OKC School Closings: Northeast's last days produce one last state champion
Leslie James Jr. reached into his backpack, rifling around textbooks, digging to the bottom and eventually pulling out a blue and black ribbon.
A shiny gold medal dangled from the bottom.
“I plan on carrying this forever,” he said.
Several days had passed since the sprinter from Northeast High School won the bling, and when I asked him where his medal was Wednesday morning, I didn't think I'd be holding it in my hands a few seconds later.
It tells you how important that medal is to James.
As state tournaments hit a crescendo and another year of high school athletics soon draws to an end, great stories abound. There is drama and triumph and glory. But in James, there are all those things.
He is a sprinter at Northeast High School. Under money-saving and service-boosting plans set in motion earlier this spring in the Oklahoma City Public Schools, his school will cease to exist at the end of this academic year.
James is the last state champ.
“That was our thing – let’s leave our legacy,” Northeast track coach Gerrell Thomas said. “We talked a lot about leaving our legacy, leaving our mark because you know, we’re the last.”
James has attended Northeast since sixth grade and long heard talk about closing the school less than a mile from the state capitol at NE 31st and Kelley. There was discussion about shuttering the building. Conversion to a charter school or consolidation with another school were also options.
This spring, rumor of change became reality.
Northeast will dissolve, the remaining students becoming part of Classen School of Advanced Studies as the two schools merge under Northeast’s roof.
“I wish it would just stay Northeast,” James said. “But at the same time … when Classen does come over here, it might also be better for a majority of the students.”
James is acutely aware of how much the school has gone without in recent years. As enrollment declined – James will graduate in a few weeks in a class of 32 – improvements have been minimal. MAPS for Kids brought some change, but several areas haven’t been touched in years.
The track is a prime example. Northeast has a track, but it’s really just the dirt around a woeful football field. There’s no tartan surface. No marked lanes. No starting blocks.
The track team had to drive across town to Taft Stadium if it wanted to practice.
So, in essence, Northeast had a track team with no track.
But it didn’t stop James and his teammates from lining up and giving it a go. In a meet at Okemah, Northeast finished as the runner-up in the team standings. The Vikings had a team of five.
A few weeks ago, they qualified sprinters for the Class 2A state meet in the 100, 200 and 400-meter relay. The 800-meter relay would’ve qualified, probably with the best time in the field, but a stumble and fall led to a disqualification. Runner interference was ruled, but Thomas contended there was no way his runner interfered with anyone.
“We were so far ahead,” Thomas said.
Still, Northeast went to state with several chances to win a state title. James, though, was their best bet in the 100 meters.
“If we had anything remotely close to a facility, Leslie would probably be a 10.5, 10.4 100-meter dash guy,” Thomas said. “He’s a natural runner.”
James finished in 10.91 seconds, nearly .3 seconds worse than his season-best time but still more than .2 seconds ahead of the second-place runner. And James won easily even though he was a step behind out of the blocks, then got a little off balance with about 40 meters to go.
His race wasn’t perfect.
“Oh, no,” James said, “it wasn’t.”
But it was plenty good to win gold. To put James at the top of the podium. To make him the last state champ at Northeast.
Sitting in a room lined with trophy cases and artifacts of Northeast's past -- alums hope to convert the space at the school to a museum – Leslie James Jr. knows one gold medal can’t change the future. Northeast is still going to shut down. Classen is still going to move in.
But that can’t change what he did at state.
“Everybody wants to leave their mark on their school,” said James, who is in the Army National Guard and plans to major in business at Central Oklahoma or Langston. “I feel like me winning state was kind of leaving my mark. It’s a cool way to go out.”
Thomas eyed the gold medal James had pulled out of his backpack.
“Gives me chills,” the coach said.
“The champ is here.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.