Back in January, Howard Community College track coaches Steve Musselman and Errick Henlon got together to assess their roster for the upcoming outdoor track season.
The NJCAA Division III National Championship meet, to be hosted by HCC, was still four months away, but with more than 50 years of coaching experience between them, Musselman and Henlon knew that the potential for a very special season was on the table in front of them.
"Coach Henlon and I sat down and said to each other, 'we can win this thing'," Musselman said. "We've been working really hard and we just had the right collection this year."
On Saturday, May 11, Musselman, Henlon and their Dragons added their first National title to their collection.
The HCC men, whose previous best finish was fourth, scored an impressive 172 points to outpace runner-up Harper College (Illinois) by almost 50 points.
"We knew it would be close between us and Harper, so we had to put the right people in the right places," said Musselman, who was named Coach of the Year along with Henlon for the third time. "It was a good chess match."
The Dragons scored points in 19 of the 22 events contested — only missing out on the two hurdles events and the pole vault — and finished with seven gold medals, seven silvers and four bronzes.
Freshman Jahlil Petgrave handily won both the 200-meter (21.59) and 400-meter (47.30) dashes, while sophomore Darius Bell (Laurel) won the high jump (6-10.75) and placed second in the long jump (24-00.75) and triple jump (47-09).
Both athletes set meet records, and were named Athlete of the Year; Petgrave for the track events and Bell for the field events.
"This season was great, we had a great coaching staff," said Petgrave, who started running for Arundel High as a junior. "This was my first year here. They made me feel welcome and they taught me a lot."
Petgrave's record setting time in the 400 qualified him for the USA World Junior team this summer. He also ran on the Dragons gold medal winning 4x100 (42.20) and 4x400 (meet record 3:17.89) relays.
Freshman Edgar Propst (Old Mill) won the 800 in 1:55.04, sophomore Filagot Dinku won the 5,000-meter run in 15:55.96 and placed second in the 10,000 (34:37.15), and the HCC team finished second in the 4x800 (8:04.12).
Other top three finishers were sophomore James Lang (Long Reach) with a silver medal in the 100-meter dash and a bronze in the 200, sophomore Andrew Parlette (Atholton High) with bronze medals in the 5,000 and 3,000-meter steeplechase, sophomores Chris Nash and Peter Collins (Columbia) going 2-3 in the hammer throw, and sophomore Jonathan Fourney placing second in the decathlon.
"Everything clicked this year," Musselman said.
With only two years of athletic eligibility at the community college level, Musselman will see all of his sophomores move on after this season, many of them to four-year colleges where they can continue to compete.
"We got all we could out of these kids and it was very emotional," Musselman said. "I was very sad to lose these guys ... there's so much potential."
The Dragon women, led by sophomore Tamarra Okoya's (Hammond High) third-place finish in the 100-meter dash, placed 14th out of 21 teams.
Gloucester County College (New Jersey) won the women's meet with 136.5 points.