He just has running in his genes. …
“But now, he also had the mindset to go with it. A lot of athletes go into a race hoping they can win. But I believe P.J. believes he is the best runner, and no one can beat him. To be a great sprinter, that’s what you have to believe.”
Lotharp is also working on his game on the football field, where he will play a bigger role for the Spartan offense this fall, according to Sun Valley football coach Tad Baucom.
Lotharp has been a running back and slot receiver for the past three seasons. But with all-state running back Albert Funderburke graduating, he should get even more opportunities to touch the ball.
“I feel like I will have more opportunities to show more of what I can do to help this team,” said Lotharp, the second-leading receiver on the Spartans last year with 36 catches for 600 yards and three scores.
The Sun Valley junior is garnering Division I interest in both sports.
“For most of his life, P.J. has always been about football, football, football. But now he talks a lot about track,” said Chambers.
“Everything that has happened definitely has me thinking about which sport I could play in college,” Lotharp said. “For now, my focus is at Sun Valley. I’m just going to keep working to be the best I can be. I would love to play football or run track at the next level, or maybe I’ll get the chance to do both.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jay? Email him at email@example.com.