Article written by Chris Dabe
The first season Eric Smith coached the girls track and field program at John Curtis Christian School, he won a state championship — mostly with girls who also played on the volleyball, basketball and softball teams.
Smith now has a group of sprinters who put a year-round focus on lowering their times to be among the best in the nation.
“They have taken things to another level,” Smith said.
Curtis has a 1,600-meter relay team that ranks second in the nation, and the Patriots are determined to claim the No. 1 national spot when they run April 2-3 at the Challenge of Champions in Mobile, Alabama.
To do so, the Patriots must improve on the 3 minutes, 48.72 seconds they needed to finish second last weekend at the Texas Southern Relays in Houston, where De Soto (Texas) finished first with a best-in-the-nation time of 3:47.5.
After the meet in Mobile, Curtis will take aim on the LHSAA state meet record that has stood for nearly two decades — the mark of 3:47.48 set by Baton Rouge High in 2002. The Class 5A state meet is May 8 at LSU.
“When you get four girls on any team in the country running under 3:50, that’s running,” Smith said.
At the Texas Southern Relays, Smith said he believed his sprinters had enough ability to earn a high placement.
But only after freshman Kali Magana and junior Laila Jackson completed the first two legs with Curtis still positioned near the front, did Smith know his team had a chance. Freshman London Parker completed the third leg and handed the baton to senior Raven Nunnery, who closed what had been a sizeable lead as she came down the front stretch.
Smith said Nunnery could have pulled ahead if she had another 50 or so meters to work with.
“We would have got them,” Smith said.
The next big meet in Mobile will have a traditional order of events that allows for more rest time between sprint races and relays. The relays at Texas Southern were bunched together because it did not include distance events — which had Nunnery running four events in a shorter period.
“It was very tiring,” said Nunnery, who finished second in the 100 and ran on 400- and 800-meter relays that placed fifth and third. “But I managed to pull through.”
Nunnery rates among the top sprinters in the country. She signed in the fall to compete in college at the University of Houston. She won the outdoor 100- and 200-meter state championships as a sophomore in 2019 — the most recent outdoor state meet before the pandemic canceled the 2020 meet.
Also that year, she ran on a 1,600-meter relay that placed second behind Ruston, which won in 3:52.58.
When Smith began coaching the girls team in 2015, he wanted the Patriots to have an identity as one of the best sprint teams in the state. Certainly, that goal has been met — now with a chance to be the best in the country.