ALBANY -- Sure, Monroe's girls track team crushed the field in the Region 1-AAA track prelims Thursday afternoon at Hugh Mills Stadium.
But what really made the Monroe kids smile was the return of Lakeisha Jackson, who came back from a hip injury just in time to set her sights on a pair of state titles.
"It was great seeing her back,'' Monroe track coach Octavia Jones said. "She's our team captain. She does a lot more for us than what she does on the track. The younger girls look up to her. She's the leader. She's the glue that keeps us together.''
Now the glue is back.
That's bad news for anyone planning on winning Class AAA state titles in the 100- or 300-meter hurdles, and for any school with hopes of winning the AAA team title. That's what Jackson means to the Monroe girls, who look fast even when they're sitting down.
There were only two finals in the running events Thursday and one was the 300-meter hurdles, where Monroe went 1-2 as Jackson defended her region title and Ashley Johnson finished second. Only the top two in the region advance to the state meet.
Jackson, who had to sit out last week's Westover Relays because of a sore hip (by the way, Johnson won both hurdle events in Jackson's absence), took it easy, winning in 46.59. Jackon's personal best is a 44.76 earlier this year at the Thomasville Relays.
"She's still a little rusty,'' Jones said. "But we've got time before the state meet to get her ready.''
That's what it's all about for Jackson and Monroe, which will try to defend its state title. Jackson, who runs on both relay teams, is the defending state champ in the 100-meter hurdles. She was fourth in the 300 hurdles last year, and wants to pull off a double at the state meet.
"I want to leave Monroe knowing I accomplished something,'' said Jackson, who has already signed with Florida A&M. "I don't want to look back and say I could have done better. My goal is to win the 100 and 300, and I need to do everything I can between now and state to accomplish that.''
The state meet will be held at Hugh Mills from May 6-8.
"I know what I have to do,'' Jackson said. "I have to work hard, and I have to focus. The only way I can focus is to be by myself, and not even talk to anybody while I'm training. I feel like I do better when I'm by myself, just concentrating.''
Jackson can close her eyes and see the winning performance.
"When I'm alone I'm constantly praying," she said. "And I can see myself going over the hurdles. You just focus and you see the race before you. You see yourself running and winning the race.''
That comes from Jones, who coaches visual imagery to his runners.
"She does a good job of having that imagery and making it work for her, just seeing yourself winning the race,'' Jones said. "With teenagers, it's hard to get them focused on what they need to do.''
Jackson was also focused on running last week, but Jones kept her out of the Westover Relays as a precaution. Her hip had healed from when she banged into a hurdle a week earlier, but Jones wanted to be cautious with his star.
"I was constantly asking him: 'Can I run, can I run, can I run?' " Jackson said. "And he just kept saying 'No, no, no.' It was real frustrating not being able to run last week.''
Jones smiled, remembering Jackson's pleading.
"She tried to talk me into it, but I told her I just didn't want to take the risk of re-injuring it,'' Jones said. "But she definitely wanted to run.''
Now Jackson wants one final sprint to her final two meets -- the region finals Tuesday and finally a state meet she wants to remember. She wants to finish with a team title, and set personal bests while winning state in both hurdle events.
"I do want to run my best at the state meet,'' said Jackson, who set a personal best in the 100 hurdles (14.43) last year at the state meet. "I want (personal bests) and I want to win the team title. That's what we're working for.''
It sounds as if Jackson is putting a lot of pressure on herself, but she says that's not the case.
"There's no pressure, none at all,'' she said. "I know I have to work hard and stay focused (to get ready for state) but when I run I never put pressure on myself. If you go out there and put pressure on yourself, you're bound to mess up, so why put pressure on yourself?''
Jones feels Jackson will do whatever it takes, and said he wouldn't be surprised to see her set personal bests at the state meet.
"Being the competitor she is, I know she will run faster just off the adrenaline,'' he said.
Jones was more than pleased with his team's effort in the prelims, and feels this group is even stronger than the one that won the state title a year ago. Monroe not only qualified two relay teams in both the 4x100 and 4x400 meter relay events, but the Lady Tornadoes finished 1-2 in every event except the 1,600-meter run.
Maikea Davis was the top qualifier in the 100 and 200 dashes. Jade Perry was second in the 200 and first in the 400. Davone Anduze was second in the 400, and Alanesha McFarland was second in the 100. Marlina Tonge was second in the 1,600-meter run, which -- like the 300 hurdles -- was a region final.
"Everybody got in that we wanted to get in,'' Jones said. "We're much better than we were at this point last year. We're ahead of the game because of our depth.''
The only other final was the 1,600 run, and Westover's Ericka Taylor destroyed the field to win her first region title with a personal best time of 5:39.34. Taylor, a freshman, lapped one of the runners on her way to the finish line.
Taylor had no idea she had such an overwhelming lead on the field.
"I thought someone was right behind me,'' she said. "I never look back. I always look forward. But I just felt like someone was there, so I ran hard the whole way. When I got to the finish line, I looked back and saw they were way back there. I thought I was crazy.''