TEAM CHAMPS

With 102 points, the Commerce boys' track and field team won its fourth state title in eight years, winning by a 50-point margin over second-place Montgomery County. 

ALBANY — The Commerce boys’ track and field team is once again state champions, and this time it wasn’t even close.

After last year’s event was canceled due to COVID, the Tigers put on a show in Albany with three days of dominance. Commerce racked up 102 points to win by a 50-point margin over second-place Montgomery County, earning the program’s fourth state title in eight years (not counting 2020).

“Coming into it, the goal was to win,” senior distance runner J.J. Morris said. “Just winning the championship alone was amazing. But to do it with the style, the fashion, the effort — everybody came out here and poured their heart out … None of us expected to win by this much. It feels a whole lot better than just winning by a point or two.”

Commerce won in 2019 by a 4.5-point margin, but overwhelmed the competition this time, producing champions in the pole vault (Lambdin Hardy), 400 meters (Sammy Brown), the 1,600 meters (Brandon Martin), 3,200 meters (Martin) and the 4 x 800 meter relay (Martin, Morris, Josh Zeyala and Bryson Flint).

The Tigers also had two runners-up: Morris in the 800 meters and Colin Hall in the pole vault.

A dominant regular season from the Tigers hinted toward a dominant state meet.

“We just felt like if our kids just did what they’ve done all year long and compete, that’s where they were going to end up,” Commerce coach Chas Hardy said.

Hardy also took a moment to point to last year's seniors, who didn't have the opportunity to compete in Albany following to the shutdown of sports due to COVID. Had the Tigers competed in 2020, they would have likely collected another state title. 

“I do want to give a shout out to last year’s seniors who missed out on this opportunity," Hardy said. "I didn’t say it then, but I felt like last year’s team was as good or better than this year’s team, and I hate it for those seniors last year that didn’t get the opportunity to be down here.”

This year's championship comes after the Tigers won titles in 2013, 2016 and 2019. Commerce does have one other state title to its credit, that one coming back in 1962.

The 50-point margin of victory was the widest of the Tigers’ four most recent titles, while the 102 points were the most of any of those championship showings.

“We talked to the kids about coming out and just performing, because you want this memory today,” Hardy said. “You want to live in the moment and enjoy it because it doesn’t come often.”

The Tigers had done enough by days one and two to win the title, racking up four championships and 60 points. But Commerce closed its three-day stay in Albany by garnering 52 more points on the final day, highlighted by the 400 meter state title from Brown.

On the girls’ side, Commerce placed fourth — remarkably — with just two competitors at the state meet: Paden Bell and Lauren Massey. The tandem combined for 41 points.

“Kudos to them for coming down here and being the cream of the crop,” Hardy said.

Bell pulled off an extremely rare feat of winning both the 400 and 3,200 meters, taking the 400 in a photo finish. She also placed second the 800 meters.

Bell competed in the 400, 800, 1,600 and 3,200 meters in Albany.

“She’s a machine,” Hardy said. “She comes out and she competes and she trains hard and she works hard and she competes hard, and the results are today.”

Massey was the runner-up in the pole vault with a height of 9-6.

While Bell and Massey will both return for the girls' team next year, the boys' program will say goodbye to a senior class that helped it win two state titles. 

Morris said this senior group has left its legacy. 

“The bar is going to be set high for several years to come … there’s kids looking up to us,” Morris said. “This senior class, I couldn’t have asked for anything more from what we came out and here and gave.”

•••

Bell pulls off rare accomplishment with 400-meter, 3,200-meter wins

Commerce sophomore Paden Bell put herself in exclusive company, pulling off a dramatic finish win in the state 400 meters Saturday after having won the 3,200 meters on Friday.

Bell is likely the first to have ever won state titles in both events at a Georgia state meet.

“I don’t think anybody has ever done this, so it feels really good to be the first to do that,” she said. “I’m just really excited.”

With a personal-best time of 1:01.13, Bell defeated Montgomery County’s MaKyla Bell by .01 seconds in the 400-meter finals, catching her at the finish line. Bell was actually seeded fifth in the event entering in state meet.

“I knew she was really fast,” Bell said of Montgomery County’s Bell. “But I knew I had a shot to win. So I just wanted to give it everything I had and lay it all on the line.”

