Mobile Challenge of Champions (NSAF Select Meet) Preview: Top-notch hurdles

by Steve Underwood

NSAF Select Meet: 25th Annual Mobile Challenge of Champions

The Mobile Challenge of Champions, founded and directed by Steve Schoenwald, has been an NSAF Select Meet for a number of years.  It annually draws many of the best athletes from Alabama, the neighboring states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida, and often as far away as New York, Illinois and beyond.  Challenge of Champions meet record-setters and other top performers over the years include prep legends (and Team USA) performers like Casey Combest, Kendell Williams, Reggie Wyatt, Char Foster, Marlon and Brittley Humphrey, Erica Whipple, Xavier Carter and more.

Led by great headliners and fields in the short hurdle races, the Mobile Challenge of Champions promises to be one of the nation’s best meets in 2017 – again.

LINKS: Mobile Challenge of Champions Home Page  |  Meet Schedule and Records  |  Alabama Live Webcast  |  Alabama Runners Hub Page  |  LIVE RESULTS

Epic hurdlers I: Cunningham returns as national record holder

All eyes will be on Trey Cunningham (Winfield City, AL sr), who twice smashed the 60H HSR at NBNI three weeks ago, in his first big outdoor meet of the year.  A year ago here, Cunningham was a rising junior star who took 3rd in a great battle with Matt Moore and Emmanuel Tait – both of whom have since graduated.  Then Cunningham beat Marcus Krah at the NSAF’s Caribbean Scholastic Invitational, and then just missed winning NBNO and US Junior titles.  Now as a senior, Cunningham has become the fastest prep indoor hurdler ever and fans will be fascinated to see if he can chase and capture the 110H HSR belonging to Wayne Davis II from 2009 of 13.08.

Will Cunningham get pushed hard enough to run, say, 13.30 or faster here?  His PR is 13.35 from last year and he clocked a sizzling 13.51 last weekend at Florida State – where he’ll be attending school and competing next year.  The meet record is 13.66 from 17 years ago (DeAndre Eiland of Tupelo HS).  What kind of wind the hurdlers might face and Cunningham’s flawlessness and focus over 10 barriers will be the story.  Perhaps even more intriguing, he is scheduled to run his first serious 300H of the year.  He has a PR of 38.34 and is not known for loving the longer races, but it’s easy to imagine he could get sub-38 or better.  The meet record is the very imposing 35.60 by Marlon Humphrey from 2013.

Epic Hurdlers II: Big Little-Jones showdown looms

The more exciting, competitive race could be on the girls’ side, in the 100H, as national-record holder Tia Jones (Walton GA soph) was announced Friday as a late entry.  Amazingly, it can be argued that Jones will not even be the favorite in this race.  That’s because Caitlyn Little – the Hoover, AL senior who was Cunningham’s Team NSAF teammate in Cuba last year – has gone from “good” to “great” in recent weeks.  Little came into the NBNI 60H earlier this month as an 8.56 performer and just one of several All-American candidates behind favorites Chanel Brissett and Tara Davis.  But Little scorched PRs of 8.31 and 8.30 in the prelims and semis, and 8.24 in the final for the runner-up spot behind Davis and #12 all-time. 

So far outdoors, Little has run 13.64 (.01 off her ’16 PR) and won the Sugar Bowl title last weekend.  As for Jones, she already has a long, fascinating history at the elite level.  She shocked a great field in the 2015 NBNI 100H as an 8th grader, but was unable to defend last year as Brissett defeated another epic group.  At USA Juniors, Jones ran a head-shaking 12.84 HSR in the semis, but then was edged by Alexis Duncan in the final.  But then Jones went on to win World Junior bronze in Poland.  At NBNI, she was 3rd behind Davis and Little with her 8.30 PR.  At this point, coming into her first 100H of the season, she remains somewhat inconsistent, but a runner capable of a national record in any given race.

JuVaughn Blake: Surging 7-footer from Huntsville

One of the top field events to watch will no doubt be the boys’ high jump, with a true 7-foot and meet-record threat in JuVaughn Blake, a Columbia (Huntsville), AL senior from upstate.  Blake’s improvement in 2017 has been astonishing.  He was a 6-6.25 jumper from early his junior year, then struggled to top that the rest of the season.  But indoors this winter, he ascended from 6-8, to 6-10.25, then 7-0.25 for the runner-up spot at NBNI. 

Then the past two weeks outdoors, Blake’s gotten even better, with a 7-1 and then just two days ago, a 7-2 PR that ranks him #2 in the nation.  He will be chasing the meet record of 7-0, set by Donte Nall (Chapel Hill, GA) in 2006, then matched by Tyler Campbell of Cordova (GA) in 2008.  With no one else in the field with a recent PR of higher than 6-8, Blake may have to push himself.

Huntington, NY powerhouse invades Mobile again

Last year, a huge highlight of the Challenge was the presence and performances of the boys’ squad from Huntington, NY.  Infinite Tucker won the 300m hurdles for Huntington – was also 2nd in the long jump and 4th in the stellar 110H – and was part of the runner-up 4x400 behind Southwest Dekalb’s super 3:14.  By season’s end, Huntington had won the NBNO 4x400 title in 3:10.69 and Tucker was the national 400H champ.

