'It's tough': COVID-19 denies Oak Park girls track team's run at another three-peat

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Brandon Jiles has built Oak Park’s girls track team into a dynasty, but its dream of a sixth state title in seven years was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coronavirus put an end to the careers of seniors Aasia Laurencin, Jayla Jones, Kourtney Kennard and N’Stajah Banks.

“It was tough because the kids worked really hard, ran cross country in the fall and most of them ran indoor track, so not being able to compete kind of put a damper in all of the work they put in," Jiles said. "But at the end of the day the kids did understand that the health and safety of everybody is more important than sport. It was a good learning lesson, but at the same time it was a little painful as well.

The Oak Park girls track team has won five out of the last six Division 1 state titles.

“I had four senior girls who were contributors and three of them had decided on schools. Aasia is going to Texas, Jayla Jones is going to North Carolina A&T and Kourtney Kennard is going to the University of Memphis on an academic scholarship. They ran pretty well so it didn’t hurt them as bad as it would hurt some kids, but at the same time still not being able to compete and win state championships and national titles was kind of a rough day for them.

“We won three state titles in a row — 2014, 2015 and 2016 — were second in ’17, and then won again in ’18 and ’19, so we were trying to win three in a row again. It’s tough because usually good track programs last four years and then they top off. We were trying to keep it going.”

Jiles will have a talented lineup to work with next year in Chloe Vines, Morgan Atlas, Tamyra Todd and Jada Roundtree. Vines placed second in the Division 1 state meet in the 400 meters (54.22 seconds) and fifth in the 200 meters (24.97) as a freshman last year. Atlas placed fifth in the 300-meter hurdles (43.94) as a freshman. Todd placed seventh in the 400 meters (57.54) as a sophomore and Roundtree, who did not compete last season, was the indoor state champion in the 400 meters (55.81) this past winter.

But Jiles wanted to see Laurencin perform this spring after she placed second in the state the previous two years to White Lake Lakeland's Grace Stark, who was the fastest 100-meter hurdler in state history (13.16). Stark earned the title of 2020 Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year as a member of the Florida Gators and broke the World U20 record in the 60-meter hurdles twice at the SEC Indoors (7.93 seconds, then 7.91).

“Aasia is a multi-time AAU Junior Olympic champion, an All-American in the hurdles and it’s just crazy because she had been running behind Grace Stark," Jiles said. "It was finally her senior year and her turn to win a state title in her event, the 100 hurdles, but she didn’t have a season so that was real tough for her.

“Aasia finished second twice, as a sophomore and junior, when Grace Stark was the No. 1 hurdler in the nation. But Aasia is a smart kid. She’ll be very successful at Texas, has one of the best coaches in the world and she’s going to one of the better track schools in the nation, so things will work out.”

Laurencin had big plans, eyeing titles at the state meet in June as well as in the New Balance Nationals later in the summer. Now she plans to continue to train, then travel to Austin to begin her college career in August.

Aasia Laurencin

“It was heartbreaking but knew it was coming. You know the disappointment so I’m just getting ready for college now," said Laurencin who is the National Honor Society president, owns a 3.95 GPA and plans to major in Neuroscience or computer science at Texas. "I'm going to (Farmington Hills) Harrison’s track to run, then I work out at home, have an area where I do core work and get on the bike. My mom helps since she’s a personal trainer.

“People know me for the 100-meter hurdles. I’m top three in the nation in the 60-hurdles and 100-hurdles. My next event specialty is the 200-meter dash where my (personal record) is 24.20, which is among the top in the Michigan all-time lists, and I ran the third fastest time ever in the hurdles, a 13.43.”

So why Texas?

“Coach Edrick Floreal is phenomenal. He coached the reigning world record holder in the 100-meter hurdles, Keni Harrison, who ran a 12.20 to break the world record. Their academics are amazing, and I love the warm weather,” Laurencin said. “University of Texas has been communicating and said the sports teams will return in August, so that’s the plan, to get there in August.”

Jones and Kennard were part of Oak Park’s winning 1,600-meter relay team last year — an MHSAA state meet record at 3 minutes, 45.13 seconds — while Jones also played a part in Oak Park’s 1,600- and 3,200-meter relay teams in 2018. Banks placed fourth in the 300 hurdles last year.

“Jayla was third last year in the Division 1 state championships in the 800. She was our best cross country runner in the fall and has developed into a leader as she got older,” Jiles said. “The crazy thing is I’ve known Jayla since she was a baby since her mom ran at (Detroit) Mumford with me. Ada (Jones) graduated from Mumford in ’97 so I’ve known Jayla since she was a little kid and I’m very proud of her.”

Jones was looking forward to taking official visits to Virginia Commonwealth, Norfolk State, Florida A&M and North Carolina A&T. She competed in the New Balance Outdoors at North Carolina A&T following the high school season last summer but did not take a tour of the school.

“I was looking forward to performing in an Oak Park uniform and I won’t be able to do that again,” Jones said. “I specialize in the 800 and just love running it. My best time is 2:12 and I really wanted to run a 2:10 or under and win state.”

Jones has been keeping busy running up to six miles a day to get ready for cross country this fall at A&T. She has a 3.6 GPA and plans to become a pharmacist.