Bell called the final steps of the race “crazy.”

“I really don’t even remember that last 50 meters,” she said. “It was just all a blur, but I’m glad I pushed it and give it all I had.”

Bell won the 3,200 meter title the night before with a time of 12:25.95, defeating Furlow Charter School’s Maya Wynn. She paced off Wynn for the first six laps of the race before taking the lead at the start of the seventh.

“Yeah, I new that she was really fast, and I just wanted to make sure that I could have something left and surpass her at the end,” Bell said of her strategy.

The top seed in the Class A-Public 3,200 meters did not compete in the race, leaving the two-mile title up for grabs between Bell and Wynn.

The 3,200-meter win marked Bell’s first state title in either track or cross country.

“It feels really good,” she said after the race. “Especially in a race that I’ve never prepared for, really. I’m more of a mid-distance runner. It feels really good.”

Bell went on to finish as runner-up in the 800 meters on Saturday — following her win in the 400 meters — with a time of 2:32.5 to cap her state meet. She also competed in the mile while at state, finishing fourth (5:44.37).

Running in four different events this season was a grind, she said.

“Just coming out to practice everyday and working on four different events that are four different speeds and four different styles of running, it’s really hard to do,” Bell said.

•••

Freshman standout Sammy Brown runs to 400-meter title win

Sammy Brown’s highlight-filled freshman year ended with a championship.

The three-sport star, who won region offensive player of the year honors in football and then reached the state finals in wrestling, won the Class A-Public 400 meters on Saturday at the state meet in Albany.

Brown entered the meet seeded second behind Irwin County’s Jaheim Shelton, but defeated Claxton’s Joshua McKeever by .52 seconds with a personal-best time of 50.5 to win the title.

Brown noted a number of fast competitors in the field.

“I knew there was going to be some pretty good competition,” he said. “A lot of those kids were running 51s, 52s, so I knew it was going to be pretty good, and it was going to be close. But I was definitely excited coming in. I knew it would be a good race, and I’d be able to compete with people.”

Brown had a busy first state meet, running on both the 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 meter teams and also competing in the 200 meters in addition to running in the 400 meters.

“It feels great,” Brown said of his freshman-year experience. “Just like in wrestling, being in the state finals, I’m just excited to be here.”

•••

Martin completes sweep of mile and two-mile races

Commerce distance running standout Brandon Martin waited his entire career to win his first track and field state title. He had to wait less than 24 hours to pick up the next one.

The senior produced a victory in the 3,200 meters Thursday — the first on the track for the two-time cross country champion — and then ran to a victory in the 1,600 meters on Friday. Martin posted a 9:38.5 in the two-mile win and a 4:35.6 to win the mile.

“I wanted to win a state title in track so bad,” Martin said following his Thursday-night victory. “I’ve got this, this and this under my name. I just need one more thing to throw in there, and I felt like that was the thing. That was the missing piece.”

Martin said he’d been motivated to sweep the mile and two-mile events since his freshman year after having seen a runner at an opposing school pull off the feat.

“My freshman year there was this kid named Jasper Wilson (from Gordon Lee) that did it to us,” Martin said. “I said, ‘I don’t like that guy, but I want to do exactly what he’s doing.’”

Martin won the two-mile title Thursday with room to spare, defeating familiar foe Leo Lopez of Greene County by nearly 23 seconds. The senior lost to Gordon Lee’s Jake Lee in the final paces of this race two years ago. He hadn't forgotten. 

“Yes, Leo beating me in cross (country) my sophomore year was fuel, but losing by six milliseconds to Jake Lee in the two-mile that year was much worse in my opinion,” Martin said.

Winning his first-ever title ended a long wait for Martin, who’d had two years to think about his sophomore year defeat after last year’s state meet was canceled due to COVID.

“I’ve been thinking about this day … for the past 730 days,” Martin said, quickly doing the math in his head. “This is something on my bucket list that I’ve had since freshman year.”

As Martin added two titles to his résumé, he said the distance-running competition in Class A-Public continues to grow deeper.

“I just feel like our field has expanded,” Martin said on Friday following his 1,600-meter win. “All of our field has kept improving, and we’re all getting better as a class. It’s getting difficult to win the titles, but I’m glad I can still pull it off.”

