Deon McLean (left, with coach Bayshawn Wells and teammate Davon Boykin) qualified for a Group 2 Meet berth with a fourth-place finish in the 400 at sectionals.

Deon McLean picked the opportune time to put all his training to good use in the 400 meters, leaving him with pleasant winter memories and a lot of confidence heading into the spring track and field season.

The Lawrence High junior received a wild card berth to his first NJSIAA Meet of Champions after running a 51.26 at the Group II state meet in Toms River Feb. 16. McLean finished seventh and the top six from each group get automatic bids to the MOC, but McLean’s time was good enough for the wild card. In fact, his mark was tied for 18th best among a field of 42.

“I was happy with the race,” McLean said. “I was finally able to put everything together that my coaches have been teaching me. It felt pretty good to be able to do what they have been teaching me for so long.”

Coach Bayshawn Wells was thrilled to see McLean leave it all on the Bennett Center track.

“He went after it,” Wells said. “He didn’t hold anything back and he still had enough strength in the second lap to catch guys.”

Regardless of how he fared at the Feb. 23-24 MOC, just getting there was a big leap for McLean, who had never qualified for a state meet in his first two years.

He came to the Cardinals track program in the spring of his freshman year but at the time was more focused on football and basketball. He ran the 800 meters for the middle school team just to keep in shape for football.

The Lawrence coaches had him running the 200 early in the season, until some bad weather proved fortuitous.

“It’s funny how he ran the 400 for us,” Wells said. “It was one of our cold meets, our upperclassmen were complaining it was cold and didn’t feel like running. I looked at him and said, ‘Hey, are you able to run this race?’ He said he was and he ran a 55.4 for the first time. Chaz Freeman was the head coach at the time. We looked at each other and said ‘Hey, we may have something special here.’”

McLean competed in the Penn Relays that year and qualified for the New Balance National Freshman Meet. He was so inspired by his season that he gave up hoops in his sophomore year to run indoor track.

McLean missed the Mercer County meet due to illness, and just missed reaching the Group II meet when he finished seventh in the sectionals.

“It was an interesting season,” Wells said. “He can’t even run the counties because he’s sick, and then he just misses qualifying at the sectionals. He was a little upset he didn’t make nationals indoor or outdoor last year. He was running great times, 52s and 51s, but at the time, the time for nationals was 50.9. Other guys were just running better.”

‘He’s so dedicated to it. He locked in and he really had that chip on his shoulder like ‘This is what I want to do.’’

At last spring’s county meet, McLean finished 10th in 52.06, but came back to win the sophomore division of the Mercer Freshman-Sophomore meet the next week with an outdoor best of 50.93.

“Mentally, that opened my eyes,” Wells said. “I wanted to win that one, I wanted to win the actual championship out of the junior and seniors too but I had a bad race. It gave me more confidence. Coming off the county race I didn’t run too well and to bounce back with a better time, it’s pretty fun.”

McLean could not sustain the momentum, however, and finished eighth in the CJ III meet in 51.35. By that point, however, he had totally bought into track and joined Al Jennings’ Trenton Track Club last summer.

“That helped a lot,” McLean said. “I became more confident in running. And when you run with a club, there’s a lot more competition out there than just in high school. You’re running against guys with different training methods, really good guys.”

It certainly paid off this winter. McLean took third in the Mercer County meet with an indoor PR of 50.99, and followed with his strong showing in states. He took fourth in the CJ II meet in 51.38.

“Getting to states was a big accomplishment,” McLean said. “I was trying to qualify for them since freshman year. I just missed last year, this year I put in a lot of work to get there.”

One thing is certain: McLean has found his niche running the 400, although he will still run the 200 on occasion.

“He has the strength and the speed,” Wells said. “Those two go hand in hand with the 400. In the 200 he’s a fine runner, but I think he’s stronger runner who can do the 400. Most 200 guys can do it but if you’re a true 200 sprinter it’s tough for the 400 sometimes. He has the speed to compete with those guys in the 200 but the way he trains and the way we’ve been training him is to be a 400 kind of runner.

“He’s strong enough where he can come back and run good splits in the 400. He understands the toughest part is getting it mentally. Mentally he has it now, where he’s supposed to get out, get the time he wants to hit in the first 200 and finishing the last 200 strong. Being strong enough physically to run it and being mentally capable of running it makes him a good 400 runner.”

A lot of guys will bemoan the 400, not wishing to run such a long sprint. McLean takes a different view, figuring it gives him some margin for error.

“In the short sprints, when you have a bad start it’s hard to make up for it,” he said “In the four you have 400 meters to make up for it. It’s a pretty long time to recover.”

McLean agrees with Wells that his mental outlook has gotten better. Much of that has to do with listening to his coaches.

“Coach Jennings and Wells always tell me to get out, start off strong and whatever I have at the end try to finish with,” he said. “That definitely plays a big part in my opinion. If you don’t’ get out well, then you kind of give up the race.”

And McLean is not about giving up, either in a race or with his career. In some ways, he is just getting started.

“He was determined coming into this year,” Wells said. “He ran all summer, and this winter he was all in. He’s so dedicated to it. He locked in and he really had that chip on his shoulder like ‘This is what I want to do.’”