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PREVIEW: Area track & field teams set for 23rd Smith and Benson Relays today at Hugh Mills

Track and Field Clipart

Track and Field Clipart

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WHO: Nineteen schools, including Monroe, Westover, Dougherty, Albany High, Lee County, Terrell County and Bainbridge.

WHAT: 23rd annual Smith and Benson Relays.

WHEN: Field events begin at 9:30 a.m.; Sprinting events begin at noon.

WHERE: Hugh Mills Stadium.

ALBANY — The names are legendary and the meet itself is as much a part of Dougherty County sports as any event, and that’s part of why today’s Smith and Benson Relays means so much to the teams that will be competing at Hugh Mills Stadium.

“It’s tradition. It’s a ritual,’’ said Monroe track & field coach LaToyia Johnson, whose school is the official host of the meet, which celebrates its 23rd year today.

The meet, one of the biggest every year in the Good Life City, is named for L.C. Smith and Winfred Benson, two legendary former coaches at Monroe.

Smith, the father of Westover girls basketball and boys track & field coach Lewis Smith, coached the boys at Monroe from 1954 to 1986 while Benson coached the girls at Monroe. The meet was founded 23 years ago by Westover Principal William Chunn, a former football coach at Monroe who coached Monroe’s girls track team from 1986 to 1992.

This year’s meet, which begins with field events at 9:30 a.m. and the running events starting at noon, will feature 19 high schools, including Monroe, Westover, Dougherty and Albany High.

Monroe’s girls, who have won the last four state titles, will be the favorites to win the girls meet, while Bainbridge will be favored along with Brooks County in the boys meet.

Westover should battle for both the boys and girls titles. The Lady Patriots have been running with Monroe in the early part of the season. They finished just behind Monroe two weeks ago in Bainbridge and beat Monroe by two points last week in the Thomas County Central meet.

“We’re not thinking about Westover,’’ Johnson said. “We’re just trying to do the best we can, to do the best Monroe can do. We’re competing with ourselves.’’

Monroe lost Mimieux Land, who won nine individual state titles and led Monroe to the state team title every year she was at the school before going on to Clemson, where she was recently named the ACC’s Freshman of the Year in Indoor track & field.

But the Lady Tornadoes have plenty of youth and talent to make another run at a state title, and everyone in the program wants to win this meet.

“This is our hometown meet,’’ Johnson said. “We want to win. It’s our home. It’s our turf. It’s our track.’’

Monroe is loaded with talent, beginning with junior Chakeriah Fletcher, who is ranked No. 1 in the state in Class AAAA in the 300-meter hurdles. Fletcher also runs the 400 and is on both relay teams. Sophomore Nardesia McKinney is ranked No. 3 in the state in the Class AAAA 300-hurdles. She also runs in the 100-meter hurdles and on both relay teams. Freshman Nakeyah Marshall is ranked No. 10 in the state in the Class AAAA 400, and she runs on both relay teams.

Johnson has talent everywhere. Ashley Harrell, a sophomore, leads Monroe in the field events in the discus and shot put, and Candice Clyde, a freshman, and Akeema Miller, a junior, are the top sprinters for the Lady Tornadoes in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.

Westover’s girls will be without their biggest star, distance runner Ericka Taylor, who would have been the favorite to win the 1,600 and 3,200 meter runs, but Westover Athletic Director and track & field coach Harley Calhoun said this year’s team is loaded with youth.

“We’re very young,’’ he said. “We’re young and we have some talent. We’re trying to teach them to be competitive and bring them along. We have a lot of ninth-graders.

Briana Hart, who competes in the long jump, triple jump and runs the 800-meter run, and Bryshea Jackson, who competes in the triple jump, and the 100- and 200-meter dashes, have been the two biggest surprises.

“Those two ninth-graders have really helped put us here,’’ Calhoun said. “They have really helped make a difference.’’

Calhoun said the girls meet should be a close one.

“Monroe was second at the Bainbridge meet and we were fourth, and then we beat them by two points last week at Thomas County. It’s going to be one of those years when you don’t know who is going to win each week. There are some other real good girls teams in this meet, Carrollton is coming, and Valdosta will bring some speed. The boys meet looks like it will come down to Bainbridge and Brooks County.’’

Bainbridge, which won the state boys title three years ago, could be ready to make another run at a Class AAAAA state title this spring.

The Bearcats are fast and deep.

Bainbridge brings back Terry Lewis, a Herald Dynamite Dozen football player who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last fall, to lead the way in the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes.

Craig Cooper, who went to state last year, is back in the high jump, long jump and triple jump, and Alton Miller (400-meter run and 300-meter hurdles), Stephen Johnson (triple jump, high jump), Chase Harris (1,600 and 3,200) and Josh Sheard (discus) make up the core of this year’s team.

“It’s going to be a good meet. We’ve got 19 schools and 38 (boys and girls) teams,’’ Johnson said. “This meet has had a great tradition for 23 years.”

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