CHARLOTTE – For the Providence girls 4×400 relay team, the rise to the top of the state this year began with a near miss a season ago.
Senior Ariana Rivera said the image is imprinted in her mind and something she still thinks about to this day. The Panthers were in the 2017-18 indoor track and field championship and running with Southeast Raleigh for the state title.
The teams were the two clear favorites, and the Panthers even had a lead for part of the race before Rivera got caught and Providence settled for a runner-up finish, just 0.3 seconds away from their first
That team featured Rivera, Ella Mainwaring Foster, Nimeesha Coleman and Zaria Dunlap, a senior at the time and now a freshman outfielder on the University of Illinois softball team.
The girls would get their revenge, however, winning their first state title at last year’s outdoor track and field season. That win was by nearly seven seconds over the field and prepared them for a huge offseason.
“For me, it felt so relieving because I was the last leg and I got caught during outdoor,” said Rivera, an Appalachian State commit. “Winning outdoor was a big deal for me because I got so hungry after that loss. I really wanted that state championship because even to this day if I look back on that race it still bothers me. So when we won states last year it was like a light bulb went off and it was like, ‘OK, we know we’ve got this and we know we can run with anyone.’ That set the spark because we knew we were fast.”
That foursome finished seventh at New Balance Nationals last June with a time of 3:49.20 and placed sixth in the Swedish relay, an event where one runner runs the 100, another the 200, a third the 300 and the final leg is the 400.
With Dunlap gone this year, the Panthers turned to Amanda Watson, a Clemson signee for the 400, and the results have been terrific.
“It was really entertaining to watch them do really well last year and I knew I wanted that so I trained so much harder,” Watson said. “I was a distance runner before this so I transitioned and did more sprint work to get back on the team.”
The four clicked instantly.
Mainwaring Foster specializes in the 400 and is a big-time college recruit after winning the 400 open state and regional titles. She said during the season they choose to focus more of their in-season efforts on their individual events, but once it’s time for them to step up and run the relay it’s a seamless transition made easy by their closeness off the track.
“I love the 4×400 because it’s a team effort and we’re always pushing each other to go faster,” she said. “In the 400 open it’s just you so you have to push yourself on a different level but in the relay, I know I have a team that can make it up or help balance it out. And we have fun out there. We’re always yelling, She’s right behind you so you better speed up’ or something to try to push each other. And it works.”
The foursome has certainly worked well together all season. Watson, Mainwaring Foster, Coleman and Rivera ran the event four times during the regular season and won every one taking championships at the Queen City Relays, Bojangles’ meet, Class 4A Western Regional and at the 4A state championship.
“We are all so close and we get along really well,” Rivera said. “When we run together, we’re able to be hard on each other, but we understand it’s nothing personal. We expect each other to do our best, and we’re here to support each other. That’s why we’re able to do so well.”
From the start, the girls held the fastest time in the state, which is currently 3:50.21 after the foursome placed 11th at the New Balance Nationals in the 4×400. With Holly Klug replacing Watson, the Panthers were also ninth in the Swedish relay capping a great run.
“Four years and 11 seasons of running is a lot, and states was already emotional, so I’m sure it will be emotional and especially if we do really well,” Watson said days before running at New Balance Nationals “It’s going to be great, but sad because it’s our last race together and we’ve had so much fun this year and accomplished so much between us.”
With Watson and Rivera gone, the Panthers aren’t ready to concede their dominance in the 4×400 over the past two seasons. Mainwaring Foster returns as the state’s top 400 runner and Coleman placed second in the state in the 300 hurdles and is also back to partner with some newcomers the Panthers have high hopes for.
“We’re going to continue our 4×400 streak next year,” Mainwaring Foster said. “Coach always says we don’t reload we just retool and that’s the plan for next year.”