Area track fans missed out on a sizzling rivalry between Imoh, Crowder

One’s the 2019 Class 4 state runner-up in the 100 meters and 200 for outdoor track, and placed third in the 55 in Class 4 in 2020 for indoor track.

The other’s the 2020 Class 4 state runner-up in the 55 for indoor track, and placed fourth in Class 4 in the 100 for outdoor track in 2019. Combining all preliminary and finals races at the two meets, his 55 prelim time was the fastest, and his 100 prelim time was the second best.

Area track fans sure missed out not being able to watch seniors Malachi Imoh of Handley and Will Crowder of James Wood, respectively, duke it out for area and state glory this spring.

“It would have been fun, as somebody who loves track & field, to watch two guys that fast go at it,” Handley coach Mike McKiernan said.

If not for the COVID-19 pandemic that canceled the spring sports season, the rivalry would be nearing its peak. The Class 4 Northwestern District meet was scheduled for this past Friday at Millbrook, followed by the Region 4C meet on May 28 at Dominion High School and the Virginia High School League Class 4 state championships on June 5 and 6 at Liberty University.

It looked like they truly were going to be better than ever. For the first time in their high school careers, each of them spent a significant amount of time competing in indoor track in hopes of making their final outdoor seasons something they and their schools would never forget. In addition to winning state titles, both had legitimate chances at putting their names atop their respective school record books in both the 100 and 200.

And while the two future college football players (Crowder will also compete in track) never expressed many words with each other, they’ve always enjoyed having the other around to help with the pursuit of their goals.

“It was a really good friendly rivalry that they had between each other,” James Wood coach Mike Onda said. “It was always exciting to see whenever they were both going to be in a race what they were going to be able to push each other to achieve.

“You just saw that every time they stepped to the line together, they were pushing each other to their limits, and both were just excelling because of it.”

In Imoh’s case, it took a while for the 5-foot-7, 170-pound athlete to embrace track.

As a freshman, Imoh played soccer in the spring. McKiernan convinced Imoh to come out for the indoor track team as a sophomore, and in his first meet he ran the sixth-fastest preliminary time (6.88 seconds) at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa, in December of 2017.

McKiernan said Dickinson’s facility doesn’t have a lot of space between the finish line and the wall though. McKiernan said Imoh tried to stop himself too quickly after crossing the finish line, and the result was a hip injury.

Imoh would not give track another shot until the spring of 2019, choosing to focus on his football career instead. The versatile Imoh will play for NCAA Division I William & Mary on a half scholarship after rushing for 2,003 yards and 29 touchdowns and passing for 1,336 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.

“Football was my main sport,” Imoh said, “so I was kind of worried if I ran outdoor track in my sophomore year I could possibly get injured again and it could hinder me from playing football in the fall. That was definitely a big reason why I didn’t start running track again until my junior year.”

And Imoh’s glad he did start running track again. He blazed past opponents left and right last spring, winning district and region titles in the 100, 200 and 4x100 and placing second in each of those events at the Class 4 state meet. His fastest times were 10.91 in the 100, 21.85 in the 200 and a school-record 42.26 in the 4x100.

Before that spectacular postseason run started, Imoh had to settle for being the second-fastest 100 runner at the Apple Blossom Invitational at James Wood despite a stellar time of 11.09. And while his postseason was pretty close to perfect in terms of place, Imoh couldn’t lay claim to the fastest 100 time in the area.

The reason? Crowder. The 5-10, 185-pound Colonel ran a 10.98 to win at Apple Blossom. And while Imoh bested Crowder in terms of place in the 100 at all three postseason meets (Crowder took second in the district and region before taking fourth in the state), Crowder put everything together in running a 10.88 in the prelims at the state meet.

Simply put, Crowder pushed Imoh to run faster.

“As the season kind of progressed last year, and the competition got better, I also ran better,” Imoh said. “It was definitely helpful to have another really good sprinter locally in our area that I got to run against at the end of the year to keep pushing myself to get better.”

Imoh surprised himself with the amount of success he had in track, so much so that he wonders how much better he could have been had he been running since his freshman year.

Based on what Crowder accomplished this winter, he also finds himself wondering about what might have been.

Crowder — who is headed to NCAA Division III Shenandoah University next year — has been a track force ever since he was a freshman in 2017.

He was the Conference 21 West champion in the 100 that year. As a sophomore he was all-state (eighth) in the 100 and 10th in the 200. In addition to taking fourth in the 100 last year, Crowder was 16th in the state and the No. 2 200 runner in the area behind Imoh with a top time of 22.78.

And at the state meet, he beat his seed time (10.97) by nearly a full-tenth of a second in the prelims with that 10.88. Everyone who ran in the finals the second day ran slower than they did in the prelims, but Crowder’s 11.37 resulted in the race’s largest differential (0.49).

“I had a good start. It was executed perfectly,” said Crowder of the prelims. “Then coming into the second day, it was just a little mishap out of the blocks.”

