Monroe’s Ashley Harrell, left, throws during the GHSA Class AAAA shot put finals Friday at Hugh Mills, finishing third in the event to pick up key points for the Lady Tornadoes. However, Harrell later won the state discus title as a No. 6 seed, beating out one of the favorites to win the championship, Westover’s Ayanna Mitchell, right, who finished second after leading late. (Photos by Larry G. Williams/Special to The Herald)
ALBANY — One more throw.
One more sling at a title.
One more spin and release.
That’s what Monroe’s Ashley Harrell had left — just one last attempt in the discus finals.
It was enough — just enough to give Harrell, a 15-year-old sophomore who wasn’t considered a threat to win the title, the Class AAAA state championship.
“Just before I made my last throw, my coach came up to me and told me I was going to win it,’’ Harrell said. “I believed him.’’
Believe in Harrell, a rising star at Monroe, where she scored 16 points all by herself Friday at Hugh Mills Stadium on the second day of the three-day GHSA girls state Track and Field Championships.
Monroe’s girls have won the last four state team titles but don’t have enough depth to win No. 5. But if there is a silver lining in this team of Lady Tornadoes, it’s Harrell.
“She’s a competitor,’’ said assistant coach Paul Jones, who has known Harrell since she was 9 years old when she started competing for his Albany Ruff Riders track club. “She doesn’t care if anyone else believes she can win, she believes it. She could show up at a meet seeded eighth and win it.’’
She was seeded sixth.
But Harrell had a day she will never forget, rising above the field and anything she had done before this. Every kid wants to have a personal-best record in the state meet.
Get this: Harrell had five PRs.
She climbed the ladder like a fireman. Her previous best throw in the discus was 110 feet before Friday morning. She woke up, had a Granola bar and picked out some lucky pink socks to wear and then tossed her young career in the air.
She landed on the top of the podium.
Harrell had PR throws of 115, 116, 124, 128 and finally in her last throw she had a state-winning toss of 132 feet and four inches.
And it had nothing to do with the pink socks. Honest. Harrell was just that good.
“She has had a PR in her last four meets before this,’’ said Monroe coach Billy Glanton, who specializes in the shot put and discus. It was Glanton who told Harrell she was going to win the title.
He even had a little foreshadowing. After Harrell had a PR in the shot put (38-4) to finish third, Glanton was talking about her performance.
“She surprised everyone in the shot put,’’ he said after the event. “And she is really going to surprise everyone in discus.’’
She surprised everyone but Glanton, who called the shot.
“She’s a hard working young lady,’’ he said. “She had PRs in both the discus and the shot put in the state meet. I always preach that you want to be where you need to be at the state meet and peak at the state meet. She peaked at the right time.’’
She didn’t just peak at the right time — but literally at the right moment.
Westover’s Ayanna Mitchell, who beat Harrell to win the Region 1-AAA title three weeks ago at Hugh Mills, had the discus title all but won. Mitchell not only had three PRs herself, but she broke the school record at Westwover and was leading the state with a toss of 130 feet and 10 inches.
Then Harrell unleashed the winner.
The two girls from Albany went 1-2 in the discus and both had the best day of their lives in the event.
“I threw 130 feet and four inches. I PR’ed three times. I broke the school record. I gave it my best and had my best (day). It just wasn’t enough,’’ said Mitchell, who was in tears after losing the state title on the last throw.
“She did a great job and I’m proud for her,’’ she added about Harrell. “It just hurts. When you try your best and give it your best, it’s all that you can do. It just wasn’t enough.’’
Mitchell, a senior who finished seventh in the shot put, might have won more than a state title Friday. After the discus event was finished, a coach from Alabama State approached her and offered her a visit to the school in what might turn out to be a college scholarship.
“That would be great,’’ Mitchell said. “I really want to compete in college. I love track. It’s where my heart is.’’
Harrell is on the cusp of a new beginning at Monroe, which saw current Clemson star Mimi Land lead the team to four consecutive state titles. Land, who was recently named the Freshman of the Year in the ACC in for the indoor season, left gigantic shoes to fill.
There will never be another Mimi.
No one expects anyone to be the next Mimi, an All-American who won nine individual state titles and left a legacy at Monroe. But Harrell is the new light for Monroe, which is loaded with youth. Everyone expects her to get better and better.
“I think the difference was the coaching,’’ Harrell said of her breakout day. “They believed in me. I thought it (a state title) would eventually come, but not this soon.’’
Glanton said he knew she would win, and after Harrell’s throw of 128 feet, he walked up to her and spread his hands apart to show her the distance between 128 feet and 130-10.
“I showed her. I told her, ‘You are this far away,’ ” he said with his hands held out to illustrate his point. “I told her, ‘You are this far away. You’re a competitor. Now go win it!’ ”
“It still hasn’t hit me yet,’’ Harrell said just before stepping onto the podium. “I’m just so happy right now.’’
The 1-2 finish in the discus with the girls from Monroe and Westover was the highlight of the day for Southwest Georgia on Friday when all of the finals in the field events were completed for all classes. The running finals are today, beginning with the opening ceremonies at 11:15 a.m.
The parade of athletes, which is unique to the girls state meet, begins shortly after the opening greeting as every girl who qualified for the state meet walks along with teammates in an emotional moment for everyone involved.
Westover doesn’t have enough on the track today to win a team title, but the Lady Patriots made a huge statement in the field, scoring 23 points and trailing only Marist, which is in first place with 43 1/2 points as the teams head for today’s finals.
