LISA MORGAN, Coach of Columbia HS (Maplewood NJ)

By ELLIOTT DENMAN

"Tradition-tradition."

That's what it's all about.

Just ask Tevye, of "Fiddler on the Roof."

Just ask Lisa Morgan, who never fiddles around as the highly successful coach of the regularly victorious teams at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey.

She's never been high on a roof, but she sure is high on winning.

A 16-athlete delegation, eight girls and eight boys, from Columbia High will bus down from Essex County, New Jersey to North Carolina A&T's Aggie Stadium for the New Balance National Championships.

Expect "Columbia" to sound out regularly and prominently over the Aggie Stadium public address system.

"Oh yes, we'll be heard from down there," said Morgan as she prepared her team's final workouts for the NB Nationals.

Her analysis:

"We'll have pretty good teams in both the long and short girls sprint medleys, in both boys and girls 4x400s, and in the girls 4x100.

"We'll do OK in the individual events, too, with Jayann Richards in the (girls 100) hurdles, Brittney Jackson and Ty-Vonna Johnson in the 800, and Amber Ballew in the long jump."

Not to be overlooked, the Columbia boys entry will focus on the 4x4, 4x8 and 800 sprint medley relays.

In a sport where timing is everything, Morgan's athletes are peaking at the perfect point in the season.

In one nine-day stretch, from the N.J. State Meet of Champions at South Plainfield on June 3 to the special high school events at the big-league adidas Grand Prix Classic Diamond League meet at New York City's Icahn Stadium on June 12, these Columbia Cougars were sizzling,

The Meet of Champions saw Columbia win both the girls 4x100 (Kelsey Jackson, Jasmine Carter, Ballew and Whitney Jackson running 46.87) and 4x400 (Brittney Jackson, Johnson, Richards and Kelsey Jackson lowering the meet record to 3:42.54) relays by huge margins.

The 4x1 beat runnerup South Brunswick by a big 1.51 seconds; the 4x4 outclassed second-place Sparta by a yawning 6.34 seconds.

Not only that, Richards won the 100 hurdles gold medal in 13.91 (as the first Columbia girl in 12 years to win a Meet of Champions title) and ran fourth in the 400 (56.72.)

Brittney Jackson landed a second in the 800 (2:08.17) with Johnson fifth (2:09.54); Carter ran fourth in the 100 (11.89); and Ballew was fourth in the long jump (18-2 ½)

Said Morgan, "of course, there's no team score in the Meet of Champions, they stop scoring points at the group level…but if they did score, we'd have had well over 50 points." (And would have won by a humongous margin.)

Then, invited to the Diamond League meet in New York, the Columbia girls lowered their seasonal 4x400 best to 3:42.37, running second only to Cardozo of Queens, N.Y. (which ran 3:40.85) but ahead of three top-rated teams from Jamaica.

What a difference seven weeks made: Holmwood Tech of Jamaica won at the Penn Relays in 3:39.66 with Cardozo third (3:42.27) and Columbia sixth (3:46.48.) But Holmwood settled for a 3:48.66 performance in New York and was fourth.

It's the tradition of excellence that Coach Len Klepack instilled in a long, glory-filled run at the Columbia helm that Morgan is continuing.

Klepack's greatest stars were the siblings Clark - four-time Olympic 800-meter runner and Track and Field Hall of Famer Joetta; kid sister Hazel, a three-time Olympic 800 racer, and brother J.J., a standout middle distance runner himself and now head coach at the University of Tennessee.

Joetta starred collegiately at Tennessee, Hazel at Florida, and J.J. at Villanova.

With J.J. (who'd coached previously at Florida) now piloting the Tennessee Vols to the collegiate heights, the Columbia High pipeline to Knoxville, Tenn. is functioning perfectly.

Already lined up to attend Tennessee in the fall are the Cougars' Brittney Jackson and Johnson. Just two other key members of the current Columbia squad will be lost to graduation - Carter, who is bound for Kansas City Community College (alma mater of sprint great Maurice Greene) and Kelsey Jackson, who will stay local and attend New Jersey Institute of Technology.

"Mr. Klepack was a wonderful, incredible coach who had the ability to bring out the best in all his athletes," said Morgan. "But when he stepped down (to take collegiate assignments at, in order, East Carolina, Texas and Seton Hall), and then when Coach Jason LaMont Marshall joined the Seton Hall staff, too, Columbia just wasn't the same."

So, three years ago, Morgan (a Columbia High alumna, class of 1985) went to athletic director Dave Curtin and applied for the opening.

"I told him that my goal was to put Columbia back on the track and field map, to get us back where we belonged, to put us up there with the very best teams in the sport.

"We all knew how good Columbia was. We needed to build it back up."

Curtin said "yes" and it's proved to be a great decision for one and all - except those who line up against Columbia.

Step by step, race by race, meet by meet, Columbia has been climbing back into familiar territory, and this year's performances have topped everything.

Then again, not everything went smoothly from day one.

After a baton mishap at the 2008 Penn Relays, a senior star of the team lashed at her coach and at a freshman teammate. When the young lady's foul spree finally ended, Morgan told her "I'm going to give you this one chance to apologize, to me and to the team."

When she did not, then and there, her career as a Columbia athlete was officially over.

And for the real twist, that then-freshman athlete is now the junior star Kayann Richards.

One very primary Columbia objective in Greensboro is to better the all-time New Jersey 4x400 record, the 3:41.03 performance by Montclair High (then featuring the Barber twins, Miki and Lisa, now notables on the international circuit) in 1998.

Improving on their own New Jersey record in the 1600 sprint medley is one more target. When they ran 3:53.70 at the East Coast Relays in Randolph, N.J. on May 17, it was, all at once, an all-time Garden State mark (topping Southern Regonal High's 3:54.37 in 2007), the best in the USA for 2010, and seventh quickest all-time in the nation.

As Morgan exuded after that one, "this is an actual, factual, amazing accomplishment."

Morgan's own track career was frustrated by injuries. She ran a 2:12 800 as a freshman, and was on a Penn Relays second-place team as a senior in 1985, but too many aches and pains led to too many disappointments.

Her college career started at Virginia Tech; she transferred to Kentucky after a year but continued being beset by injuries.

"I basically stayed hurt almost the whole time," she said.

But she never closed her eyes or ears, either. Along the way, she was picking up the expertise that would turn her into a top-notch coach.

"After Kentucky (where she was a journalism major), my life turned full circle," she said. "I came back to Columbia to join Coach Klepack's staff."

From 1993 to 2003, she served on Coach John Moon's staff at Seton Hall University, and helped guide the careers of such Pirate standouts as Flirtisha Harris, Bryan Spoonire, Ned Brooks and Marissa DeFreese.

Next came a stint as a personal coach to such athletes as Kenia Sinclair (the Essex County College and Seton Hall grad from Jamaica who ran sixth in the 2008 Olympic 800 final and is a regular on the global circuit), and 400-meter star Sophia Smellie.

However, when Columbia beckoned, there was no turning back - even though another promising young athlete is demanding her attention: five-year-old son Duke Richman Jr.

Lisa and Duke Richman Sr. (a fitness consultant and businessman producing Fit Fast supplements for athletes of all sports) have been together for 25 years and little Duke brings daily joy to their lives.

"I'm a stay-at-home mom when I'm not coaching," she says. "But little Duke, he's really something. He doesn't miss a beat, He's already very athletic. I definitely think he's going to be a jumper."

It may not be too early to enter him in the Emerging Elite division of the 2019 New Balance Nationals.

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