Crowder said his starts had never really been a strength his first three years. But following the completion of his first-ever indoor season, he felt better about them than ever.

Crowder has been a varsity football player since he was a freshman, and his preference his first three years, when asked about competing in indoor track, was that he’d rather use the winter to recover from football and do some workouts on his own to prepare for spring.

But with this being his final year, he decided not to hold anything back and join James Wood’s indoor track team.

“I thought it would physically and mentally help me to be in shape for outdoor,” Crowder said. “I felt like I was ready to be 100 percent in spring. I think me doing indoor this year was very good. I just wish I would have done it all four years.”

Crowder said the rapid-fire nature of the 55 forced him to be more cognizant of what he was doing at the start of each race.

“With the 55, if you have a bad block start, you don’t have that chance to catch up,” Crowder said. “Watching my outdoor races from last year [on video], I felt my biggest struggle was with the blocks.

“With indoor in the 55, everything has to be executed perfectly. A perfect block start, perfect acceleration. So I think it would have helped me in the long run.”

Another reason why Crowder needed strong starts? Imoh. Though Imoh is dangerous out of the blocks — he was the lead leg on Handley’s 4x100 team — his blazing 200 times show just how good he is when he reaches full speed.

Crowder edged Imoh by one-thousandth of a second to win the district 55 (6.469 to 6.470) and edged him by two-hundredths of a second (6.49 to 6.51) while taking second to Imoh’s third at the Class 4 state meet. Crowder’s 6.43 time in the prelims was the best of any runner at the state meet and surpassed the New Balance Indoors Emerging Elite division qualifying standard.

Simply put, Imoh pushed Crowder to run faster.

“Racing him, basically every meet we were at, we were there to push each other,” Crowder said. “We’re going to push each other to be the best that we can be.”

And after getting so close to winning state titles, each had all the motivation in the world to take home at least one gold medal from Liberty in June.

McKiernan was particularly excited about Imoh’s chances this spring because Imoh wasn’t in peak physical condition in the winter. He only joined the indoor track team in January so he could rest from his extremely physical football season (only Sherando running back Darius Lane exceeded Imoh’s 210 carries), and Imoh missed the Region 4C indoor meet after having his wisdom teeth removed.

Imoh’s best chance of winning a state championship medal likely would have been in the 4x100 (all four runners were back while defending champion Blacksburg lost two of its four runners), but he could have won the 100 and 200 as well.

In the 100, defending champion Tiquest Terry of Blacksburg graduated, leaving Crowder, Powhatan’s Anthony Greenhow (10.84 in the prelims) and 55 indoor state champion Isaiah Persinger of Salem as his likely biggest competition. In the 200, defending champion Matthew Spicer of Courtland (21.61) likely would have been Imoh’s toughest foe.

Imoh was also within striking distance of Dontae Mauck’s 2015 school records in the 100 (10.59) and 200 (21.75), which is Imoh’s favorite event.

“One of the big reasons why I wanted to do indoor was so I could get a jump start on preparing myself for the outdoor season,” Imoh said. “I didn’t want to come into outdoor out of shape. I wanted to win states in the 100, 200 and 4x100 after coming in second in all those events last year. That would have been a big motivator for me this outdoor season.

“It was definitely really disappointing [seeing the season canceled] just because of how last year’s outdoor season ended. I knew how well I’d be able to do with another year of track under my belt.”

Crowder lost the indoor 55 title by just one-hundredth of a second to Persinger — Onda though Crowder had him beat from his angle at the meet held at Liberty. Getting that close in indoors — and the potential Crowder showed in the state 100 prelims in outdoors last year — had him just as hungry as Imoh. As much as Crowder improved in the blocks, he said he had a slight wobble coming out of them in the 55 state final.

Crowder was also on the verge of breaking school records held by John Simms, who ran a 10.81 in the 100 in 2011 and a 22.34 in the 200 in 2010 (Crowder ran a 22.58 in 2018).

“I should have won [the 55], but that little slip up cost me,” Crowder said. “That was my motivation going into spring. Did I want to be second again, or did I want to be walking out as the big dog? That was motivating me to go out in the spring and win a state title in the 100 or 200.”

Though disappointed he didn’t get to show what he could do in high school track, Crowder — also a standout long jumper — is glad his track career isn’t over.

“I’m still training, doing workouts, and talking to my college coaches for track and football,” said Crowder, who will be a wide receiver at SU. “I’m ready to run again.”

Onda said James Wood “is really proud” of Crowder, and is looking forward to seeing him compete in college.

But the days of competing against Imoh are over. At meets, Imoh and Crowder said they would greet each other when they first saw each other, but as their races neared, they locked themselves in and conversation stopped.

“When we’re getting ready to get in the blocks, he doesn’t talk, I don’t talk,” Crowder said. “I just let my running speak for me.”

The sound of the starting gun, the sight of their arms and legs pumping up and down, the roar of the crowd as they neared the finish line ... as McKiernan said, it sure would have been fun to take in.

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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