The Nottingham High indoor track and field team spent the entire winter making a big bold statement. Unfortunately for the Northstars, they were never allowed to apply the exclamation point.
Nottingham used the entire season to train for the New Balance Nationals, where the 4×200 team of seniors Judeson Mirac, Dana Ridley and Louie Akpadago and sophomore Shamali Whittle were hoping to win the gold and set a national record in the process.
That plan was demolished when the March 14 event was cancelled due to the coronavirus.
“Our whole training was geared toward the big meets and the championship meets,” Ridley said.
“It was like we were working our whole season around Nationals,” Whittle said. “It was a great winter season but this had almost like a negative effect on it because the whole indoor season goal was to do well at the Nationals and bring a gold medal home.”
It did not happen, but that in no way can detract from an outstanding campaign for Melissa Persichetti’s team. The highlights included NJSIAA Group III and Mercer County championships, two gold medal-winners and two record-setters in the Meet of Champions, and a slew of other records that were broken.
Persichetti was not available to speak for this story as she was consumed trying to help her family’s grocery store, Foley’s Family Market, handle a crush of shoppers trying to stock up for possible quarantine.
But throughout the year she praised the work of assistant Curtis Whittle, Shamali’s father, who has been working closely with many of the athletes the past two years.
“I wouldn’t say they surprised me, I knew what was coming,” Curtis Whittle said. “I knew indoor would be a lot tougher because their specialty events, like the 200 and four by 100 were not included in indoor (at most, but not all meets), along with the long jump and triple jump. They score heavily in those events but they weren’t available indoor. So Allentown and West Windsor North, the distance-heavy teams, were the favorites to win.
“When they won the state championship, it was very gratifying for them. It was tough losing the Nationals and Penn Relays. I told them the sky’s the limit for the outdoor season. Hopefully they don’t lose everything outdoors. But safety comes first.”
The Northstars knew all about coming in first. Akpadago was spectacular, as he broke the 55 meter meet record in every meet he ran this winter. The senior set the MOC standard with a 6.34. His best time was a school record 6.33 in the Mercer County meet.
“Louie is just a burst of energy,” Curtis Whittle said. “He was hurt last year outdoors so a lot of people didn’t see what his true potential was in the 100 meters. He’s a special runner.”
Akpadago is in the process of getting into Rutgers if the Scarlet Knights can put the right financial package together. He made up for last spring with his exploits this winter.
“It was a great season for me personally and my teammates,” Akpadago said. “It was an incredible season for me and what I credit the most is the support system around me every day in practice. My teammates and coaches pushed me every day to not settle for less and work hard to achieve greatness. Coach Shaq (Shaquille Sanderson), coach Curtis and coach Persichetti were a big part of my success, they tried to motivate me very day at practice and at meets all the time.”
Ridley was another guy who was bothered by injuries. His problems started last year going into the outdoor New Balance Nationals, which he had to withdraw from due to a strained quad that burned whenever he ran.
When Ridley returned this winter, he still could not run due to a leg strain, and that was followed by a hip issue. He was finally able to go midway through the year and ended up taking second with a personal record of 6.57 in the 55 at the Group III meet.
Although the 200 is not run in sectional and state winter meets, Ridley and his teammates were able to qualify for the Meet of Champions while running independently in the SJTCA Winter Meet.
At the MOC, the Rutgers recruit took third in a PR of 21.90, capping an incredible 1-2-3 sweep for Nottingham. Whittle, who ran the 400 and 55 hurdles most of the season, won the 200 in a meet record time of 21.68 while Akpadago was second in 21.76. Those were the top three times run in New Jersey this winter.
“It wasn’t as potent of a season as the others for me, but it was good to at least come back in the later part of the season,” said Ridley, who felt the top-three sweep was the winter highlight. “I knew I was gonna be going hard trying to win, but I had lane one, and hadn’t been training as rigorously as I should have been in the winter season because of the injury. Just being able to run a 21.9 in lane one, that’s an accomplishment for me.”
Whittle’s MOC victory in the 200 was a sign of things to come. He has been held out of those events in meets due to the presence of Ridley and Akpadago, but that is one of his better events along with the 100.
Despite a winter that included a gold medal in the 55 hurdles at the Mercer County meet and a silver in the Central Jersey Group III meet, Whittle “definitely felt like I could’ve done better. I felt like I started the season off slow, but I began to pick it up by the end of championship season. However, my team and I had a great indoor season so I am proud of that.”
There were other contributors as well. The Northstars needed every point they could get in the state meet as they defeated Allentown by one point.
Nottingham had to win the 4×400 relay and hope another team finished between it and the Redbirds, which is precisely what happened. The Stars won the relay behind Jalen Corbin, Whittle, Ridley and anchorman Kernley Charles. Allentown was second, but Pennsauken ran a faster time in an earlier heat.
“That was electric,” Curtis Whittle said. “That was pretty special. they just missed the old record (of 3:28.33) that they sent a month earlier.”
“It had to be winning the championship,” Shamali Whittle said of the season highlight. “Everyone’s reaction was great. We were all jumping up and down, it was just so much fun.”
There was also fun at the two-day Mercer County meet, where senior Jacquel Jupiter won the long jump and triple jump with school indoor record-setting marks 21-3 and 43-11, respectively.
“They were both on Friday night,” Curtis Whittle said. “That was a big highlight for us and really helped set the tone for us in that meet.”
Another individual record-setter was pole vaulter Cory Jean Louis, who finished second in the CJ III meet with a school mark of 12-feet, which he equaled in the Group III meet but did not advance.
And of course, the 4×200 smashed the school mark twice, running a 1:28.3 at the Millrose Games and following with a 1:27.8 at Eastern States 11 days later. It was the second fastest time in the nation this year, and top time among pure high school teams, as opposed to a club team.
It’s easy to see why the Stars were so disappointed when Nationals were cancelled, but they still realized it was a great winter.
“As a whole it was really good, just fantastic,” Ridley said. “We put forth so many good times individually and in relays; we came back with a couple team titles. It was special.”
I was also special in that the athletes were quality kids, according to Curtis Whittle.
“Just an excellent group of guys, you couldn’t ask for better,” the coach said. “Anyone who comes around these guys would love them.”
Ridley could not agree more.
“I feel like we really stuck together, that’s what makes this team pretty special,” he said. “We have conversations with each other. We get nervous for other guys when they’re racing. We’re all kind of together, in a sense.”
Whether they stay together for the spring remains to be seen, but Shamali Whittle will be ready if there is a season.
“You just gotta keep working hard,” he said. “You never know when the season is going to begin again. It’s not gonna wait for us so you definitely keep working.”
And if they are able to run?
“You can expect to see things that you have never seen before,” Shamali said. “You will see Nottingham bring smoke on the track, and you will need the fire department to cool us down.”