Track meet continues to build strength

Jeff Birchfield • Mar 26, 2012 at 11:34 PM

The Johnson City Invitational promises to be bigger and better in its second year.

A field of 13 high school teams, along with eight collegiate squads, will make up the field of the second annual track meet co-hosted by Science Hill High School and Milligan College at Kermit Tipton Stadium.

The two-day event, supported by the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce, includes a 800-meter race for the Girls on the Run program and the Citizens Bank 5K.

Milligan head coach Chris Layne says Tipton Stadium is a perfect venue, since Johnson City has a rich track history that includes being home to the NAIA Indoor National Championships for a decade, and the site of the Niswonger Invitational for the past 34 years.

“This is a running town, a track and field town,” Layne said. “If folks stay patient with us, this thing is going to continue to grow.”

The event was plagued with bad weather last year, and the cold and windy conditions hampered many of the athletes’ performances. With a good forecast for this weekend and high school teams from three states scheduled to participate, Science Hill head coach John Hyatt sees the opportunity for the event to really take off.

“Hopefully next year, it will get even bigger,” Hyatt said. “If folks don’t get in early, they might not have a place in a few years.”

The meet allows both coaches to achieve different goals.

Milligan, which quit hosting the NAIA Indoor National Championships two years ago, is able to bring in good athletes from both NCAA and NAIA schools.

“There is solid competition across the board,” Layne said. “Lees-McRae and Carson-Newman are bringing two deep, balanced squads. That helps us from a meet management standpoint, fill the events across the board. Some of the other teams are a little sprint-heavy. Others are a little distance-heavy, but overall it’s a nice balance of squads.”

Milligan features some of the top distance runners in the field, with Gillian Giffen looking to hit a NAIA national qualifying mark in the women’s 5,000 meters.

Other distance runners who could make an impact for the Buffs include Danielle Mitchell and Janey Robinson on the women’s side and Austin Ellis on the men’s side.

Layne envisions an even stronger field next year as the word is spread about the state-of-the-art Sidney Smallwood Track.

“We want to continue to build the event where we attract some of the (NCAA) Division I programs,” he said. “I want it to grow where we have to turn people away. This area needs something like this. We lost the indoor meet and we’re trying to get something back for the community.”

On the high school end, teams outside the Tri-Cities from Lenoir City, Karns and Jefferson County have committed to the meet, while three out-of-state schools add depth.

Marion (Va.) is strong in the field events, while T.C. Roberson (N.C.) has a 13-foot pole vaulter, and Hyatt describes Watauga (N.C.) as a team good in everything.

Science Hill counters with top athletes of its own. They include boys’ distance runner Brennon Nelson, who will be attending BYU next year. He recently ran 2:02 in the 800 meet, and 4:25 in the mile.

Jessica Norris, who is committed to Gardner-Webb, is a star of the field events. She won last week’s Tri-Cities Invitational at Kingsport with a 35-foot effort in the triple jump.

“Every team involved has three or four, higher-echelon athletes,” Hyatt said. “The kids from Virginia and North Carolina all did well during indoors, which gives them an advantage since they have an indoor season. But we have some good athletes like Jessica Norris who was on our state championship team. She was a state medalist last year and should be able to do the same this year. In our boys’ and girls’ field events, we’re really good.”

Events start Friday at 4:30 p.m. with the college discus throws. It should wrap up around 9 o’clock with the men’s 10,000 meters.

Action starts Saturday at 10 a.m. with the high school shot put and finish with an awards ceremonies scheduled for 6:30.

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