Natural ability and hard work have made Annapolis junior Jessica Tongue one of the premier runners in the state

A very quick study

track and field

May 16, 2007|By Alejandro Danois | Alejandro Danois,Special to the Sun

Annapolis junior Jessica Tongue showed why she's one of the premier sprinters in the area at the county track and field championships last week.

She swept the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes, anchored the winning 400-meter relay and placed second in the 100-meter hurdles.

"She listens to her desire to be the best runner out there," Annapolis coach Brian Brown said. "She's naturally fast and naturally competitive."

Not long ago, Tongue had not even stepped foot on a track. She played lacrosse and basketball growing up, using her natural speed to run by the competition.

Proving herself against stiff competition in a foot race, however, was something she's long been accustomed to.

When she was 7, Tongue grew tired of her male cousins' constant, playful teasing that they were faster than her. She challenged them at the family's annual reunion to back up their boasting.

While most of the family ate, talked and laughed, Tongue was running across an adjacent baseball field against a group of boys, nipping at the heels of two older cousins while leaving the others behind.

"One cousin was five years older and the other was one year older," Tongue said. "They were in front of me, but I was really close."

The races became a tradition at the family reunions, sometimes spilling over intermittently on neighborhood streets between the annual summer gatherings.

As a freshman at Annapolis, she laced up a pair of track spikes for the first time when the spring season rolled around.

"I always wanted to run track, and once I got there, it just felt natural," Tongue said.

She seemed so fluid and naturally predisposed to the sport that her coaches used her in 10 events throughout the year - the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, the 400-, 800- and 1,600-meter relays, the 100- and 300-meter hurdles, the high jump, long jump and triple jump.

After a few months of practice, Tongue finished fourth in the 100 at the Class 3A state championships behind three upperclassmen - Fallston's Alyssa Evering and Western's Theresa Lewis and Shalaiyah Sommerville, who now run for the University of Connecticut, the University of Louisville and Hampton University, respectively - with a time of 12.4 seconds.

"She was new to the sport and fast, but she wasn't running correctly," Brown said. "She worked hard on her overall conditioning and the proper way to start and finish a race. She has a better understanding of getting out of the blocks, learns quickly and observes the other top runners and the little things they do to make them successful."

While most elite runners run year-round, Tongue, 5 feet 3, was busy playing guard for the Panthers basketball team as a sophomore instead of competing in indoor track. Content to fly past defenders on the hardwood, she hit five three-pointers in a row in a game against Glen Burnie last season.

In the spring, she returned to the track and ran the second-fastest time in the 100 at the 3A state championships with a time of 12.25 and placed fifth in the 200, earning a second-team All-Metro selection. This winter, she took a sabbatical from basketball to test her skills on the indoor surface.

She became a state champion, winning the 55-meter dash in 7.21 seconds. Her fastest time of 7.14 in the 55 nearly broke the state record, and she was named the county's Performer of the Year in addition to garnering first-team All-Metro honors.

Tongue barely edged out teammate Torrie Saunders in the 55 state championship final. The classmates, accounting for 26 of the team's 34 total points at the indoor state meet, are a formidable duo for the Panthers. Saunders also was a first-team All-Metro selection during the indoor campaign in addition to being named to the All-Metro second team outdoors as a sophomore.

The two have known each other since they were 6. Until they reached high school, however, the only time they raced each other was in the hallway in middle school.

"They were already good friends, and they have a friendly rivalry on the track," Brown said. "They push each other hard when they're running."

"We want to constantly become better," Tongue said of her friendship and competition with Saunders. "We're running against one of the fastest every day at practice, and that makes us better."

Exhibiting the speed and athleticism that has placed her on the radar of some top college programs, Tongue is determined to produce similar results in the coming regional and state championship meets. This season, she's run personal-best times of 11.9 in the 100 and 24.9 in the 200.

"I want to win states for outdoor and break the record of 11.8 in the 100," Tongue said.

Based on how far she has come in a short time, the competition shouldn't doubt her - either on the track or at future family reunions.

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