Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

ALBANY -- It just looked like too much fun.

That's what Liberty Cobb said, and it's hard to imagine anyone saying it any better -- or with any more sincerity.

After all, Liberty is 8.

She's what the Albany Ruff Riders track & field club is all about. Some would argue training in the heat of a Georgia summer to compete at the national level might not be the most fun in the world, but the kids in this program love the sport, embrace the training and oh how they compete.

Liberty could be the face of this program, which takes kids from the ages of 6 and up and puts them on a track, where they can reach new heights -- and even have some fun along the way.

"I saw everybody else running and it looked like they were having fun, and I wanted to do it,'' said Liberty, who will be a fourth-grader at Live Oak Elementary this fall. "I like running track. It's fun.''

That's why she's here, part of a program that is 16 years old and growing, a program that is once again loading up a ton of kids and taking them to the National Junior Olympic Championships, which begin on July 26 in Kansas.

"This is a strong team,'' said Paul Jones, who founded the Ruff Riders in 1995. He will load up two vans and head to Wichita, Kan., where the national finals will be held next week.

He's taking 17 girls and two boys, including his son, Sir Paul Jones, and Monroe High's Larry Bellamy. The girls range in age from 9 year olds to a group that competes in the 16-to-18 age group. But all of Jones' girls are young.

"All of our girls in the (16-18) group are 16 or 17. We don't have an 18-year old,'' Jones said. "And our young girls are really strong. In 16 years, this is the youngest, strongest group I've ever taken to nationals. We have a ton of young girls who are strong.''

The girls are led by defending national champ and Georgia high school legend Mimieux Land, who has won seven individual state titles while helping Monroe High win the last three Class AAA team titles. Land won the National Junior Olympic Championships high jump title in her age group last year in Sacramento.

"I want to win more than one title this year,'' said Land, who will compete in the long jump, triple jump and the high jump. "I like the nationals. I'm excited about going.''

She's also excited about the younger girls in this program.

"This is great bunch of young girls,'' Land said.

"They look to us and ask questions and want to learn how to become better. They really want to learn. They have that mindset to become better.''

Jones calls his young guns exceptional.

"This is a different breed of kid,'' he said. "They call me every day wanting to practice. They're here on time, ready to go every day. They're special.''

Jones thinks he has kids who might win a national title, including Land and Storm Phillips, a 16-year-old from Valdosta who comes to Albany to work with the Ruff Riders. Phillips will run on the 4x800 and the 4 x400 relay teams and also compete in the 200-meter dash and the 400-meter dash as well as the decathlon. Phillips finished in the top five in her age group in the decathlon in the recent World Trials at Myrtle Beach, S.C., and should do well in the nationals.

Jones said Phillips has a good chance to win the national title in the 400. She has run a 53-second 400, and Jones said if she can get her time down to 51 seconds she has a chance to win a national title.

"I'm ecstatic. I've never been to nationals before,'' said Phillips, who is a star basketball player at Valdosta High. "I wanted to run track for a new experience, and it's been a great experience.''

Land and Phillips lead the 16-to-18 year-old group that includes Destinee Collins (4x800 relay and decathlon), Alexandria Godfrey (4x800 relay and decathlon), Mariah Davis (4x800 relay), Shavon Terrell (4x800 relay) and Kiora Spriggs (decathlon and 400-meter run).

The Ruff Riders are loaded in the 11-to-12-year olds-group and in the 9-to-10-year-olds group.

Jones' daughter, Yo'era Jones, leads the 11-12 group, and will compete in the decathlon and run the first leg for the 4x400 relay team that took first place in the region meet to qualify for the nationals. Jalah Hatcher, Nyla Foster, and C.C. Fletcher run on that relay team that has a chance at a national title.

Simone Ponder leads the 9-10-year-olds. She qualified for the national meet in the triathlon and also runs on the 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams. Jones believes Ponder has a chance to win the national title in the triathlon after watching her destroy the field at the region meet in Atlanta last week.

Kristian Jeffries was third in the triathlon in the region meet. Both run for the 4x400 relay team, and Polite, Jamilyn Poole, Jordan Foster and Zykia Ewings run on the 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams for the Ruff Riders.

"We have always brought strong teams to the nationals,'' Jones said. "We have so many good young girls coming up (in the program). This will be the first time some of them are going to the nationals. We bring kids every year.''

The program has blossomed over the years, and more and more younger runners are training with the Ruff Riders. Liberty is just one of the new kids in the program that includes 6-year-old Tristion Lockhart, who finished third in the javelin in the recent Georgia state meet, and Madison McCoy, a 7-year-old, who like Liberty, competes in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash and the long jump.

"All I know is I'm having fun,'' Madison said. "I wouldn't do it if it wasn't fun.''

The meet runs from July 26 through July 31, and Jones believes his kids will come home with a pile of medals.

"This team is loaded from the top to the bottom,'' he said. "I think everyone will finish in the top eight and medal, and we will have some in the top three. Mimi Land, Storm Phillips and Simone Ponder have a chance to win titles.''

The Ruff Riders took two vans to Sacramento, Calif. ,for the nationals last year, and on the way home -- while the team stopped at a restaurant -- thieves broke into the vans and stole medals, money, computers and cell phones.

Jones is looking for a happier ending this year.

The Ruff Riders have been raising money for the trip, which will take between 12 and 14 hours in the vans, and include several nights in hotel rooms. Anyone who wants to donate money can contact Jones at (229)-255-8127.