During Saturday’s portion of the Buccaneer Track & Field Invitational, East Tennessee State honored seniors James Garst, Ben Johnson, Yohana Koko, Hunter Sampson, Kiana Davis, Starr Graham, Margaret Hayden, Mia DePillo, Nyambi Shoates and Lamisha Simmons inside the MSHA/ETSU Athletics Center.
“As a group, it’s kind of bittersweet every year to see these kids moving on,” said George Watts, ETSU’s director of track and field. “They’re all graduating, but we’ve got a lot more work to do between now and the end of the outdoor season. I’m going to miss them and they’ll eventually miss us.
“I think this class’ best moment is yet to come. What I think is really cool is that these seniors are trying to go out in great fashion like an athlete on the last year of their contract. They want to make their mark and they’re serious about what they want to accomplish this year.”
Sophomore Ben Varghese, the former Daniel Boone standout, won the male athlete of the meet award after posting a scintillating meet-record time of 4:07.30 in the mile run.
The time is among the top 30 in the country this year and one of the best times inside MiniDome in over a decade, according to meet officials.
“I think this was more or less of a tuneup to sharpen the blade,” Varghese said. “Going into this race, I had a good mindset to be positive and be tough. I knew when I got to one lap to go that I needed to change gears a little bit. I’m still trying to learn how to do that, but I felt good today.”
The Bucs swept the top four positions in the mile. Adam Bradtmueller finished second to Varghese in 4:12.19, followed by Wes Pectol and Kheyvonn Benson.
The distance crews racked up on Friday and Saturday, getting top-five finishes in the men’s 3,000 from Josh Routh (second 8:44.47) and in the women’s 800 from Genevieve Schwarz (second, 2:18.52) and Lindsey Stallworth (third, 2:18.62).
The Bucs’ sprints weren’t shabby, either. There were top fives from Simmons in the 60-meter hurdles (first, 8.80), Davis in the 60 dash (second, 7.61) and Jessica Lord in the 400 (third, 57.42) and a win by the women’s 4x400 relay (Vicki Franse, Neyasha Honorable, Lord and Johnaida Eliscar) in 3:52.55.
Placing from the field events were Mekayla Brown, who won the women’s triple jump (11.93 meters), and Johnson, who was second in the men’s shot put (16.02 meters).
Brown also won Friday’s long jump final with a leap of 5.54 meters. Johnson was tops in Friday’s weight throw with a toss of 20.45 meters, winning by nearly 11 feet.
LEEPER SPRINTS TO VICTORY
Kingsport native and two-time Paralympic Games medalist Blake Leeper made his first professional racing appearance in the Tri-Cities by running the 800 meters.
He did not disappoint the mass of family members out to support him, winning the event with a lean at the finish line to prevail in 1:54.70. It was just his second time ever running the distance and called it one of the toughest events.
“Sitting down with my coach Willie Gault and Yohan Stephenson, we decided that if we wanted to get stronger and faster that I’d have to step outside of my comfort zone,” Leeper said. “It’s not my favorite race and no matter how much you prepare and train for it, it’s going to hurt.”
Leeper’s well-documented story of setting two world records in the T-44 for both the 200 meters (21.5) and 400 (44.4) has him wanting to compete in the Olympics, but the IAAF and IOC have denied him that action. They say he has a clear advantage with artificial legs and is technologically doping.
“That’s my goal and I took silver and bronze medals in 2012 in London, but I want to compete and medal in the Olympic Games,” he said. “I think I have a really good shot and with the right training and mindset, I can be out there on the world’s biggest stage.
“I’ve been competing in track for nine years and this is the first time I’ve gotten to race back home. I’ve had family members and friends that have never seen me race live. If you noticed towards the end of the race, I had a little bit of an extra gear and that was due in part to having a lot of support here today.”