The CIF State Track and Field Championships has started its two-day run at Buchanan High School with a combined crowd of 17,500 fans expected to watch California's best compete for the medal stage.
This is the third straight year Buchanan has hosted the state meet, which is scheduled to remain at the venue through 2014.
Locally, Clovis High All-American Jenna Prandini is out to add to her two gold medals from last year (long and triple jumps). She's competing in the 100, 200 and long jump.
Showstoppers bring their talents to town
Long Beach Poly athletes march into Buchanan High's Veterans Memorial Stadium Friday with their distinctive green and gold uniforms, a cadre of future college stars and national top rankings for both boys and girls.
Only there's a bonus this time that will accompany Long Beach Poly's girls track and field team in the CIF State Championships.
Her name is Melia Cox, a Jackrabbit bounding toward unprecedented territory.
"She can make a mark for herself in Poly history and I'm sure in the state of California as well," says Jackrabbits assistant coach Crystal Irving, who's in charge of their girls.
Only the gifted can distinguish themselves in a program that's captured three consecutive team titles and a state-record 11 overall – and those coming in the past 20 years.
A fourth straight – expected in dominant fashion for a team that will ship three members to USC, two to Cal and maybe more to college on scholarship – would tie Poly's girls with Jefferson-Los Angeles' boys (1949-52) for most consecutive team championships for either gender. And the Jackrabbits boys are favored to win their 11th team title.
Cox and teammate Akawkaw Ndipagbor – more commonly referred to as "Co-Co" – could haul a combined eight gold medals back to The Beach.
Ndipagbor, headed to USC, is top-ranked in the state in the 200 meters (23.62 seconds) and 400 (53.51). She also runs legs on state-leading 400 (45.04) and 1,600 (3:41.75) relays. And all four of those marks rank among the top five nationally.
To compete in four events – that's eight races in two days – on the nation's premier prep track and field stage is remarkable but not unheard of at Poly.
It's Cox, another future Trojan, who's cut from a different cloth.
She'll compete in the 100 high hurdles, 300 low hurdles, triple jump and the 400 relay. And never, 1988 Poly graduate Irving says, has that been attempted (three individual events, one relay) at the state meet in program annals – boys or girls.
"No one has been so dynamic across the board as Melia," says Irving, a former world-class quarter-miler who also ran for UNLV.
Cox ranks first and second nationally in the 100 (13.34) and 300 (40.94) hurdles, ranks fourth in the state in the triple jump (40-4 3/4) and will run the second leg on the 400 relay, which is No. 3 nationally.
It was Cox's decision to play that demanding card at Buchanan: "I'll just try to stay hydrated and keep working hard."
This evokes memories of Pomona's Janeene Vickers, who at the 1987 state meet, won the 100 (11.76), 100 hurdles (13.34) and 300 hurdles (40.96), and contributed to a relay.
How to explain Cox's separation from the greats in Poly history? A gymnastics background, perhaps, for an athlete who once scored a 9.9 on the vault in the YMCA Nationals as a 13-year-old.
"She is very balanced," Irving says.
And so much more: "She's very graceful, very smooth. She runs with ease, runs smart, knows how to conserve energy when she needs to and when to dig deep without much effort."
Setting standards is a calling in track and field – and all sports, for that matter – at Poly, a diverse public school of 5,000 in the Southern Section.
Irving, raised "right in the hood" of Long Beach, once declined an offer to be the head women's track and field coach at UNLV.
She's now in her 14th year as a Jackrabbits track assistant under coach Don Norford, her godfather, and she's in her ninth year as girls athletic director.
She's part of the nationally recognized model at Poly, crowned the No. 1 athletic department in the land by Sports Illustrated in 2005. In 2008, Poly again was on SI's list of top athletic schools, at No. 6, and it also was on Newsweek's list of top U.S. high schools for academics.
"This just isn't about when the kids hit the gate for practice," Irving says. "We monitor our kids in the community and at school. If we need to sit with them in the classroom, we do it. If we need to go to their home to make sure they're not disrespecting their parents, we do it.
"Track is the end result, but it takes so much more to get them out there and into college. We work on the mental aspect all of the time. You can be in the best of shape, but it means nothing if the mental part doesn't carry you through. We lead by example and I don't ask what I haven't done myself."