VALDOSTA –– The Valdosta HYPE Blazers Track Club will be competing in the AAU Region 9 Qualifier at Florida State University today in Tallahassee, Fla.
The HYPE Blazers, led by Lowndes track and field coaching legend Hiram Johnson, made history in 2014 as the first Valdosta track program to qualify for and participate in the AAU Junior Olympics in Des Moines, Iowa.
Johnson likes the willingness of his young group to not only take coaching but to test themselves against each other in practices.
“These are not high school kids, all of them don’t come from Lowndes High School –– there’s a mixture of Valdosta City School kids and Lowndes County,” Johnson said. “We’ve got some great, outstanding young members on this team. They’ve picked up on what we’ve asked them to do willingly and it’s gotten to a point that it’s gotten real competitive now in practice where they’re competing in workouts.”
One of the young stars of the track club is 9-year-old runner Xavier Stokes. Xavier is in his first year as a competitor with the HYPE Blazers and owns a personal best of 2 minutes, 43 seconds in his favorite event; the 800-meter run.
Xavier has played soccer, football, T-ball, baseball, volleyball and tennis, but lists track and field as his favorite sport.
“The thing I like about track is that I get to run around and have fun and I get to push myself where I can do better,” Xavier said. “When I do track, I feel like I can do more stuff.”
Xavier will compete on Saturday and Sunday in the Region 9 Qualifier. When asked how he feels he’ll do, the youngster beams with confidence.
“I feel like I’m about to win and get me a trophy,” Xavier said smiling. “I feel like I’m about to go home satisfied and not be mad.”
Another competitor in the field is 9-year-old newcomer Tristan Peeler. Her father, Quillian Peeler, played on the basketball team as a teenager at Lowndes.
Quillian has served as a volunteer coach with the HYPE Blazers this year, but says his main function is to support the team and get his daughter some training in the sport.
“It’s been an experience but Coach Johnson is a proven track guy,” Quillian said. “I knew from my time at Lowndes that he would give these kids a solid foundation in track. His reputation precedes him.”
Quillian emphasizes that the move to track and field from gymnastics and cheerleading has been an experience for Tristan, but he believes having his daughter pick up a sport like track is particularly beneficial.
“Track is a sport where you learn how to physically and mentally push yourself,” Quillian said. “I think track is a microcosm of life –– sometimes we can have obstacles and trials that we endure, but you have to keep working. For her, my daughter has a background in gymnastics and cheering and this has definitely been a transition for her, so all I’m hoping that she takes from this experience is the hard work and the grind and to keep persevering.”
Johnson brings wealth of experience as the lead coach with the HYPE Blazers, a program founded by program visionary Creation Divine in 2012. Johnson led the Vikings to 18 region championships, included nine straight from 2001-09 and pioneered the institution of the girls track and field program at Lowndes High School.
The HYPE Blazers posted a second-place finish behind 9-year old Nicholas Booker, who posted a time of 14.55 seconds in the 100-meter dash in an AAU Florida District Qualifier in Tallahassee on June 1. Xavier Stokes (2:50.46) and 10-year-old Hiram Johnson (2:58.49) finished second and third respectively in the boys 800-meter run.
Since taking on the role of lead coach at the program’s onset, Johnson believes he has taken young athletes foreign to the world of track and field and given them a framework to succeed. Much like bees to honey, Johnson’s team has taken well to his teachings.
“(From the start), we brought kids in here that didn’t have a lot of knowledge of track and field and they have accepted, openheartedly and without question, what we’ve asked them to do and they have been able to see the improvements over that period of time. I think they’re hungry to see more improvements so we’re hoping that we can get these same kids back next year and do an even better job than what we’re anticipating doing this year.”
Now the 37-year coaching veteran looks to get the HYPE Blazers past this weekend’s qualifying tournament.
“We just want them to go over and compete –– that’s No. 1,” Johnson said when asked about his expectations for today’s meet. “When they walk off the track, we don’t get on them about where they finish. Where you finish is immaterial. You enjoy what you’re doing, you go out there and compete so when the race is over with, that the individuals that you’ve competed against know they’ve competed against a worthy opponent.”