MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - The only thing that shone brighter than the gold medals around her neck were the braces on her teeth.
That mouthful of metal was also the reality check of just how young Signal Mountain sprinter McKenzie Ethridge actually is. Without that reminder you certainly couldn't tell by the way the freshman dominated Thursday night's BlueCross Spring Fling track and field state championship meet.
Peaking at just the right time, Ethridge turned in personal-best times in both the 100 and 200 meters to sweep the Class A/AA sprint events and also anchored the Lady Eagles' state-winning 4x200 relay. It was a performance eerily similar to former Howard sprinter LaQuisha Jackson, who also swept the sprint events and anchored state championship relays as a freshman, then set state records in the two sprint events the following year.
Jackson, now a freshman at San Diego State, recently qualified for next week's NCAA regional meet in the 100 and 200.
"I definitely know who LaQuisha Jackson is," Ethridge said after her night's work was finished. "I would love to do what she did. I knew of her because when I was starting to run for the [Chattanooga] Jets when she was leaving. I watched her and I would love to improve my times to get to where she was."
But while Jackson created a noticeable buzz all by herself at the state meet each year she ran, Ethridge has plenty of company to ensure that Chattanooga remains atop the state for female sprinters. Signal Mountain's 4x200 relay team is made up of three freshmen and a sophomore, while its 4x100 is entirely freshmen.
In the 200 meters, Ethridge beat three seniors and two juniors, and in the 100 she beat three seniors and three juniors and second place went to another Chattanooga freshman, Tyner's Vivian Smith. Smith also ran on the Lady Rams' state championship 4x100 relay and competed in the state pentathlon earlier in the week.
The most impressive moment of the night for Ethridge was her final event when she fought off the fatigue of having already run three events and nipped Austin-East junior Lexus Hall by two one-hundredths of a second. The toughest decision facing Signal Mountain coaches next season could be deciding which relay to take Ethridge out of, since she likely will add the 400 meters to her individual events.
"I was not surprised for McKenzie, even though she's a freshman, because she's so calm and mature for her age," Signal Mountain coach Beverly Blackwell said. "She's the backbone of the team. I knew she could pull it off.
"Honestly, I was more nervous for the relay teams because they're all so young. But to have that much talent, and most of them being so young, it's very exciting to see what all of them can do from here."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.