Unsung Heroes Mar 27 - Apr 8: Sophomore Than a Feeling

Keshawn Watkins of Eat Paulding took 3rd place in the 200 at the Paulding County Championships

Week of Mar 27 - Apr 8 Unsung Heroes Week 7: Sophomore Than a Feeling

Most schools held their spring break last week. Spring break takes on a whole new meaning when you're a track and field athlete. Sure, your friends might not have to think about school or athletics one bit while they go skiing or swim in the ocean, but the track & field athletes, especially the ones preparing to run in the state meet, don't have that luxury. You don't want to train so hard all season just to lose your edge in the last few weeks. At the same time, it's important to not burn yourself out. Some extra rest during spring break might be exactly what you need to finish the long and grueling season. The balance can be tricky to strike, especially for those who might be in their first season of preparing for the state meet. That's why we're honoring sophomores at Unsung Heroes this week, those unheralded underclassmen who are so key to both the present success of a team and their future prospects.

"Unsung Heroes" recognizes some great individual performances from this past week across the state of Georgia that might have flown under the radar or gone underappreciated. One winner is selected from each of five categories (sprints, hurdles, distance, jumps, and throwing events) for both boys and girls. Enjoy!

Girls Winners


Alana Jones, Monroe Area

12.61 in 100m at Beach Run Invitational, 2nd

27.02 in 200m at Walton County Championships, 3rd

Monroe Area has a history of developing talented sprinters who can compete at the highest level, and Alana Jones (as well as several of her teammates) shows that the process has only increased this year. Jones has improved considerably in the past few weeks alone, setting PRs each time she has run a 100m or 200m race this season. She finished third at the Walton County championships in the 200m on Thursday two weeks ago, then turned around and set a new personal best in the 100m at windy Myrtle Beach on Friday. Her new times push her up the rankings in 3A, so Jones now ranks 12th in her classification in the 100m. Her biggest hurdle to qualifying for the state meet will likely be her tough region, which currently holds five of the top 15 100m runners in 3A.


Naomi Hackett, Atlanta International

46.68 in 300mH at AIS Invitational, 1st

16.61 in 100mH at AIS Invitational, 2nd

16.90 in 100mH at GA Spring Break Showdown, 15th

1:06.93 in 400mH at GA Spring Break Showdown, 7th

Naomi Hackett was a very good hurdler as a freshman in 2022. She qualified for the state meet in the 100m dash and 100m hurdles. This season, she has decided to focus on hurdles almost exclusively to great success. Despite her successful season last year, Hackett has already set three PRs in the 100mH in 2023, and she has been even better in the 300mH, breaking 47 seconds three times. Only two other girls in 1A-DI have bested 47 seconds at all this season. She also tried out the 400mH at Marietta's Spring Break Showdown last Saturday, finishing seventh overall despite being in the fourth-fastest heat. Hackett and senior teammate Pauline Mathiot give AIS a 1-2 hurdles punch better than any other small school in the state.


Emily Whipple, Carrollton

12:00.2 in 3200m at Friday Night Lights at Starr's Mill, 8th

The Carrollton XC and distance track program gets plenty of shout-out from GA MileSplit on the boys' side. Not so much for the girls' side. Emily Whipple might change that if she keeps improving. Whipple, just a sophomore, is probably already the fastest distance runner for the Carrollton girls' squad in 15 years. She set a new PR in the 3200 at Starr's Mill last Friday. Although Whipple finished sixth at region last year in 6A, she appears poised to finish first or second in her region in a higher classification, 7A, this season. Whipple has also set two PRs in two races in the 1600m this season as well, and she could certainly qualify for her first state meet this spring.


Jasmine Baxter, Mays

35' 9.5" in Shot Put at GA Spring Break Showdown, 5th

77' 9" in Discus Throw at GA Spring Break Showdown, 19th

As a freshman, Jasmine Baxter was competing for Galloway in 1A-DI, throwing one of the five longest shot puts in that classification last year. However, she transferred to Mays and overcame the bump in competition to 5A with poise, winning the Atlanta Public Schools Championship in her first shot put of the season. The next week, she took on the best in the state at the very deep Spring Break Showdown, and she impressed with a PR of 35' 9.5", setting a new personal top mark by about a foot. She also won her flight at the Showdown by over 18 inches. Only girls who had previously broken 37 feet in the shot put topped her mark. Her discus throw at the meet was likely an anomaly, as she had thrown a discus about 90 feet just a week before. Still, she finished in the top half in that event at Marietta.


