Mekhi Stafford doesn’t look like a freshman, and he did not perform like one in his first season of indoor track and field.
The Ewing High School freshman helped the Blue Devils to their second sectional title ever and went on to medal at the Meet of Champions. He finished his season as the fastest freshman sprinter in the state.
“He’s only going to get stronger,” said Ewing head coach Meg Soltysik. “He’s a really strong kid. You look at him, and there’s no way you’d think he’s 15 years old.”
Stafford was one of the new additions to a Ewing team that has had some strong individuals in recent years, but never had enough overall strength to win a sectional since 2008. EHS captured the Central Jersey Group 2 title by one point over Cinnaminson, 48-47, thanks to a thrilling finish.
“It means a lot,” Stafford said. “We’re really pumped and excited. To win it, we had to win the 4×4.”
Dailan Peck won the high jump and Maurice Queen and Josh Burgess picked up key points by tying for fifth in the event. Stafford was second in the 55-meter dash for big points, and Arinze Nkemka did the same when he took second in the 55-meter hurdles.
Dahva’e Edward-Chew was second and Xavier Collazo-Young was fifth in the 400 meters. That set the stage for the 4×400 with Collazo-Young, Nkemka, Tariq McKinney and Edward-Chew needing and getting the win in 3:33.18.
“It was pretty exciting,” Soltysik said. “They were really happy about it. We knew going in that we had a shot, so it was back and forth and keeping the score. It came down to the final relay where if we came in second place, we lost by one. If we won, we won by one. It was a big deal.”
“It was close,” she said of the final race. “We were in the top three for the majority of it. It came down to Dahva’e’s anchor and he was able to surpass the rest.”
Soltysik said she was happiest that it was a combined effort to win the title. The Blue Devils showed their depth and strength with the championship.
“I was definitely surprised that we were able to capture all those points,” Soltysik said. “You never know with the winter because it takes a couple of kids. You could have one kid that takes 25 points. I always get nervous because we don’t have anyone pole vaulting or in the 3,200, so you worry about not getting points there.
“But the guys spread themselves well across the other event areas. We grabbed some points from Xavier in the 400, which I wasn’t expecting. Arinze had an awful race at the trials for the 55 hurdles for sectionals but squeaked into finals and ended up placing second, which we weren’t expecting. It really came down to every kid who was performing that day.”
After the championship, Ewing went on to the Group 2 state meet. Peck won the high jump at 6-feet and Queen was fourth. Stafford was third in the 55 dash in 6.61 seconds, and Edward-Chew was fourth in the 400 meters. The 4×400 was sixth. That put Ewing fourth in the state team standings.
At the Meet of Champions, Peck took seventh in the high jump when he cleared 6-feet-2 and Stafford ran to eighth in the 55 dash after posting a personal-record 6.57 seconds in the preliminaries just to make the finals to finish off his season.
“I don’t think it could have gone any better,” Stafford said. “It was perfect. I worked hard and did what I was supposed to do and executed every race, and I ran a personal best of 6.57 in the 55-meter dash.”
Stafford was focused on football coming off a fall season that saw him get varsity action in three games. A running back and linebacker, Stafford came out for track a little late, but it truly became a case of better late than never.
“I wasn’t thinking about much really,” said Stafford of his expectations. “I was just doing it to do it, to get ready for spring track.”
Stafford is competitive and was motivated by what he saw early. He never predicted he’d get as far as he did.
“I came to the first winter track meet and I saw all these guys were fast,” Stafford said. “I thought I’d never be that fast. I started going every night, going outside, I have speed bands and I was working hard every night. I was naturally fast, but I wasn’t as fast those guys that I saw at my first meet of high school.”
Stafford got more and more dedicated to improving as the season went along. He had done track and field in middle school, but not like this year.
“My seventh grade year I didn’t take track that serious,” he said. “In eighth grade, I got a little bit more serious. This year was the hardest I’ve ever worked.”
It began to show as his times dropped and he fine-tuned his sprint technique. It came with work he was putting in during practice and after it, and he developed into a valuable member of the team.
The winter was a perfect learning environment. There were hard lessons, like when he had a false start and was disqualified in the 55 finals at the Mercer County Championships.
“I felt a whole bunch of pressure, because I was a freshman going to finals,” Stafford said. “I anticipated the start and DQ’d. After that, I was less confident a little bit. I was scared to DQ again. After Easterns, I gained it back after I ran a good race.”
The county false start was arguably the only time that Stafford ran like an inexperienced freshman.
“He was so keyed up,” Soltysik said. “It was his first big meet. He was fired up. He was ready to run his hardest. He was a little too ready.”
Stafford took off from there. He found a way to remain calm and run his best as the races got bigger and bigger toward the end of the season.
“I was anxious, nervous,” Stafford said of counties. “Now it feels regular and normal. I feel a little more experienced. You relax and think through it and focus and have tunnel vision.”
Stafford is focusing on his sprint endurance for the spring season, of it is not cancelled due to the coronavirus.
He will have to lengthen his sprint abilities to run the 100 and 200 meters and share a part in the 4×100 relay. He’ll also explore throwing and jumping for a fourth event. He is talking about joining a club for the summer to further work on his speed.
“He’s such a little kid and he’s performing so well,” Soltysik said. “He’s finally starting to see how talented he is, but he is definitely so new to it that it’s really neat to see how excited he gets.”
The best part for Ewing is that Stafford will be around for another three years. The future is looking good for the Blue Devils as they hope to build off an indoor season that could not have gone better.
“I was really happy with how the season went this year,” Soltysik said. “We knew we had a lot of upperclassmen returning so our chances of success were pretty high. We’re always a little weak in certain areas like distance and throws, but we gathered some new people that we weren’t expecting like Mekhi Stafford and Xavier Young. Having those two guys come in and add to the team helped us out a lot. The vibes were great.”