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UCHS track program led by vaulters, throwers

The 2020 Unicoi County High School track program includes, pictured from left, back row, assistant coach Lacey Harris, Caitlin Wilson, Matt Priolo, Grey Cannon, Wyatt Miller, Iliana Martinez and head coach Thad Higgins; front row, Shelby Miller, Cynthia Mendoza, Rachel Altemose, Kayla Hicks, Faith Ellison and Savannah Sparks. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

*Editor’s note: With local schools closed due to coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns, all 2020 spring sports seasons are currently on hold. However, The Erwin Record still wanted to recognize Unicoi County High School teams and players with this annual section.

By Trey Williams

Thad Higgins went to the state in the pole vault his junior and senior seasons at Unicoi County High School in 2009-10, and now the Blue Devils coach needs a leap of faith to envision his athletes getting a Spring Fling opportunity this season.

With schools being closed March 17-April 13, at least, due to the coronavirus, a resumption of spring sports appears unlikely.

“The kids had been so great the last few weeks getting ready for the season,” Higgins said, noting busy evenings in Erwin and weekend workouts at Science Hill. “We put in the hours. They weren’t just doing the bare minimum. Our kids were really putting in hours of practice.

“I was just really excited to see these kids get a return on that effort and to see how much better they were gonna get throughout the rest of the season.”

The good news is Higgins has a senior-free roster.

“They’ve all got another year, luckily,” he said.

Three junior pole vaulters – Wyatt Miller, Cynthia Mendoza and Rachel Altemose – are capable of successful seasons. Higgins said they’ve worked diligently since late last fall.

“Rachel is probably the most experienced of those three and she could really go up this year if we get to have any practice time and competition time,” Higgins said. “I’m really heartbroken for her that she’s gonna have to take this time off, because she was just starting to click with it.”

Miller also runs the 800 meters.

“He was really showing progress in his distance times and he had set a really, really tough time goal for his senior year,” Higgins said. “Thankfully, he’s just a junior, so he’ll be able to get that. But any time you lose a whole year, man, that’s tough to come back from.

“I was really watching his 800 time progress, because he really worked hard during cross country. And I think that was gonna roll over into this track season and we’d see him put up really good times.”

The roster has a scarcity of runners. A heavy number of throwers includes junior Kayla Hicks.

“We’ve got a lot of throwers but most of them are new,” Higgins said. “But I was excited to see where Kayla Hicks landed this year. She’s been driving herself even outside of practices, even before we started conditioning and that kind of thing. She went out of her way to get her own equipment and practiced on her own in the offseason. That’s really impressive. I was just really excited to see where that went.”

Sophomore pole vaulter Caitlin Wilson also has an intriguing upside.

“She’s just really excited to be part of the track team and she’s picking up things really, really fast,” Higgins said. “I’m heartbroken for her that she hasn’t gotten to see a day of competition.”

Sophomore throwers Savannah Sparks and Shelby Miller appear to have a bright future.

“I’m really excited about them,” Higgins said. “They have really shown their dedication in the short time they’ve been with the track team.”

Junior Grey Cannon could make an impact this season. Cannon was all in once he learned that his passion – weightlifting – wouldn’t conflict with the throws.

“He came to me and said, ‘Coach, I don’t want to take time out of my weightlifting,’” Higgins said. “I’m like, ‘Gray, that’s perfect. That’s what you need to be doing. You keep doing your weightlifting and let me show you how to throw on the side, and you’ll be perfect.’

“He has become so passionate about it. He was one of the most heartbroken ones when we got the news, because he hasn’t had the chance to see how he stacked up against other people.”

Blue Devils also expected to contribute include junior Iliana Martinez, sophomore Faith Ellison and junior Matt Priolo.