By Jennifer L. Warren
NEWBURGH – To watch the Newburgh Free Academy Boys’ 4 x 400 Meter Relay Team compete on the track is a picture of strength, beauty and grace. To observe them interacting off the track is equally special.
On this particular day, leadoff runner, senior Stephon Scott, a 400 meter open specialist, arrives just a “little late.” At first, he takes some playful, verbal jabs from the remainder of his relay team; however, before long, any “judgement” fades, and the entire group is smiling, laughing and simply at ease with one another. When their Coach, Malcolm Burks, enters the scene, the bunch again gets serious, composing themselves, while awaiting any key details on the upcoming National Meet. Today Burks, who is also doing double duty leading his summer “Newburgh Elite” workouts concurrently, delivers reminders about being prompt and its carryover to collegiate life. He also smiles, revealing his undeniable fondness for this tight union of young, fleet men.
“We are more than just a team; we are brothers with a father figure in-coach, explained senior and third leg runner, Jordan Lawrence, who holds the school’s 800 meter record with a 1:55.5 split. “Coach Burks is like a dad to us; we go to him with anything; school, relationship, running, life, you name it.”
It’s that very bond that has resulted in huge dividends for the Goldbacks’ relay this year. Qualifying for the prestigious National Meet, held in North Carolina last weekend, the relay needed a 3.21.0 time to earn a spot; they easily responded with a 3:12.7, their fastest split this season. It’s a number they duplicated Sunday, as they captured third place at Nationals. The feat adds to an already lengthy, impressive list of accomplishments in the event, including: a number one New York State ranking, number seven in the nation, as well as State Meet record holders. Two of the five (there is an alternate) have been on the relay for all four years of their scholastic careers; while three have had a three year tenure. Youngest member, alternate, freshman, Ryler Gould, holds the distinction of being the fastest 400 meter freshman hurdler in the country. When asked what it’s like to be in the company of all upper classman, Gould simply smiled, assuredly adding, “They are all so supportive and helpful; I’ve never been made to feel like I’m younger or any less.”
All five had high expectations for this past weekend’s mega meet. Third leg, junior Brendon Hanson, who qualified for the State Meet in the 200 meters, was looking for a team personal record. Meanwhile Lawrence wanted to show “There is good in Newburgh.” Senior Robert Walker, the team jokester who earned New York State Championship laurels in the 400 meter hurdles, was gunning for a state record in the event. Earning third place among steep competition from all over the country, while tying their best time of the season, the team once again rose to the occasion, despite not fulfilling all of their lofty goals. It was a performance that left “dad,” Coach Burks, on Father’s Day, quite pleased. The joy came on more levels than solely running speed and places.
“As a coach the overall season was full of ups and downs; these young men overcame the odds by being at Nationals,” said Burks following the meet. “Taking all of these things into account, I was honored to witness them complete their journey around the track.” He then went on to add, “Knowing that these young men will all some day be graduating and joining the college ranks is a greater honor to me than getting a National Title.”