Latin’s Leading Ladies

Coma, Whitmore look to take Hawks to seventh consecutive state title

by C. Jemal Horton

Charlotte Latin’s Stephanie Coma (left) is one of the state’s top sprinters, while hurdler Sarah Whitmore has a pair of state championships to her credit. C. Jemal Horton/SCW photo

They don’t take leadership responsibilities lightly on the Charlotte Latin girls track and field team.

Granted, the Hawks have had their share of talented runners, jumpers and throwers throughout the years. But Charlotte Latin coach Larry McNulty believes the hallmark of their six – that’s right: six – consecutive state championship teams has been leadership.

In the past, the role of team leader has been held by standouts such as Malai Walker (now at North Carolina), Jasmine Isley (Georgia Tech), Haylee Dawe (Elon) and Kameron Spence (North Carolina).

This season, the mantle has fallen on the shoulders of senior Stephanie Coma and junior Sarah Whitmore, a pair of upper-echelon runners who’ll attempt to set the tone for the Hawks with their own unique combination of lightheartedness and iron-willed work ethic.

It helps that they’re the team’s most accomplished athletes, with Coma being one of the state’s premier sprinters and Whitmore a two-time state champion hurdler. But that alone isn’t what makes the duo worthy of holding leadership positions.

“They’ve been around the other boys and girls who have been leaders in our program over the years, and they’ve observed things and learned the best way to do that themselves,” said McNulty, who’s also won 11 state championships as Latin’s football coach.

“Track’s a little different than football because you don’t always get the chance to verbally lead. With track, it’s more about the way you practice and go about your business. And (Coma and Whitmore) both lead by example, by the way they work. That’s what makes them fun to coach. And because we’re such a young team, they’re going to be very important if we’re going to be successful this season.”

The duo didn’t exactly clamor for the leadership roles. But now that they have them, they’re determined to embrace things to keep Latin’s string of championships going.

“I’ve never been a leader, so this is kind of a new role for me, but I think Sarah and I have to be leaders this year,” said Coma, who shines in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and anchors the 4×100 and 4×200 relays.

“We have a lot of young runners on our team this year, and if they can get a lot of good leadership, it can get their confidence up and show them that it’s not that scary to be out here with six-time state champions.”

Whitmore excels in the 100 hurdles, 300 hurdles, the open 400 and also plays a key role on the Hawks’ 4×200 and 4×400 relay teams. But she said that leading this year’s relatively inexperienced Charlotte Latin squad entails much more than scoring points in her individual events.

“I think it’s really important to have leaders on the team, especially when they are enthusiastic and excited about track,” Whitmore said. “Track can be a little bit daunting, a little bit monotonous. It takes a special kind of person to want to run circles on a blistering hot day. And I think it’s important, as upperclassmen, just to be really excited about it. If not, it’s kind of unbearable, and the other girls notice that. That can have an effect on the team.”

Coma’s time to shine

While Coma’s been one of the top sprinters in the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association for the past two years, 2012 is expected to be a breakout season for her.

Coma has impressive personal-record times of 12.54 seconds in the 100 meters and 26.1 in the 200. But for the past two seasons, she’s has finished second in the 200 meters to former Providence Day star Varonica Johnson, now a freshman at Villanova University, in both the conference and state meets. Coma also was second at the state meet in the 100 meters in 2011 and third in 2010.

Her strong performances at the 2010 NCISAA 3A meet were a bit of a surprise because she was a sophomore new to the sport. Before that, she’d been a dedicated soccer player before deciding to leave the pitch after ninth grade.

“I wanted to see if track was my niche, because I knew I was fast, but I didn’t know how fast,” Coma said. “Once I got out here, I loved it. I felt like (the track team) was a really good family.”

After her eye-catching showing at the state meet that year, she was emboldened.

“It made me really confident,” she said. “It really sparked a new love for me. I used to love soccer, but now I really love track. I get such an adrenaline rush off of it for each race. It’s just something I really enjoy doing.”

Her times began to reflect that. And about halfway through her junior season, she began working with an area sprints coach, Jeremy Boone, who saw great potential in her.

“‘You can do this in college,’” Coma recalled Boone saying. “Then I went and visited some colleges and showed them my times, and they were, like, ‘Yeah, we’d take you!’”

Among the programs interested in Coma was Division I Lafayette College, but she ultimately chose to sign with Rhodes College, an 1,800-student Division III school in Memphis, Tenn.

“With Rhodes, I walked onto campus and just fell in love with everything,” Coma said. “And then I met Coach (Robert) Shankman, and he was just like a father figure. He told me that he had a spot for me on the 4×100 relay, which is really exciting because the 4×100 is my favorite event.”

Last season, in fact, Coma joined Latin teammates Andrea Gray, Amanda Onuukwe and Shema’n Fullwood to win the 4×100 state title in 50.95 seconds. And while she’d certainly like to bring home a state title – or two – in the 100 and 200, that isn’t her primary focus.

“My objective is just to be better than I was yesterday,” she said. “I want to drop half a second on my 100 and, hopefully, a full second on my 200.

“I started training for track in November. In the past, I started training on the first day of practice. I want to end on a good note for my senior season.”

Whitmore wants more this season

Many also believe Whitmore has the accoutrements to become a college track athlete. Standing 5 foot 10, she has the size and athleticism to flourish in the hurdles, and that’s exactly what she’s done since her freshman year, when she won a state 300-hurdles title in 47.78.

That, she said, was the result of two previous years of hard work and focus.

“In seventh grade, I was tall and lanky, and I had tried a lot of other sports,” Whitmore recalled. “My parents always used to say that I was the first one to get to the soccer ball but I didn’t know what to do with it. So I kind of dropped sports that had to do with hand-foot coordination and started to pursue track because of my speed.

“On the track, I found a place where someone who was tall and lanky could kind of have their thing. I kind of felt like there was a family here. It’s been one of the biggest parts of my high school career.”

As a seventh- and eighth-grader, she mostly competed in middle-distance and sprinting events. When she got to high school, she found her calling: the hurdles.

“Coach Mac was always over there pushing those hurdlers to do their best,” she said. “And I liked the fact that it looked different, sort of like the pole vaulters. It looked like something that not everyone can do, and it looked so intimidating. I said, ‘I want to literally get over that hurdle.’ It was just a new challenge.”

Was she good right away?

“No!” she said with a laugh. “I was very awkward. My freshman year, I fell over a hurdle at one of the meets, but I remember that I still came in second place in that 300-hurdle race, even though I fell on my face. It was really embarrassing, but I overcame it.

“But to win the 300 hurdles (state title) that year was something I never expected. It was really exciting to go from falling on my face, not knowing how to get over a hurdle at all, to being able to compete at that (state championship) level.”

Last year, Whitmore added her second individual title, when she won the 100 hurdles in 16.33 seconds. But she also remembers the fulfillment she felt when she learned that the Hawks had won their sixth team title in a row.

She looks forward to literally leading the Hawks to another crown this year.

“Last year, there definitely were leaders like Haylee Dawe and Kameron Spence and Andrea, and it’s hard to believe that Stephanie and I are there now,” Whitmore said. “I have high hopes for our team, because every year we’re a very different group and we all come from other sports and backgrounds. But I think it’ll be great. I think we can pull it out again this year.

“We have to keep the legacy alive.”

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