Tavaris Tate NIN 400 Favorite

(Special to the National Scholastic Sports Foundation)

   By   ELLIOTT DENMAN

      Tavaris Tate may measure in at a relatively diminutive 5 feet, 6 inches in height, but his stature in track and field gets loftier every time he laces up his spiked shoes.

      "Oh, I'm still growing," the Starkville, Mississippi High School senior  speedster tells people who ask about his personal altitude reading.

      He runs so fast that it's clearly a non-issue.


Photo courtesy of Victah of PhotoRun
      With a nation-leading, and number six-all time  400-meter indoor clocking of 47.06 (on the University of Kentucky's oversized 300-meter track) plus a regulation-size flat-track best of 47.80, Tate will surely be a spotlighted performer at the Nike Indoor Nationals coming to Boston's Reggie Lewis Center, March 13-14-15.

     Look for him to have a serious run at the NIN meet 400 record of 47.12 set by Sean Houston of Lee High, Springfield, Va. in 2007.

    Houston's 47.12, of course, was set on the flat-but-still-fast 200-meter oval of the  Prince George's Learning Center in Landover, Md. With the meet's shift to the Reggie Lewis Center, with its ultra-quick, banked 200 track, scene of many record performances at all levels of the sport over the years, the 47.12's chances of remaining in the books are obviously in major jeopardy.

   "I never even think about records," said Tate, in a phone interview.  "I'll let other people discuss those things.  To me, it's always about winning.  And if I run fast along the way, that's  even better. "

      With such other top 400 men as Ohioan Blake Heriot (best of 47.53) and New Jerseyan Clayton Parros (47.58) also ready to run in Boston, the NIN 400 figures to be a red-hot race.

   Might the national high school record of 45.92, set by Newburgh, NY's Elzie Coleman, safely atop the charts since 2004, actually be endangered? It would be a stretch - but maybe, just maybe.

   The 400 is just half of Tate's assignment in Boston.

    He's also set to run the 200, where his bests are 21.41 (at the big Kentucky track) and 21.58 on a standard-but-flat oval.

    The national high school record for the 200 has belonged to Xavier "X Man"  Carter, then of Palm Bay High School in Melbourne, Florida, since 2004.  The NIN best-ever of 21.22, set by J-Mee Samuels of Mount Tabor High in Winston-Salem, NC, in 2005, may be a more approachable target.

    Top challengers to Tate over the 200 route in Boston will include North Carolina's Fuquawn Greene (2009 best of 21.39) and New York's John Thomas (21.71).  Tate carries an impressive portfolio of honors to Boston.

   For one big thing, he's lost just one 400-meter race since the start of 2008.

  That was to Ja'Vell Bullard of Hampton, Va. at the Nike Outdoor Nationals in Greensboro, NC last June.  Tate led much of the way, only to see  Bullard edge past at the end, 46.54 to 46.98.

    One of Tate's biggest eye-openers outdoors in 2008 was the Golden West Invitational final at Folsom, California.  He blazed his lap in 46.45 to easily outclass closest rivals Christian Taylor (47.94) and Amaechi Morton (48.18.)  He added a 21.27  third-place 200 to his Golden West adventures before flying home.

   He won everything else in sight - but the NON title - all the way to his 2008 wrapup at the National AAU Junior Olympics in Detroit.

    The Tavaris Tate track story  started at age 6.

    "Oh, I ran everything as a kid," he remembers. "Grade school meets, AAU meets, the Junior Olympics.  I even ran some 5K races and the mile, whatever was going on.  I guess that was part of being a kid."

    By age 10, though, he was a Junior Olympic national champion, winning the 400 in "1:03 something,"  then placing second in the 200 in 25 flat.

   From then on, it was one good thing after another.

   As a junior at Starkville High, he took the Mississippi state final in a meet-record 46.39, added a 46.45 win at the Georgia Tech Invitational, plus that Golden West victory and the AAU Junior Olympic crown. Oh, and his wins in the 200 and 400 propelled Starkville to the Mississippi State 5A team title.

  But the loss to Bullard in Greensboro marred his perfect season.

  "I may not have realized how big that (NON) meet was until I got there," said Tate. "There were kids there from just about everywhere.  And they all were good. They had to be just to run there.

   "My mission going in was to go out fast, get a good lead, and just stay there.  I thought I ran a good race but he (Bullard) was just a little better.  He just passed me down the stretch."

   Like many an American youngster who ventured into track and field, Tate's earliest hero was Jesse Owens.

    "I read this  book about him (Owens) and it inspired me," said Tate. "I learned about all the struggles , all the things he had to get through, to get to the top, to get to the Olympics, and win four gold medals. And all the struggles he went thnrough when the Olympics were over.

    "Right then, I said 'I want to be like Jesse Owens.'  ""

   Deep religious faith is a big part of his success story, too. "When I'm not at school, when I'm not in the gym, or on the track, I'm at my church (the Maranatha Faith Center of Starkville.)

     "I'm in the choir, I help out at the Children's Church.  It's a very big part of my life."

    Faith is a cornerstone of the Tate family's life.

  "I strongly believe that all my son does on the track is serving God," said Russell Tate, who has been his son's track coach from his earliest ventures into the sport, and continues working with him as the assistant coach at Starkville High.

    "The almighty endowed him with some wonderful gifts.  And my son has worked with those gifts to maximize everything he does on the track. The word was spoken to him.

   "He has a great work ethic.  If you want to get by averagely, you'll just do average things.  But if you want to be great, you have to put that gift to work, all the time."

   " Tavaris has a total dedication to track,"  said Starkville High head coach Cleveland Hudson. "He truly enjoys every moment of it.

   "When he gets out of the blocks, he doesn't waste time.  He truly gets out there. And he's never satisfied.  He always knows he can do even better."

   Coach Hudson has worked on Tate's mechanics - developing his leg drive, perfecting his stride, improving his arm motion - to the point where he's a smooth-running delight to watch.

   "His percentile times (of maximized training effort) are off the charts."

     His dad keeps returning to the importance of backing belief with effort.

      "Faith without work will never get you there," said Russell Tate. "We've always known that big races are won in practice, nowhere else. You always have to have a goal, to believe in what you're doing.

     "His size? Tavaris never even thinks about it. It doesn't matter. There's a giant in him.

  "The great thing about track is that it's all on yourself.  It never matters who's in the lane on your right, or who's in the lane on your left.

   "You've always got to remember that you have a full lane to maximize for  yourself."

     Tavaris Tate has set 2009 seasonal goals of running the 400 "in the 45s" and "getting down to 20.5 in the 200."

   And, as his Dad always says, "to be known as a giant-killer."

   Russell and Tiffany Tate are the parents of four children. There's big brother Jeremy, now studying at Mississippi University in Columbus. Tavaris is number two, and he's followed by sisters  Mariah, a Starkville High junior and soccer player, and Jalezza, a sixth-grader and a soccer player, too.

   Needless to say, many of the nation's highest-profile collegiate track powers have come recruiting.

   Tops on Tavaris Tate's list at the moment are LSU, South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M and hometown Mississippi State. A solid student, he's planning on a career in the medical field, focusing on nursing and radiology.

   While Boston this winter, and Greensboro in June, are his immediate targets, he nurtures much longer-term ambitions, all of them centered on wearing a USA national team uniform.

    Some track people have compared him to LaShawn Merritt, who made the huge jump from National Junior champion in 2004 to Olympic 400 champion in 2008.

   For sure, anything like that would be a giant-sized leap, of faith and all else. But don't call it mission impossible, either.

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