Martin also helped deliver a victory in the 4 x 800 meters Friday, running anchor during which he overtook Greene County’s Lopez on the final turn of the final lap to deliver the victory.

•••

Tigers’ Hardy wins pole vault title, sets school record

The height of 14-1 had been written on Commerce pole vaulter Lambdin Hardy’s mirror all year long. He can now replace that with a new number now.

Hardy cleared a school-record 14-1 to win the Class A-Public title, surpassing former teammate Tucker Flint’s career-best height of 14-0.

“That’s been my goal,” Hardy said. “It’s a big achievement to get on my new pole, and it feels great to get up in the air.”

Flint was in attendance in Albany to watch it all — and pass the torch — as Hardy out-dueled teammate Colin Hall — who vaulted a career-best 12-6 to place second — to win the title. Ironically, Flint out-dueled Hardy for the title two years ago for the championship.

Hardy said he was happy that Flint could be there and to also have the chance to compete against Hall for the title.

“It’s great to see our big family here having a good time,” Hardy said.

Hardy cleared 13-0 on his second attempt to secure the title, then completed vaults of 13-6 and 14-1 to round-out his championship performance.

Friday’s performance with Hardy and Hall going 1-2 in the event bodes well for the future for Commerce vaulting program as both will return next year.

“We had a great season and next year, I think we’re going to have a great season as well,” Hardy said.

•••

Tigers outlast Greene County to win title in inaugural 4 x 800 meter relay

Weathering a strong challenge from region foe Greene County Friday, the Commerce 4 x 800-meter team of Bryson Flint, Josh Zeyala, J.J. Morris and Brandon Martin won the Class A-Public title in the inaugural year of the event in the state meet.

It took a personal-record performance of 8:37.76 from the Tiger quartet to hold off Greene County — which ran its personal-best by a wide margin — and win by a slim 2.3 second gap.

“We kind of came into the season knowing what we could do, and it just feels good,” said Morris, who ran the third leg of the race. “Greene County gave us a run for our money, but we PR’d by 10 seconds. They PR’d by 30 seconds. So, it was a great race, but it feels amazing.”

In a dramatic finish, Martin overtook Greene County's Leo Lopez with just over 100 meters remaining.

“He just kept moving past me, so instead of letting him just keep gaining ground on me, I made sure I was within 15, 10 meters of him,” Martin explained, “because I knew I had enough in the tank to just rope-a-dope him, and I ended up beating him by a little over three seconds the last 100, so that felt nice.”

This is the first year the 4 x 800 has been included in the state meet, so Commerce has the distinction of being Class A-Public’s first-ever champion.

“It’s amazing,” Morris said. “We knew, I guess, whoever won would have the state record, but for us to run time that we ran, it should be a record that stands for a while."

•••

GIRLS PLACERS

•Paden Bell, first, 3,200 meters, 12:25.95; first, 400 meters, 1:01.13; second, 800 meters, 2:32.2; fourth, 1,600 meters, 5:44.37.

•Lauren Massey, second, pole vault, 9-6.

BOYS PLACERS

•Sammy Brown, first, 400 meters, 50.5; fifth, 200 meters, 23.01.

•Brandon Martin, first, 3,200 meters, 9:38.5; first, 1,600 meters, 4:35.6; fourth, 800 meters, 2:05.16.

•Lambdin Hardy, first, pole vault, 14-1.

•4 x 800-meter relay (Bryson Flint, Josh Zelaya, J.J. Morris, Brandon Martin), first, 8:37.76.

•Colin Hall, second, pole vault, 12-6.

•J.J. Morris, second, 800 meters, 2:03.91; fourth, 1,600 meters, 4:46.25.

•4 x 100-meter relay (Trey Garnto, Creed Dunbar, Dreylan Martin, Sammy Brown), third, 44.25.

•4 x 400-meter relay (Jackson Morris, J.J. Morris, Trey Garnto, Sammy Brown), third, 3:35.39.

•Mason Gaddis, sixth, shot put, 43-5.5.

•Wesley Stilley, seventh, discus, 115-7.

•Elijah Burns, seventh, shot put, 42-3.

•Trey Garnto, seventh, 110-meter hurdles, 16.56.

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