Loni Gipson, Alpharetta

5' 3" in High Jump at Alpharetta Senior Night, 1st 

While Whipple (above) transitioned from 6A to 7A this season, Alpharetta's Loni Gipson moved down from 7A to 6A in the most recent reclassification. While this move will only help her quest for a state title, she did not need much help. Gipson qualified for the 7A state championship in the high jump last year despite only clearing 5 feet once. This season, she's cleared 5 feet in three straight meets, culminating in a career-best 5' 3" at Alpharetta Senior Night, a full five inches ahead of her nearest competitor. Gipson ranks seventh in 6A with that mark, but she's only one inch behind the athletes ranked 3-6. She's the only athlete younger than a junior in that group, so her high-jumping future looks bright.

Boys Winners


Keshawn Watkins, East Paulding

22.11 in 200m at Paulding County Championship, 3rd

11.24 in 100m at Paulding County Championship, 4th

While most counties held their championships two weeks ago, Paulding County waited until April to crown their county champions. South, East, and North Paulding battled each other and Hiram HS for the title. East Paulding won the boys' side with a fairly dominant score, and sophomore Keshawn Watkins was certainly an important contributor. Watkins set a PR with a quick time of 22.11 in the 200m, marking the third time this season he's set a PR in that event. Watkins ranks second among sophomores in 6A in the 200m, behind only Langston Hughes star Maurice Gleaton.


Zayden Cook, Chattooga

15.41 in 110mH at Gordon Lee Invitational, 2nd

93' 3" in Discus Throw at Gordon Lee Invitational, 7th

Zayden Cook of Chattooga HS ranks fifth all-classifications among sophomores in the 110-meter hurdles. Last season, Cook finished 11th in Region 7-AA; this season, he'll be among the top few favorites to win the 1A-DI state title. Cook has lowered his 110mH PR from 16.93 to 15.41 in the past year, and he still appears to be improving. He finished runner-up at the Gordon Lee Invitational in the event. To cap off his hurdles performance, Cook also participated in the discus throw, where he finished 7th out of 21 competitors. How many athletes do you know have run hurdles and thrown a discus in the same meet? Keep an eye for Cook to be at or near the top of the lower classifications for years into the future.


Wyatt Windham, Lumpkin County

9:51.8 in 3200m at Mt. Yonah Invitational, 1st

51.20 in 400m at Mt. Yonah Invitational, 1st

Speaking of odd event pairings, Wyatt Windham accomplished a feat that likely no other athlete has this season: winning the 400m and the 3200m in the same meet. At the Mt. Yonah Invitational, Windham, usually a distance runner, attempted his first 400m in a MileSplit meet and won despite being in heat 1 of 3. He won his heat by over four seconds! Later that evening, Windham laced up for the 3200m and won that event as well, running a PR of 9:51 and breaking the 10:00 barrier for the first time. Windham has managed to establish himself as one of the best distance runners (XC or track) in 3A as just a sophomore. He ranks in the top seven in 3A in the 3200m, 1600m, 800m, and 400m, which is just crazy. By the way, only one of the top eight 1600m runners in 3A is a senior, so next year should be epic.


Ashton Pickerel, Athens Christian

137' 6" in Discus Throw at Athens Clarke/Oconee County Area Championships, 1st

37' 6" in Shot Put at Athens Clarke/Oconee County Area Championships, 6th

The Clarke and Oconee counties, which include the greater Athens area, held their championship two weeks ago, just like Paulding County. Finishing as the bi-county champion was sophomore Ashton Pickerel from Athens Christian with a PR throw of 137' 6". Pickerel was a discus star as a freshman, flinging it over 130 feet and finishing 13th in the 1A Private state championships. He's become even more dominant in the discus in 2023, winning the first two meets he competed in with PRs. Pickerel has also made strides in the shot put, beating his 2022 PR in both meets this year with a new best of 41' 2.5".


Luke Stradley, Etowah

47' 5.25" in Triple Jump at GA Spring Break Showdown, 1st

22' 2" in Long Jump at GA Spring Break Showdown, 2nd

6' 0" in High Jump at Allatoona JV Home Meet #5, 1st

I wanted to award Luke Stradley with an Unsung Heroes award before he becomes too "sung." Not only does Stradley rank first among sophomores with his triple jump mark, he ranks first among any athlete in Georgia! He's 4-for-4 in winning triple jumps this year, which is hardly believable considering his PR as a freshman was just 40' 3". Stradley also ranks seventh in 6A in the long jump, and he won the high jump (at the Allatoona JV Home Meet #5) in his lone attempt this year. Stradley's sudden surge as one of GA's best all-around jumpers is a major reason why Etowah has a chance to win the 6A team title.