Dana Ridley warms up prior to the Meet of Champions June 9, 2018. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

As a kid growing up in Trenton, Dana Ridley was like one of those really good high school football teams that have trouble getting games on their schedule because everyone is afraid to play them.

Ridley was fast, so did he challenge kids to races?

“Actually, I did that a lot,” he said.

Did he win?

“Yes.”

Did other kids stop racing him?

“After about the third time, yes,” he said with a laugh.

Thus, the only way for Ridley to get races was to join an organized team.

“I just always ran,” he said. “Once I heard about sports in school I was like, ‘Yeah, why not try it?’”

He ran track in middle school for two years before his family moved to Hamilton prior to his freshman year of high school. It was fortuitous that the Ridleys lived in Trenton during Dana’s 7th and 8th-grade years, since there are no middle school sports programs in Hamilton.

“I believe it got me in shape and condition for high school,” Ridley said. “It’s a big leap from middle school to high school so it helped to have done that in middle school.”

Like so many naturally fast runners, Ridley quickly discovered his athleticism only got him so far, and that mechanics were a big part of the equation.

“There were a lot of things I didn’t know about running,” he said. “I thought you just moved your legs but (coaching) taught me a lot. The things I needed help on were my arms at a 90 degree angle with my shoulder, how to get off the blocks; things like that.”

Last year, as a Nottingham freshman, he had a quiet campaign on a successful team with ample talent. Oddly enough, Ridley was uncertain of his skills in something he had excelled at throughout life.

“My freshman year, I was kind of scared to run so I just did high jump,” he said. “I didn’t tell the coaches that. I ran sometimes when they told me to.”

He got over his apprehension toward the end of his first winter track season.

“I ran a four by 200, and they saw how fast I was,” he said. “So by the end of winter, they made us run more than what I wanted to. But by spring of my freshman year, I got into it. I did pretty much everything; the 100, 200, 400, the relays and high jump.”

Thus, he became a contributor.

“He didn’t score as many points last spring as he did this year,” coach Jon Adams said. “But he was getting a lot of thirds in our dual meets, and he was just a freshman. So he didn’t medal in those big meets. He was learning the game.”

This past winter season, Ridley was limited because his specialty, the 200-meter dash, isn’t contested. The only winter sprint is the 55.

“Winter track was OK, I PRrd a lot, but it wasn’t as big as I hoped,” Ridley said. “It’s very rare to see a 200 besides the four by two. But it helped me transition into the spring.”

Adams felt Ridley would have been one of the top 200 runners in the state if they ran it indoors. He knew things were ready to break big in the spring.

“Outdoor, we expected him to have a great year,” Adams said. “We used him in high jump and other events, but as it got closer to the end of the year we pulled him from those events and had him concentrate on two and one.”

He exploded in both. Ridley qualified for the NJSIAA Meet of Champions in the 100 and 200 meters and medaled in the 200 with a time of 21.9. He finished fourth in the 200 and sixth in the 100 in the Group III meet, and was second in both the 100 and 200 in Central Jersey Group III. At the Mercer County meet, he took second in the 200 and third in the 100.

In looking back on the season, Ridley was pleasantly surprised with how things turned out.

“I didn’t expect to make Meet of Champions in the 100, I didn’t think I was that fast,” he said. “I didn’t get my PR in the state meet but I still was able to get a wild card.”

And while he expected to qualify for the MOC in the 200, he was uncertain about getting a medal.

“At first I didn’t think I was gonna make it,” he said. “The seeding time they had me for was 13th, and I thought I had to push a lot of people. I didn’t think that was possible. I got off the blocks pretty clean, my coach was telling me on the first curve on the 200 I was cruising by and attacking the curve. I just sprinted the whole thing and didn’t wait until the last 100 meters.”

Adams knew Ridley had his work cut out for him at the MOC, since he was running in an unseeded heat. Unseeded heats usually yield slower times.

“His state time wasn’t as good coming off the group meet, so he was seeded in the back of the pack, but I told him, ‘You gotta run,’” the coach said. “I thought he would bump up into eighth or seventh place but he got all the way up to sixth and he cracked 22, which I’m just ecstatic about.”

Ridley also ran the third legs in the 4×200 and 4×100 relays due to his ability to take the curve on the sprints. His relay teammates are all sophomores—Louie Akpadago, Javon Jenkins and Judeson Mirac. Akpadago also had a standout year.

“Me and Louie push each other every meet,” Ridley said. “Not really in practices, but in the meets we try to amp each other up during the race. If it’s a relay and I see him tired, I push. If he sees me tired, he pushes. When we’re running together in the open two, we kind of look at each other and try to go for it.”

The one thing Ridley needs to improve on is his start. Adams noted that is why he did not excel in the 55 during the winter, “because if you have a bad start, you’re done.”

The 6-foot-3 Ridley quickly admits he has work to do.

“The first step, once the gun goes off, is pretty quick but getting to top speed is something I have a problem with,” he said. “Tall people have problems with that. But I believe it’s fixable.”

So does Adams.

“He’s popping up a little too early,” the coach said. “We give him the analogy of taking off like an airplane. He kind of pops up and his steps are not real good. (Sprints coach) Shaq Sanderson has been working with him real hard on that. It’s getting better but he’s still got work to do when you start talking elite runners.”

That’s part of the reason Adams is considering putting Ridley in the 400 next year; along with the fact he is able to put himself in another gear.

“He’ll start out slow and then just run right by you,” Adams said. “You’ll get a little lead on him in the first 15, 20 meters and then he pulls even and then it’s like, ‘See you later. I’m going.’ He’s real good in the relays because he gets a running start.”

Adams tried to convince Ridley to utilize that explosive speed on the football field but it didn’t quite work out. Ridley was busy on autumn afternoons, however, as he played trombone in the school band.

“There was a poster on the wall in middle school for band, I thought, ‘Sure, why not,’” Ridley said. “I knew nothing about trombone. I just practiced, and somehow it worked out. It was a lot of fun going to concerts and marching. And they gave you free food, so that’s a plus.”

Another plus is Ridley’s summer destination. He planned on joining Al Jennings Trenton Track Club but “a trip came up that my mom planned.”

What trip could possibly interfere with the TTC?

“Hawaii, for the summer.”

Oh. Even Al Jennings can’t argue with that.