Showdown averted, but Downingtown East’s Jennings, Coatesville’s Laird sprint to front

COLLEGEVILLE >> It would have unquestionably been the marquee matchup at the 2017 Chester County Indoor Track and Field Championship Tuesday night. And let’s be honest, nothing electrifies a building like a showdown between elite sprinters.

Circumstances, however, prevented any head-to-head battles between Downingtown East’s Jeremy Jennings and Coatesville’s Terrance Laird Tuesday at Ursinus College, but there will be plenty of other opportunities down the road. Considered two of the top sprinters in the state, Jennings and Laird are seniors who compete for Ches-Mont League rivals, and relish the prospect of challenging each other.

“Knowing (Jennings) is out there and so close, it makes we want to go harder in practice to beat him and get better,” Laird said. “My main goal is to try to be the best I can be.”

Both have already accepted full-ride athletic scholarships. Jennings is going to Temple to play football, and Laird was a key piece to Penn State’s upcoming recruiting class in track and field.

Just three days after running in the 200-meter dash and competing in the 4×200 relay at the Kevin Dare Memorial Invitational at Penn State, Laird’s high school coach Damien Henry thought it was best to limit his action on Tuesday. He looked smooth and fast while running the 400-meter leg of Coatesville’s winning distance medley, but was not on the track for either the 55- or the 200-meter dashes.

“Of course I wanted to be out there going against the best, but if I listen to my coaches, it will pay off,” Laird explained.

“My coach makes the final decision. I, personally, would like to run my best event, the 200, and put on a show, but I listen to what he has to say. It’s been working this far, so I just trust my coaches.”

As expected, without his chief rival in the field, Jennings cruised to a win in the 200 (22.88) on Tuesday and was a key part in the Cougars’ victorious 4×200 relay (1:34.24).

“Jeremy ran a 22.88, and coming down the home stretch he clearly backed off,” said his coach, Eric Horsey. “He hasn’t unleashed what he can do yet — just enough to win.”

On Saturday in State College, Laird also prevailed in the 200 — and equaled his indoor personal best — with a 21.44 while going against some of the best high school talent in the northeast.

“It’s still very early in the indoor season,” Laird said. “So right now I am just working on getting stronger and getting better.”

With talented competitors from neighboring boroughs who excel in many of the same events, you might think that Jennings and Laird would be engaged in a contentious rivalry — but it’s not like that. There is a healthy respect between the two.

“We give each other tips,” Laird said.

“Terrance is one of my really close friends,” Jennings added. “We don’t talk trash to each other — we just help each other out. It’s all fun.

“He is a great runner, especially in the 200 and 400. I can always get a few pointers from watching his technique.”

Although not big in football terms, Jennings is a solid 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, and he runs with the kind of power you would expect from a football star. A defensive back and wide receiver for Downingtown East, Jennings grabbed third place in the 100-meter dash at the 2016 PIAA Track and Field Championships last spring.

“Jeremy is powerful, but he also has speed,” Laird pointed out. “I’m not a football player, so I don’t lift heavy or anything.

“It’s not like we have a nasty rivalry, but when we are on the track, he wants to win and I want to win. Afterwards, we congratulate each other.”

Laird isn’t nearly as big, but his quickness is undeniable. Penn State associate track coach, Erin Tucker, said he “is the best sprinter in the state and I am excited about working with him.

“Terrance is not just a 100-meter sprinter, his range goes from 100- to 400-meters. He could end up being … the school record holder from the 60-meters to the 400-meters.”

The photo-finish runner-up to Downingtown West’s Joshua McLemore in the 200 meters at the PIAA Championships last May, Laird had a great summer, highlighted by a victory in the 100 at the AAU Junior Olympics. Jennings is the reigning Ches-Mont and District 1 champion in the 100, but he says his favorite event may be the 60-meter dash.

“Indoor, I’d say my best event is the 60,” he said. “My coaches say I have a pretty explosive start and that helps in that race.

“But I’m a short-distance runner and I just love sprints in general.”

Horsey added: “His best could be anything from the 60 to the 400. A couple years ago he ran a 49 split in the 4×400 relay.”

Jennings understands that his track career will likely come to an end at the conclusion of the indoor season this spring because Temple does not have a track and field program.

“But I love both sports,” he said. “Track gets me faster for football. And playing two sports keeps me busy and that helps me stay focused.”

Jennings was heavily recruited for football by programs like Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Rutgers, Syracuse and Western Michigan. And Horsey said that all of those schools contacted him about Jennings potential track aspirations.

“Temple doesn’t have a track team, but could he compete at the Division I level? Absolutely,” Horsey said. “He is a great athlete.

“He is a very important cog in our 4×200 relay. We set him up in the third spot. Our first two guys are just to keep us in the race and then Jeremy sets it up for Mitchell (Gill), who is the anchor. There are very few guys in the state that can run with Jeremy in that third position.”

Laird, on the other hand, is a specialist who focuses solely on sprints. He verbally committed to Penn State last fall, which was big news for a program that hasn’t had a lot of great tradition with sprinters. Laird plans to change that.

“I know when I go to Penn State, I will be successful on and off the track,” he said.

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