ITALY— Parades celebrating sports teams have been a long lost art in the “Biggest Little Town in Texas” and not seen for nearly two decades.
It was seniors Halee Turner and Janae Robertson, junior April Lusk, sophomore T’Keyah Pace and freshman Chardanae Talton that helped write the city and the Lady Gladiators back into the University Interscholastic League’s history and stepped onto the stage on Friday at the Cargill-Gallman Pavillion.
The five girls placed between first and fourth place during five state championship events and earned a meet-winning 54 points.
They also did it without the use of an actual track.
“We practiced on the pavement, on the grass or wherever we decide to go that day,” said Bobby Campbell, the Italy High School head track and field coach. “Probably about nine out of 10 of the teams in our district had a track. Once a week we’d go to Waxahachie or Itasca High School once we got into the regionals, but other than that, it was at the school. It’s a significant obstacle having a track team with no track. To practice handoffs, it took a lot of creativity from the young ladies.”
Most of the sprinters said the lack of a track is generally known to athlete’s coming up from the junior high school and has become more of a sense of pride than a detriment since their streak down the path of success.
They practiced handoffs on nearly every inch of the city’s 1.815-mile diameter, from streets to the hallways of the high school.
“They’d clear the halls for us during school so we could practice handoffs and we’d use anything we could find to improve. That experience brought us together,” Robertson said. “The coaches pushed us hard, but we used it as motivation and fire to prove people outside of the city wrong. We not only survived the season without something that most teams have, but we also won a state title. That makes knowing we’re the best in the state that much better.”
“I ran with Courtney Johnson and Kendra Rice-Copeland and we made it to state before. It’s really grown,” added Turner, the only other senior on the team and an athlete who shifts between team nicknames “white lightning” and “grasshopper.” “I went to state as a sophomore, but now you can see the program and its future growing. It’s good to know that you were a part of the foundation of something special and that you won a state title.”
The team of Turner, Robertson, Pace and Lusk won the 4X800-meter relay with a record-shattering 1:44.81, the team of Lusk, Robertson, Pace and Talton captured second place in the 4X400-meter relay with a 49.85 and Robertson seized silver in the 200-meter dash with a 25.90 finish time.
Other than Johnson, who won the UIL 2A individual title in the 100- and 200-meter dash in 2014, the city hadn't seen a team state championship since the 1997 boys basketball team beat Industrial High School 71-63.
The fearsome five’s domination of the 2016 UIL 2A state track and field state championship meet didn't only erase a 19-year team state championship drought. It also helped bridge the gap of between a disjointed Italy ISD and city government.
“The coaches and the administrators (ISD and city government) we have now that were brought back have children in the school system. They remember what tradition and pride mean to this town,” said Steven Farmer, Italy’s mayor and a former Gladiator alumnus, who issued a proclamation about the team’s success. “They’ve really come together to support this town and that’s where it started. A state championship was just icing on the cake for us. We’ve made efforts here recently to build that bridge back and it’s starting with the old traditions.”
Since taking office in 2015, Farmer has worked to restore both the luster of a great sports town and relationship between the people of the community, the government officials and the protection agencies that preside over residents.
He has recently overhauled his police force, installing Cameron Beckham as the new a chief of police the same year, and said he made suggestions about potential Italy-born school district hires to bring back the city’s tradition.
That tradition may have been the motivation that packed nearly every resident — from toddlers to wheelchair-bound elderly — in the small confines of the Cargill-Gallman Pavilion to honor five of the biggest stars in the little town’s history.
While Pace said the accomplishment lies in the hard work of the parents and friends who sacrificed their time and effort to support the team and is for those girls who will follow in their footsteps, Lusk and Talton had a different take on winning a state title.
“For us, it was all about keeping it fun and entertaining wherever we were,” Lusk said. “I think our team bond was the thing that makes us unique and what helped us through the hard times. I’ve run with these girls for years — give or take two or three. We’ve been so close and known each other our whole lives that there wasn’t anything else to do but to work hard and win at all costs.”
“I really think we’re learning how important it is to make the most of it because time is going by fast. Way too fast,” added Talton, the team’s only freshman. “Our time is going to come and we’re going to be seniors and will have to step away from this place. You try to stop and appreciate the road you took to get here and not take the process for granted. I can’t explain how appreciative I am of each of these girls. Without them, I wouldn’t be a state champion.”
Marcus S. Marion can be reached at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter @MarcusMarionWNI.