MURFREESBORO — Alcoa senior Jataya Wilson initially got into track and field as a way to stay in shape for basketball season.
Those priorities began shifting Wilson’s junior year when colleges began reaching out to her about throwing for their programs.
“I was like, ‘I could go to school for this — this is something I could see myself doing (beyond) high school,’” Wilson said. “I love both sports, but my heart is with track, always.”
An East Tennessee State University track and field signee, Wilson defended her state title in shot put Friday in the TSSAA Track & Field Small Class Championships. She placed first for the second-straight year with a distance of 40 feet, 1 1/4 inches.
Wilson also placed fourth in discus (108-3). She was among six Alcoa athletes to medal in individual events as the girls team placed ninth and the boys 17th.
Alcoa throwing coach Jonathan Grissom said he and Wilson had a talk after school wrapped up for her a few weeks ago.
“I just told her, ‘When you’re done at state, you’re either going to do one of two things,’” Grissom began. “‘You’re either going to be happy with what you did or you’re going to wish you spent more time throughout these two weeks practicing and preparing.’”
Wilson got the message loud and clear, spending a significant amount of time outside of practice getting in reps at Maryville’s junior high track leading up to the state championship. She was fueled by less than ideal performances at the sectional meet, which had her seeded third in the state in shot put and out of medal contention in discus.
“I had that mentality to just come in and do what I know I can do,” Wilson said. “It’s great to know I can come back and defend my title as a two-time state champ — to know I’m more than capable of hitting what I need to hit and getting the technique down and being coachable.”
To Grissom, Wilson is a one-of-a-kind athlete for more than her talent. He said she’s genuinely nice to the point where she feels empathy for the girls against whom she’s competing.
“She’s the kind of person who, when she beats someone, she feels bad they got beat,” Grissom said. “I’m going to miss having her on the team — not just because she wins a bunch. It’s easier to replace talent than it is to replace leadership.”
While Wilson was the only one to win a state title for Alcoa, numerous Tornadoes had better-than-expected performances.
Junior Jada Johnson surprised herself in the long jump. She set a personal record by six inches to place third (17-2 3/4) despite her own expectations of finishing seventh or eighth.
Johnson said she did nothing differently ahead of the event.
“I was like, ‘This is my last jump of my junior year, and I want to make it a good one,’” Johnson said. “It feels amazing to be able to PR by so much. I think I can do so much more if I really set my mind to it.”
Jakobe Robinson also set a personal best in shot put to place sixth (46-2). A senior, Robinson said his goal was to get on the podium after failing to do so last season.
“It was hot — I just had to push through it and get my mindset on placing,” Robinson said. “This year, just to place and have this medal around my neck, it means a lot.”
Shelby Knight was similarly grateful after finishing the 800. A sophomore, Knight thought she had placed seventh until medals were being handed out.
“They called seventh, and I put my drink down to go up, and it wasn’t me,” Knight said. “I was like, ‘Wait, did I not place? What is happening? Then they called sixth place and said, ‘Alcoa, Shelby Knight.’ I was so happy, and I looked over at my dad and he was yelling. … I was just glad to be on the podium.”
Knight finished the 800 in 2:29.98. It was an especially impressive feat given only about 30 minutes had elapsed between that race and her 1,600. She finished sixth in that event, too (5:47.39).
“I’m just so humbled,” Knight said. “I worked so hard this season, I’m just really glad it paid off.”
Senior Christian Graham had a unique set of motivations behind his seventh-place finish in the triple jump (40-9). His sister, Lilly Lang of Maryville, had placed first in the high jump in the Large School state championships the day before.
“My mom was like, ‘Yeah, you better bring something home,’” Graham said, laughing. “(This medal) justified being in track for three years and telling my work I could only come in at 6 after track, so it really made it worth it for me.”
Braxton Baumann set a personal best in discus (131-10) to place eighth. A technical glitch with his release prevented him from reaching the finals in shot put like he intended. The good news is he’s only a sophomore.
“This was a situation where the competition this year was just really good,” Alcoa coach Chris Frary said of boys discus and shot put. “He’s got a fantastic work ethic, and I can promise you whatever he’s got going wrong, he’ll have it fixed for next year.”
The girls placed fifth in the 3,200 relay (10:54.39) while the boys medaled in three relays — the 800 (fifth in 1:32.40), the 1,600 (seventh in 3:36.20) and the 3,200 (fifth in 8:41.82).
“I thought we came and competed very well,” Frary said. “We were a little short-handed this year in a few events, but the kids we brought — they stepped up. “Most everybody who was physically able has come away with a medal. That’s not a bad day.”