In the past decade there have been track coaches in the metro-east who have produced more conference titles and had more individual state champions than Belleville West coach Paul James.
But few, with the possible exceptions of Edwardsville and East St. Louis, can match the success that the Maroons have achieved as a team it the state level — at least on the girls side — than the Maroons have under the leadership of James.
The 2009 Class 3A state champions and 2012 Class 3A state runner-up, the Maroons have placed in the top 10 at the state finals five times in addition to being an annual contender for the title in the rugged Southwestern Conference.
But this season will be the last for James, who is retiring from teaching and coaching after a long and successful 33-year career guiding the thinclads at Belleville West.
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“It’s time to move on. What am I going to do? Well, I have a boat and we (family) love to go to the Lake of the Ozarks, so I’ll be busy with that. Plus my daughter plays softball and with track and field, I bet I only get to see about half of her games. Now I’ll get to see all of her games,” James said. “I’ve had a great time and there have been a lot of highlights.
“Winning the state title in 2009 with YoYo (Yolanda) Suggs and those kids and then in 2012 when we finished second in state behind Edwardsville. I’ll never forget that second day when everyone of our entries had better performances in the finals then they did in the prelims. It was a great effort and we just came up short.”
James probably doesn’t have one of his strongest teams this spring. The Maroons have two of the state’s best in seniors Abrea Hopson (long jump, 100 and 200 meters) and Nijia McNamee (200 and 400) as well as strong athletes in the distance events. But with only four seniors on the roster, West will need a strong group of underclassmen to mature quickly if it is to be a force in the SWC and state levels.
“It’s a good group of kids with talent and they are working hard. But we’re young, very young,” James said. “I think we’ve got the athletes who can maybe get to the state (meet) and possibly make the finals and I think we’ve got strength in the sprints to where we can put together athletes who can maybe do something in the relays.”
But there is little doubt that Hopson and McNamee will be the leaders of the Maroons in 2015.
Hopson has the ability to place in the state finals in the long jump and should be among the area’s best in the 100 and 200 meters, while the gifted McNamee is a potential top three placewinner in the 400 meters.
“Nijia’s best event is the 400 meters so if we feel she’s got a chance to do well at state we’ll pull her out of one of the relays,” James said. “Abrea wasn’t going to come out but then changed her mind. Because of that she didn’t do any preseason training. She put on a few pounds, but now she’s back and working to get in shape. It might be later in the year before she’s at full strength.”
Seniors Olivia Horton and Milie Alejo along with juniors Sarah Branson and Sarah Dintelmann will lead West in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters. In the field events it will be Hopson, junior Karlee Barnett (pole vault) and Danielle Meitzenheimer (shot put and discus), freshman Re’Janae Davis (Long jump) and freshman Kimberly McWherter (triple jump).
James also has high hopes for junior Monique Shine (400 relay, 100 and 200 meters), sophomores Dejah Campbell (300 hurdles and 400 meters) and Brianna Schaefer (800 and 1,600) and freshmen Teonna Davis (100, 200 and 400 meters), Alyssa Frakes (800 and 1,600 meters), Kwanisha Quarles (200 and 400 meters) and Brittany Walker (100 and 200 meters).
After earning medals in the 400, 800 and 1,600 meter relays for the past six years, the Maroons have achieved more success in those events then any team in the state.
With the likes of one of the top sprinters in the state returning in Deshon Buchanan, along with other lightning quick sprinters in seniors Romello Hatter and Dominic Davis as well as a loaded group of talented sophomore and freshman sprinters, it’s a pretty good bet the Maroons will make it seven years in a row earning medals in those events.
That is quite a feat considering the number of athletes that have been on the relays throughout the years and all of the things that could go wrong during a relay,” Blleville West coach Patton Segraves said. “We preach to our kids about being good teammates and being unselfish. Also, you have to consider how hard it to medal in an individual open sprint in Class 3A. It is very tough and if you can't do it, your only other option is the relays. We hope to continue that streak this year, but each year it seems to get harder and harder.”
A junior, Buchanan is currently ranked third in 60 meters indoors and will be one of the best in the SWC in the 100 and 200 meters. Hatter and Davis, who have combined for nine state medals during their careers, aren’t far behind.
Other top sprinters include Jarell Anderson, Paris Johnson, Ni'el Hill and Lamondre Carter.
Senior Brandon Harris leads a strong trio of hurdlers which also includes junior Teantez Anthony and sophomore Ricky Berry, while in the field events it will be senior Ricky Nelson leading the way.
Perhaps the best combination athlete in the SWC in the shot put and discus, Nelson, a three-sport athlete, Nelson owns the school record in the discus (169 feet) and has already had a throw of 55 feet (indoors) in the shot put. Nelson is a potential placewinner in both at the Class 3A State Track Meet in May.
Senior Ramon Stacker is a potential state qualifier in the triple jump while junior Austin Blakeslee could be one of the best in the SWC in the pole vault.
In the distance events, West will look for juniors Hunter Cason and Nick Ernst and sophomore Brian Gichuru to lead the way. Juniors Clifton Lovett and Isreal Renteria along with senior Thomas McMath will also be competing for spots. Freshman Ni'Zarien Cason and sophomore Demond Williams are solid young 800 runners.
West hopes to improve on a 23rd place finish at the Class 3A state meet of a year ago.
Last year was a good season for us. Anytime you can bring back state medals in four events, it is a nice accomplishment,” Segraves said. “We were knocking on the door for another top 10 finish. We've got a lot of talent back, so the hope is to qualify what we can to State and bring back some medals. We have a chance to be a Top 10 team if things go our way.”