espite another overwhelmingly good season for the Columbia girls track team, it’s hard not to come a way with a bittersweet feeling.
On one hand, the girls accomplished just about everything there was to accomplish: county championships in both indoor and outdoor seasons, sectional championships, a group title in outdoor season and a Meet of Champions winner in both seasons as well.
But on the other hand, one has to wonder what could’ve been.
At the beginning of the winter season, coach Lisa Morgan said that her top two track athletes were going to be defending MOC 100 hurdles champ Kayann Richards and jumper Ambur Ballew. By the end of this past spring season, both had been battling injuries and neither had accomplished nearly what was expected.
“She had so much more to give. God does things for a reason. I just hope she has a blossoming career in college,” Morgan said of Richards. “I hope she qualifies for the Olympic trials next year.”
But in their absence, stars like Olivia Baker, Kiana Winston, Imani Coleman, Kayla Richardson, Aigner Bobbitt and Maya Hinton emerged from relative obscurity. Juniors Whitney Jackson and Brittany Padmore stepped into leadership roles and also became steady contributors. While the girls weren’t nearly as top heavy as they had been in the past, they were deeper than ever, and it showed through this injury-plagued season.
Perhaps the story of the winter and spring was the running of Baker, who put together one of the best freshman seasons in Columbia history, going undefeated in the 400 on the state level this winter and spring, winning two MOC titles, and qualifying in the 800, 200, 4x100 and 4x400. The fact that Baker is brimming with unusual talent is plain for everyone to see, and Coach Morgan wants to get the young runner to understand just how good she can be.
At the most recent MOC this spring, Baker won the 400 by nearly two seconds. Despite the win, Morgan was unhappy with the young runner for not running faster in the opening 200, where Baker fell to fifth place before coming back to win.
“I wasn’t pleased at all. I hate to say it. Her first 200 was too slow,” Morgan said. “She was racing to win. I wanted her to race against the clock. I wanted her to go for the freshmen state record."
"There are certain standards I’d like to set when I know they’re capable.”
The expectations and the competition will rise next season for Baker who will enter her sophomore year as the runner to beat. She can excel in nearly any event from the 100 to the two-mile, meaning the amount she can potentially accomplish on the high school level is kind of scary.
This season she had a chance to do something which had never been done before, which was winning the 400 and the 800 as a freshman at the MOC. Morgan held her star youngster out of the 800 because of the extreme heat and because she wanted to make sure that Baker won the 400, which was the very next race after the 800.
“She could’ve won the 800, I beat myself up about it,” Morgan said. “I just wasn’t confident about it. I knew she wanted the 400 and wanted to go undefeated.... I’m not sure that I was really willing to take the chance.”
But with an athlete who can potentially win four different events, the onus goes back on Morgan to make sure she is not overusing Baker, who has an extremely bright future ahead of her, even after CHS.
“With her being such a special athlete, you try to giver her a chance to have a moment and to make a legacy and put her name in the record books,” Morgan said. “Now she has to step it up by breaking records and continuing. The hardest part is to continue.... One of my goals for her is to become one of the best athletes in New Jersey history.”
Aside from Baker, the Cougars will return loaded once again next season, with the ability to win multiple events. They will be looking for a three-peat in Group 4 during outdoor season, a sixth straight county championship, multiple MOC winners, and to continue to uphold the standard as the state’s most dominant girls track team.
Columbia officially ends its season next week in the New Balance National Championships in Greensboro, NC. The Cougar girls are defending national champs.
“After nationals, we’re going to relax and get healthy,” Morgan said. “We want to come back deep, healthy, rejuvenated and ready to go.”