By Keeli Parkey
A Unicoi County High School graduate now has the reins of the Blue Devil and Lady Devil track programs.
“I am so proud and so humbled at the same time to be able to coach Unicoi County track and field,” new head coach Thad Higgins told The Erwin Record. “I ran track in middle school and high school for Unicoi, which has made it incredible that I’ve been able to return years later as a coach for the program I’ve loved.”
Higgins credits two former UCHS head coaches with where he and the program are in 2019.
“I’ve also got to say a huge thanks to my coaching mentor, coach Randy Brewer. Coach Brewer was my coach throughout high school and there were multiple times he went out of his way to help me succeed as a person and as an athlete,” Higgins said. “When I became a coach myself, he continued to help me develop as a coach and has greatly assisted the Unicoi program as well.
“The last few years I’ve been coaching as an assistant coach with Megan Davis. Coach Davis really did an excellent job of building the program up and putting us in a great position. This experience has really helped me as I’ve taken over the program this year and it’ll certainly continue to pay dividends throughout this season.”
Higgins brings a love of the program and sport to UCHS.
“I love Track and Field,” he said. “I’ve been passionate about it since I started running at 8 years old. I ran track at Milligan College and I’ve continued to run on my own. I’m so blessed that I get to share this passion with my athletes and I look forward to helping them discover their talents, gain confidence and compete.”
Preparations for the 2019 season began as early as last fall, according to Higgins.
“We began having optional preseason workouts in October. Several events have such technical aspects involved that we’ve got to start practicing them very early if we want to be able to compete in our first few meets,” he added. “Mainly we spent this time working with our pole vaulters and then some throwers began joining us early this semester. I always tell our distance runners to take the winter months off so they get some rest after cross country; however, they started trickling back in about a month before official practice began.”
For the Blue Devils, Higgins expects there can be standout performances.
“We’re really going to be looking for individual successes this year,” he said. “We’ve got several returners that I’m excited to see succeed and become leaders for the rest of the team. There are also some new faces who certainly have great potential.”
One returning athlete with a lot of experience on the track and in cross country is senior John Campbell.
“John is another returning senior who has already been working diligently,” Higgins said. “John actually came to me last semester – when he was supposed to be taking time off – and began asking for workouts. I’m excited to see John return to running distance for us, and maybe even trying his hand at some unfamiliar events.”
Higgins said he expects junior Kenneth Perciful to have an impact in field events this season, along with sophomore Lady Devil Iliana Martinez Lopez.
“They have also been hard at work since before the season began,” Higgins said. “We’ve had several new throwers join the team this year, so it’s been very helpful to have the experience and dedication that Iliana and Kenny have brought to the team.”
Completing the Blue Devil team this season are junior Phoenix Holt, sophomore Adam Lewis, freshman Nathan Lincoln, senior Danny Lowery, sophomore Wyatt Miller and senior Austin O’Dell.
The Lady Devils are also ready to turn in solid results this season.
“Similar to the guys’ side, I’ve been really happy already to see how our girls who have returned have stepped up to set really high expectations this year,” Higgins said. “(Senior) Halie Hawkins and (sophomore) Rachel Altemose have been working on pole vault for months now and it’s modeling this level of dedication that will make us successful this season.”
Hawkins earned a tie for fourth place in the state pole vault competition as a sophomore in 2017 and just missed out on another state berth by one place last season.
“Halie has been hard at work already,” Higgins said. “This is just one way she’s stepped up as a leader to show others what it takes to get better. As our most experienced vaulter she’s also begun to help the younger vaulters and has been a great motivator when they’ve struggled with a difficult drill. I believe I’ve even heard her called ‘coach Hawkins’ a couple times. Needless to say, we’re excited to see how far she makes it this season.”
Completing the Lady Devil team this season are sophomore Kayla Hicks, sophomore Cynthia Mendoza, senior Natalia Mendoza, junior Clarita Ozuna and junior Cheyenne Wilson.
Serving as assistant coaches with the track program this season will be Samuel Bratton, Bettina Chirica and Cameron Higgins.
“We’re very lucky to have three experienced coaches this season,” Higgins said.
Chirica teaches at Unicoi County Middle School, played soccer at Milligan College and is the head coach of the UCHS Lady Devil soccer team. Bratton ran cross country and track at Milligan. Cameron Higgins, who is Thad’s brother, is also a UCHS graduate and is currently on the Milligan track team as a thrower.
“I’m very excited to have the knowledge and experience that each of our coaches brings to the team,” Higgins said. “I’ve already been able to see the impact that each coach is having, and I’m looking forward to seeing our athletes respond.”
The UCHS track teams opened the 2019 season with a meet at Science Hill on Monday, March 18.
“This one is important because it will help us figure out where some of our newcomers fit,” Higgins said. “I’m sure we’ll be trying everyone in several different events at this meet.”
Competition will continue in the coming weeks.
“We will be competing in several big meets such as the DB Texas Roadhouse Relays and the Tri-Cities Classic at Science Hill,” Higgins said. “However, our most important goal is to qualify for sectionals. Athletes qualify for sectionals by running a certain time, throwing a certain distance, or jumping a specific distance/height. Once they qualify, they get to compete at sectionals which then gives them a shot at the state championship.”