Now Tucker has graduated, but the Long Island school still has plenty of firepower, led by Kyree Johnson, Lawrence Leake and Shane McGuire.  Johnson ran high national-class times of 33.85 for 300m and 48.09 for 400m indoors this winter, while Leake’s best mark was 1:21.35 for 600m.  McGuire is trying to get back to the form that saw him run 1:53.64 for 800 last spring.  Huntington reached 3:21.40 for 4x400 indoors.  But late in the season, at state and NBNI, injuries compromised their fortunes – meaning outdoor brings a chance for redemption.  Here, Johnson is entered in the 400, and Leake and McGuire in the 800, and – of course – they are arguably favorites in the 4x400.

Very competitive girls’ 800 on tap

A fast, intriguing girls’ 2-lapper could highlight the middle/long-distance action here, with three key contenders to watch for.  Homewood, AL super frosh Lainey Phelps was the state indoor 6A champ with a state best 2:12.43, then was 2nd at the NBNI Emerging Elite 800 in 2:13.74.  She has run 2:15.07 so far outdoors.  Local star Grace Jensen of McGill-Toolen Catholic, a junior, last month won the state indoor 7A title with a 2:13.74 – and also last weekend won the Sugar Bowl 800 in New Orleans.  The two met only once over 800 indoors, back in December.

Then from Georgia comes Emoni Coleman, a Miller Grove, GA soph who reached 2:12.99 indoors, ran 2:15.15 at NBNI, and has a 2:14.98 best so far outdoors.  Two others in the field have run under 2:15.  The meet record in this event is 2:10.19 by Brittany Hall (Meadowcreek, GA) in 2006.

Exciting young talent leads boys’ javelin

The boys’ javelin field includes two of the top state and national leaders from Alabama and Louisiana, plus the one of the NSAF’s youngest rising stars.  Tzuriel Pedigo, a Parkview Baptist, LA junior, has reached 200 ft.-plus three times so far, including a Sugar Bowl win at US#2 206-0.  Getting a rematch with Pedigo will be Luke Ballard, a Hoover, AL senior who added nearly 10 feet to his PR with a 198-2 for 2nd at Sugar Bowl.

Also closing in on the 200-ft. club is Ashton Domingue, a Briarwood Christian (AL) jr who won 6A state at 190-9 last spring and has 195-0 so far this spring.  Meanwhile, Zechariah Blake – one of the NSAF’s freshman finds from John Curtis HS in LA – was 4th at Sugar Bowl, but also has thrown 180-7 this month and seeks to add some footage to that PR.  He also has a new shot PR at 54-10.

Boys Sprints: Campbell, Briscoe battling in 400, 200

Cagen Campbell and Charles Lewis each made waves at the national level with unexpectedly fast marks during the indoor season.  Campbell, a Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa, AL junior, had won the 6A 200 (21.58) and was 2nd in the 400 (47.63) in ’16, but it was still eye-opening when he took the mid-season national 400 lead this past indoor season with his 47.64 at the Crossplex in January.  He went on to 6th at NBNI, but has a shot to win both long sprints here. 

Lewis, just a soph at Sparkman HS, swept the 7A 200 and 400 last year in 21.34 and 47.94.  His 21.31 indoors in a close loss to Bryan Herron in January garnered national attention, though.  He was off form at NBNI, but is looking to make a statement here.  There are plenty of other long sprint contenders, too.  Jandon Briscoe (Jesuit, LA sr) has the fastest 400 entry mark of 47.24 from his Great Southwest runner-up finish in ’16, and has also run 21.48.  Five have broken 48 in the 400 field and in the 200, the entire field has PRs between 21.34 and 21.58. 

Girls Sprints: Washington, Rossum duel in 100, 200

Both the 100m and 200m girls’ championship events look as if they could come down to Mississippi’s finest and a rising star from Georgia.  Demi Washington (Clinton, MS senior) has racked up a bunch of 6A state titles in both dashes over her long, distinguished career, as well as success at the JO level.  She was 2nd in the 100 here in ’15 and has PRs of 11.77 and 24.06. 

Alexa Rossum is a sophomore at Buford HS (GA) and has near-identical PRs of 11.81 and 24.06.  She’s looking for her 1st state title in 4A, but has been moving up the list of elites in that sprint-rich state.  She’s coming off a pair of fast victories at the big Gwinnett County meet, both just a few 100ths of her PRs.

Other top entrants and events
  • Landmark Christian (GA) senior Nicole Fegans has long been a state and regional distance star, but last fall became nationally known when she extended her season by taking 4th at Foot Locker South, then 7th in the National Finals.  She had previously won a handful of state track and XC titles, but this took her to a new level.  On the track, she has a new PR of 10:37.66 for 3,200 and was 3rd at least year’s Challenge in 10:43.45 for the full 2M.
  • Alonie Sutton (Smiths Station, AL sr) is the girls’ triple jump favorite off her 40-9.75 indoor and 41-0 outdoor PRs.  She has won state 6A indoor and outdoor titles and is also the lead contender at 18-11 in the long jump next to favorite Rikianne Patterson (Edna Karr, LA sr) at 19-3.
  • Will Boler (Opelika, AL sr) leads three 47-footers in the boys’ triple jump field.  He was the 6A outdoor state champ at 47-10.25 last year, went 46-6.75 indoors and has reached 47-8 so far outdoors in ’17.
  • Baton Rouge Magnet (LA) teammates Loren James (45-9 PR) and Logan Lewis (42-3.5) are the girls’ shot put favorites.  The meet record is 45-8.5 from 2004 by Khadija Talley (Columbus, GA).

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