Albany's Ruff Riders track club off to California for nationals

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- The best. Simply the best.

That's why Paul Jones will jump into a van Saturday and drive 38 hours to Sacramento.

He'll do it because he wants the kids from this area to have the chance to compete against the best in the nation. Jones has been running the Ruff Riders Track Club out of Albany since 1998, and he smiles when he says this year's team is "one of the best I've ever had.''

Jones and his assistant coaches will be taking 20 kids to Sacramento to compete in the U.S.A. Track and Field National Junior Olympics, which begin Tuesday.

"The competition is crazy,'' said Jones' son, Sir Paul Jones, who was named to USA Today's All-American team on Wednesday. Sir Paul was listed as one of the top five runners in the entire country in three events: The 110-meter hurdles, 300-meter hurdles and 400-meter hurdles.

"Any track athlete wants the chance to compete against the best in the nation. It means a lot to me since I have been running for such a long time, and this is my last (National Junior Olympics meet),'' said Sir Paul, who won his first national title in the high jump when he was 13.

Sir Paul is still undecided on where he will attend college, and has been looking at offers for weeks. Every major college track program will have scouts at this meet.

"I will probably wait and see what happens, and then make a decision after this (meet is over),'' he said.

Sir Paul will lead the way for a group of kids that range from as young as 9-year-old Kristion Jeffries, who won the girls 9-to-10-year-old triathlon title at the East Regional in North Carolina to qualify for the nationals, to Sir Paul, who is 17.

There are 14 girls and six boys making the trip, and Paul Jones thinks a number of them will have a chance to bring a national title back to Southwest Georgia.

Mimieux Land heads that list. Land, who led Monroe High to its second consecutive girls Class AAA state title as a sophomore this spring, won the high jump, triple jump and long jump in North Carolina.

Sir Paul has a chance to win both the 110 hurdles and 400 hurdles and believes both boys relay teams have a shot at the national title. He runs the anchor leg on both.

"I feel like anything is possible,'' said Sir Paul, who has run the second fastest time in the nation (51.53) in the 400 hurdles. "I can win them both, and we have good relay teams. We put together a really good team from Georgia.''

Justin Scott, who won both the 100 meter and 200 meter Class AA state titles for Mitchell County High this spring, will run on those relay teams, and he also has a chance to win a national title. His winning time of 10.35 at state in the 100 meters was the third-fastest in the nation this year.

"It's exciting to go,'' said Scott, who will be making his first trip to the National Junior Olympic meet. "The best in the country will be there, and if I win, I will be considered No. 1 in the nation.

"It will be different,'' he said. "When you get to this level to win, you have to run the perfect race. It's really more mental than anything else.''

Because the best in the country will line up on the same starting line, there's little wiggle room at the top.

"You have to bring your A-game,'' Paul Jones said. "Everyone there is as good as the next one, so you have to be at your best. The key is to be sharp in the preliminaries. You can't relax and save it. You have to bust it no matter what. But they have a chance.''

Paul Jones has given that chance to them. His summer track & field program opens doors for the youngest of wanna-be athletes. He has kids as young as 3 years old running on the track. And he takes kids to the nationals every year.

"It's a great experience for them,'' he said. "They really grow up. The competition is the very best and it brings the best out of them.''

Getting there will be an ordeal. Jones is renting two large vans and there will be six drivers, including his wife, Leshonda Jones, and Mitchell County boys coach Dontreal Williams, who are Jones' assistant coaches. The six drivers will take five-hour shifts and drive straight through.

Jones estimates the cost for the vans, gas and hotel rooms for the meet that runs from Tuesday through Sunday will be more than $6,000 and the kids have been taking up donations for weeks.

Anyone who would like to contribute can reach Paul Jones at (229) 349-5325.