Lenoir City sophomore Haley Morris and the girls' 4x400-meter relay team left Tuesday afternoon for Murfreesboro, ready to compete in the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association AAA state track meet.
Morris qualified to run in the 3,200-meter run with a time of 11:20.30 at the section 1-AAA meet May 11. The time was good enough for the fifth seed at state.
"I knew about midseason the two-mile is where I would want her to go," track coach Jeff Kuhl said. "She showed, in our home meet, the consistency that was necessary to go to a big meet and run well. She ran 11:25 at the Vol Classic. Right then and there I knew that she was going to be one of the top in the state."
Morris ran the 800 at state her freshman year and said it pushed her to return as a sophomore.
"I wanted to be able to go back to state this year because I made it last year," she said. "I thought it would look like I hadn't improved if I didn't make it again."
Kuhl said he wanted Morris to run the 800 as a freshman to help ease her into distance running. He said he believes the sophomore can do very well running in the 3,200 final at Middle Tennessee State University, which was held Wednesday after the News-Herald's presstime.
"I believe she's ready to drop time," he said. "We didn't push too hard at sectional because we just wanted to make sure she got in comfortably. At state, now we'll be pushing out a little bit quicker and trying to get up with those top kids. I think she's got a chance to finish up where she's seeded. This is probably the best two-mile we've had here, maybe ever, as far as the depth of that field."
The sophomore worked with coaches the week following the sectional meet "fine tuning" some things with the run. In the final practices leading into state, the team shifted toward the 4x400. "Haylee's workouts went well last week," Kuhl said Monday. "Tonight we're getting ready for the 400, just focusing on it and just trying to get the kids focused on how fast they have to run and the relay passing."
Morris will also be part of the 4x400-meter team that includes senior University of Tennessee Chattanooga signee Chandler Rogers, junior Cassie Goodman and freshman Alexis Lankford. Another freshman, Autumn Young, is serving as the team's alternate.
"(Qualifying a 4x400 team) was a goal from the beginning of the season," Kuhl said. "We've kind of been looking at that 4x4 for about two years now. These kids were just very impressive at sectional, dropping six seconds off their time from a week prior. They'll have to drop again at state if they want to do well."
Kuhl knew what he had in Morris and Rogers coming into the season, and the additions of Goodman, who moved to the area from Vero Beach, Fla., and Lankford have proved to be strong ones. Lankford set a school record in the 200-meter run, surpassing the old one by 30 seconds.
"Lankford was the MVP of the sectional middle school last year," Kuhl said. "She was three events and took second in a fourth. I knew that she was one of the top runners in Knoxville coming in and she's proven that, placing at the Vol Classic, doing very well at some of those more local meets."
Even with her success at the middle school level, Lankford said she did not expect to make it to state her freshman year.
"It's exciting but nerve racking," she said.
Kuhl said Lankford had a chance to qualify individually in the 400-meter run, but felt it was best to focus on the relay this year.
"We talked about the fact that we'd strengthen the relay by keeping her out of the open four this year," he said. "She's got several years, but I'm looking at next year that she'll probably be able to qualify on her own."
Lankford will run what Kuhl said is an important second leg of the race for the team if they hope to drop time. Rogers will lead the way with the first leg.
"Hopefully that senior leadership will get us out there and then the kids just have to fight after that," Kuhl said.
Rogers does feel some pressure to do well in what will be her final race for the Panthers.
"I want to do good and I don't want to let my team down," she said. "Just knowing it's my last race running with these girls, it's kind of sad, but I think we'll do good. I think we're in good shape."
What both coaches and runners agree on is that the team is a strong one. Goodman said the group has been a welcoming once since she moved to the area, and Kuhl said he is excited to have a bulk of the runners returning next season.
"I like that we've got such a young group," he said. "There's potential for a solid 4x4 for the next couple years and hopefully the 4x8 will come back. We just didn't have the depth graduating those two seniors (Dawn Radford and Jessie Hodnett) last year."