Gulf Coast High School's state qualifiers in track and field pose for a group photo on their home track Monday. Back row, left to right, are Kayden Cecil, Mikeila Joseph, Aleah Sadaty, Ismael Adam, Paula Gomes, Erika Sodeika and Bessline Verneau. Front row, left to right, are Juliana Ross, Sydney Eugene, Chloe White and Angel Anastasio. GREGG HARDY/CSI
Clearly, Gulf Coast High School junior Sydney Eugene has an abundance of energy.
The word “sprint” — as defined by Merriam-Webster — means “to run or go at top speed especially for a short distance.”
Over these next two days, Eugene will compete in the 400-meter individual sprint and the 4×400-meter relay during the Class 3A track and field championships at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. She’ll run preliminaries in both events today. Qualify for either or both of those, and she’ll do it all over again on Saturday.
Let’s kick that around for a second: sprinting 400 meters as many as four times in two days. Four hundred meters is equal to 437 yards. Multiply that number by four (1,748 yards), and imagine having to sprint across 17 and a half football fields or, for you golf enthusiasts, four full-sized par-4s within a span of 29 and a half hours (the first prelim is today at 1:10 p.m.; the 4×400 final is Saturday at 6:35 p.m.).
One of 12 Sharks who will be vying for a state championship this weekend, Eugene is a two-sport star. She also plays basketball, lots of basketball. Hence, that abundance of energy.
Eugene is a key cog on a Gulf Coast girls basketball team that has made deep playoff runs the last two years and will be in position to do so again next season. She also has been starring this spring for the Tampa Thunder Select squad, which is part of the East Tampa Youth Basketball Association. And she’s doing it simultaneously with track.
Here’s a partial tweet posted recently by Gulf Coast girls basketball coach Mark Woodruff:
“Ultra athlete led 25-3 Elite 8 @gcsharksgbb in rebounds and always took #1 defensive assignment. Going to be a steal for some diligent coach.”
Leading a championship-caliber basketball team in rebounds while also being tasked with defending the opponent’s top player … that takes serious “want-to.”
OK, so now we know Eugene has both energy and desire — two prerequisites needed for the 400.
“The 400, oh let me tell you,” Eugene said Monday while standing on the track at Gulf Coast High School, “that is all heart, body, strength, everything. That is the worst race … but I love it.”
She also has momentum, having broken a years-long school record in the 400 at regionals. Eugene clocked 60 seconds flat in the prelims to eclipse the previous record of 60.19. Then in the finals, she ran it in 59 seconds.
“I had an idea that I needed to go pretty fast, but I didn’t think I would go out there and break a record,” Eugene said.
Both Eugene and Gulf Coast girls track and field coach Jason Grice know that she’ll likely have to run even faster this weekend, going up against runners who have clocked times in the 58- and 57-second range. Grice said Eugene is “reaching” for 57 seconds.
How will she contend with those seemingly faster runners?
“I keep up with them the first 300 meters, and the last 100 is all heart,” said Eugene, who is attracting interest from Columbia and William & Mary to play college basketball. “So it’s whatever you got, you give it. You either give it or you go.”
There’s some intrigue this weekend surrounding Gulf Coast’s Ismael Adam, who oozes athleticism with his 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame. He’s had to learn a new event in his senior season, running the 300-meter hurdles because “no one else did it.”
“He thought I was crazy when I told him he had to run the 300 at the beginning because he was like, ‘I’m a sprinter’ … until he realized that he was capable,” said Gulf Coast hurdles coach Christy Wright, who also runs the school’s volleyball program. “We saw his stride, and we knew he could run it, and he did.”
Having just started running the 300 hurdles in February, you could say Adam has almost literally learned on the fly.
“I’ve been getting better throughout the season — I haven’t gotten worse — so I plan on keeping that momentum throughout states and keep running my best,” said Adam, who was a starting defensive lineman for the Sharks’ football team last fall. “I just try to stay optimistic. There’s a lot of competition; there’s kids that have been doing it for more years than me, but I don’t let that get to my head. I know my body, I know what I can do, so I just keep pushing every day in practice. I stay focused. I notice that I’m getting faster, so it stays in my focus to get faster every single meet.”
Adam admitted that he can get “a little overwhelmed” before a race, but “once that gun goes off, it’s myself and my lane. I don’t worry about anybody else; I just run my fastest.”
He quickly added: “And my fastest is pretty fast compared to the other guys, so I think I’ll do very well.”
Adam’s personal record is 40.74, which he posted at regionals. (He actually qualified for regionals in the 100 hurdles, but fell shy of states in that event.) This weekend, he’ll be competing against hurdlers who have clocked times in the 38- to 39-second range.
“They don’t always run the same times,” Adam insisted. “… It all depends on preparation. What (coach Wright) teaches me is whoever gets up and gets back to the ground faster is basically going to win the race. Because you can’t go fast in the air; you’ve got to be on the ground to run fast.”
Wright marveled at Adam’s ability — both physically and mentally.
“He’s incredibly coachable, one of the most coachable kids I’ve worked with,” said Wright, who also guides the Gulf Coast volleyball program. “He listens, and he has the physical ability to take what you teach him and actually do it the first time.”
Gulf Coast boys track coach Andrew Grillo said the goal for Adam at states is to get under 39 seconds and, if possible, into the 38-second range.
“He’s more than capable,” Grillo said. “He’s had races that he’s had good starts, bad middle, good finish, and so we’re hoping at states, in the prelims and the finals, he’s able to put it all together — two good races and be able to pull out a 38. And a 38 will definitely get him a top-eight in the state, which would be impressive for a first-year (runner).”
Kayden Cecil saw it — the chance to clear 15 feet in the pole vault — slip right through his hands at regionals. Actually, it was Cecil’s hands that hit the bar, set 14 feet, 10 inches high, while on his way down after seemingly clearing it by six inches, according to Grillo.
A senior who Grillo says is clearly Collier County’s second best pole vaulter (only behind Community School’s two-time defending 1A champion, senior Kane Aldrich), Cecil is making a return trip to state with that 15-foot mark in his sights.
“He could easily clear 15,” Grillo said. “At practice, he’s cleared 15. We’re looking for 15. That’s our goal.”
It’s been a long, steady ascension in the pole vault for Cecil since arriving at Gulf Coast. A transfer from St. John Neumann, Cecil learned that the Sharks needed a pole vaulter, so he decided to try it out.
“My expectation is just to go out there and perform, (set a) PR, and just take one height at a time,” said Cecil, who will have a good luck charm with him this weekend — a little wooden jaguar, which he called a “spirit animal.”
In addition to Eugene’s efforts in the 400, Grice talked about the goals for his girls squad at state. Overall, he said, “Top nine in the state would be a huge accomplishment.”
— 4×400 relay team (Eugene, Chloe White, Paula Gomes and Angelica Anastasio): Sub-4 minutes, 10 seconds.
— 4×800 relay team (White, Gomes, Erike Sodeika and Aleah Sadaty): Sub-10 minutes.
— Shot putters Mikeila Joseph and Bessline Verneau: At least 40 feet.
Gomes, who is Gulf Coast’s nominee for this year’s Winged Foot Scholar-Athlete award (given to Collier County’s top scholar-athlete), is running in three events, including the 800 solo.
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