Mitchell scored nine points, and Kayla Kirkland added eight points by finishing second in the pole vault with a PR, clearing 9’6. Ashton Matson of Alexander won the title at 10-feet.
Westover’s Bryshea Jackson, a freshman, surprised the field in the triple jump and had three PRs, including a leap of 37 feet to finish fourth in the state.
“We had a great day in the field events,’’ said Westover A.D. Harley Calhoun, who oversees the track & field program along with girls coach Lewis Smith. “Everyone we had had a PR. You can’t ask for more than that.’’
Westover finished the day with 33 points when Ericka Taylor ended one of the most memorable careers in Westover history by finishing third in the 1,600-meter run Friday night.
Calhoun calls Taylor “the best distance runner in the history of Westover,’’ and she left a legacy behind her in cross country, where she won a state title as a sophomore, and on the track, where she finished in the top six in the state meet every year, including a second-place finish in the 1,600 as a sophomore and two third-place finishes in the 3,200. She was fourth in the 1,600 and third in the 3,200 last year and finished her career by giving Westover 10 points with a fifth in the 3,200 on Thursday and a strong third-place finish in the mile on Friday night.
She wanted so badly to go out with a state title but fell just short.
“She really wanted to win, but the two girls who finished ahead of her were just better,’’ Calhoun said. “She ran a great race and finished strong. She was upset about the fifth place (finish on Thursday), but the one thing about Ericka Taylor is she always comes back strong. That’s one reason she’s Ericka Taylor. She’s the best at Westover, the best distance runner the school has ever had.’’
Taylor, who tried to stay with Marist’s Morgan Ilse in the 3,200 on Thursday but ran out of gas in the stretch — falling from second to fifth in the final 100 meters — stayed just off Ilse’s pace in the 1,600 and finished with a big kick, moving from fourth to third and running her best time in two years (5:19.56).
Isle won the race in 5:07.46.
“I ran a good race. I feel good about it,’’ said Taylor, who finished the 3,200 in pain Thursday. But she bounced back.
“That’s one of the best races I’ve ever seen her run,’’ Calhoun said. “I am proud of her. She’s the best at Westover, and she ended her career on a great note. When Taylor finishes a race, you never have to ask if she had anything left. She always leaves it all on the track.’’
She leaves more than that at Westover.
“It’s really nice to be known as the best distance runner at Westover. I’m happy to be considered the best,’’ Taylor said. “I ran my race (Friday night), and I have no regrets.’’
One of the most heartbreaking moments of the day came early Friday when Lee County’s Holly Ebbets came ever-so-close to tying the Class AAAAA state record in the pole vault at 12-feet.
Ebbets, who was the state runner-up in the pole vault as a freshman and the state champ her sophomore and junior seasons after clearing 11 feet and six inches both times to win, had set her sights on the 12-foot mark all season.
She actually cleared the bar at 12 feet, but as she hit the mat the bar wobbled and fell.
“I felt myself clear it,’’ Ebbets said. “I heard the crowd scream and I thought I had it. I was about ready to scream when I looked up and saw the bar drop.’’
Everyone watching the pole vault finals thought Ebbets had cleared the 12-foot mark.
“I know. I know,’’ said Ebbets, who broke down in tears afterward. “I thought I had it, too I must have just breezed the bar when I went over it. I felt like I was over it. When I looked up and saw the bar fall off it was the worst feeling in the world.’’
No one cleared 12 feet, but two other girls cleared 11-6, and because Ebbets had one more attempt before clearing 11-6, she finished third in her final state meet. Elise Moffatt of Allatoona was declared the state champ.
“It hurts. It just hurts,’’ said Ebbets, teary-eyed and her voice breaking. “It really is the toughest day. I wanted to get it so bad ... I thought I had it’’
Her career at Lee County is unrivaled, and she shared part of it with her older brother, Caleb, who broke the state record in the pole vault when Holly was a freshman. Caleb earned a scholarship to UGA, where he redshirted this year because of a nagging injury. Caleb was at the state meet Friday to cheer for his sister, who will join him next fall in Athens. Holley has earned a preferred walk-on status at Georgia and plans on winning the SEC title some day.
“It’s really been fun,’’ she said of her career at Lee County. “It’s bittersweet — the way it ended. Right now I’m just going to get ready to go to Georgia. I’m excited about vaulting with Caleb. A different atmosphere might help me jump higher.”
Baconton Charter has not only gotten off to a good start in the Class A state meet, but Kimmie Davis brought home a state title for the Lady Blazers in the long jump, where she won with a jump of 16 feet, 8 1/2 inches. Davis has already scored 10 points for Baconton and can add more today. She qualified for the finals in both the 100 and 200.
Other Southwest Georgia girls who did well in the field include the Thornton sisters from Randolph-Clay. Briana Thornton finished fifth in the Class A shot put and her younger sister, Kobi, was seventh in the high jump. Terrell County’s CaDesia Hill was fourth in the Class A discus, and Mitchell County’s Ja’Shara Burns was eighth in the Class A triple jump.
Dougherty’s Quannesha Gatling was 10th in the Class AAAA triple jump, but her main event is the 400, where she has a chance to be the first girl in Dougherty history to win a state title today.
Pelham’s Hannah White was fifth in the Class AA pole vault and Pelham’s Cheyenne Brooks finished ninth in the pole vault.
Terrell County’s Tynesha Bellamy was 10th in the Class A 3,200 and finished 14th in the 1,600. TC’s Destiny Mitchell was 13th in that race.