Thinking back to Kai Muniz's freshman year, Reservoir track and field coach Phil Rogers remembers the young athlete's ambition. He recalls that desire to succeed. He calls to mind how Muniz came in with natural speed and developed leg strength.
All of these first impressions stayed with Rogers as Muniz emerged as one of the top middle-distance runners in the state. However, it was his competitive background that stood out to Rogers the most.
Muniz was, as Rogers called it, a "very high-intensity martial artist," and that description checked out. He competed at USA Karate Nationals and won — twice — for the weapons portion. In the sparring part of the event, he secured second and third-place finishes.
By the time he gave up karate towards at the end of his sophomore year, he achieved a first kyu brown belt and was months away from earning his black belt.
"It really showed me his commitment and dedication to things that he does and he's passionate about," Rogers said.
So, Rogers wasn't surprised of the results that came about when Muniz began focusing on track full-time. "When he's in, he's all in," Rogers said, and that mantra manifested itself as much in workouts and meets as it did in Muniz's sleeping and hydration habits.
The all-in approach morphed a flourishing indoor track career into a decorated one this winter, as Muniz swept the 800- and 1,600-meter runs at the three postseason meets. And with two wins at the 3A state championships — one comfortably and one in dramatic fashion — the senior became the lone county athlete to win multiple individual state titles this winter.
These performances, in addition to his efforts in the county and region meets, all factored in to Muniz being named the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier indoor track and field boys Athlete of the Year.
"I was really nervous [at the county meet] and I had no idea what I was going to do," Muniz said. "I just got out there and believed in myself, sat back and I won. I won the mile, and that set the tone for the championship season."
Muniz set a personal record that day, running the 1,600 in 4 minutes, 25.05 seconds, and also added a league title in the 800 race with a time of 2:00.75. He then followed up those performances by comfortably winning region titles at the 3A East meet. He also ran the 3,200 with the sole purpose of scoring team points and ended up taking third (10:04.16).
His added workload helped Reservoir score 88.5 points and run away with the program's first regional championship since 2013.
Muniz making significant contributions to the Gators' title run wasn't as surprising as it was impressive considering that when he entered high school, he ran track to improve his conditioning for karate.
He estimates starting martial arts in either third or fourth grade. His father wanted him to know how to defend himself, so Muniz began training. He worked a lot under grandmaster Nakaza Seiei and instructor Brian Hobson, who frequently worked in tandem at two Shorin-Ryu karate studios in Virginia.
Once Muniz joined the Gators' track and field program his freshman year, many of his weekdays followed the same pattern: go to school, attend track practice, come home, grab a snack with his mom at Starbucks and then go to karate.
"It was just a cycle," Muniz said. "You just got used to it."
It did not take long for Muniz to realize his potential to be a quality distance runner. His efforts in the cross country time trials his freshman year suggested as much.
And while his passion for the sport lagged behind — he said he started "developing a love" for running during his sophomore outdoor season in 2016 — it came on strong, and Muniz could not help but want to spent all his time and effort trying to improve. Seemingly every race during that campaign was a new personal record, Muniz said. At the county championships that year, his mile time was more than six seconds faster than what he ran at the beginning of the season.
By this time, Muniz all but stopped going to karate to ensure ample recovery before the next day's track workout. And by May of that year, he said he officially gave up martial arts.
"It just started taking over," Muniz said, "and after that, I never looked back."
Balancing the two activities was not as difficult as it was time consuming, Muniz said, so switching his full attention to track allowed him to base his daily habits around maximizing his potential. He could finally complete his homework by 9 p.m. and vowed not to go to sleep past 9:45 p.m on weekdays. That way, he could further recover with eight hours of sleep. During the school day, he made sure to stay hydrated by drinking between seven and eight water bottles.
He also ratcheted up his summer running routine. Muniz logged about 400 miles the summer before his sophomore year, Rogers said, and ran about 550 miles the next summer. This past offseason, Rogers said that number increased to more than 600 miles.
"He came in in shape, but he was also tired because he made a big jump in mileage," Rogers said. "And that was one of those things where I could tell that he was focused on getting better and getting stronger. He was making that jump and making that commitment to running every day and getting those miles in."
An All-County cross country season followed, as Muniz finished second behind Runner of the Year Nick Deamer in the county meet, first at regionals and third at the 3A state championships. That set the stage for the indoor season and more specifically the state meet, which served as the culmination of his discipline and persistence since fully devoting himself to track.
Not only did he win the 1,600, cruising across the finish line in 4:31.49, and squeak out the 800 title, but he accomplished a feat in the latter race that he has constantly fallen just short of over the years.
In his last race of his indoor track career, Muniz finally broke the two-minute barrier with a time of 1:59.02 to win the race by one-hundreth of a second.
"It's the last minute barrier that he's ever going to break," Rogers said. "For me, I'm never going to break the four-minute mile. For Kai and for anyone in the world, we're never going to break into less than a minute in the 800. That's just never going to happen. So, he broke the final barrier that can be broken, and breaking that two-minute mark puts him in a very elite category for everybody."
Named to the All-County team are:
Kenny Accardi, Howard. Accardi finished first in the 300-meter race at the county meet, crossing the finish line in a personal-best 35.97 seconds. He went on to place fifth in the event at the state championships (36.17). In addition, Accardi was a part of the county title winning 4x200- and 4x400-meter relay teams that placed fourth or better at the state meet.
Loick Amouzou, Hammond. Despite being an underclassman, Amouzou proved to be the county's best 55-meter hurdler this season. He won the event at the league meet in 8.37 seconds, then set a personal record (8.23) during his fourth-place mark at regionals. He regressed at the state meet (8.39) but still took eighth.
Greg Costello, Centennial. Costello used a unique tactic to become the premier 3,200-meter runner in county as a senior. At both the league and regional meets, Costello trailed for much of the race before running a blistering final lap to earn come-from-behind victories. He passed fellow All-County selections Anish Nanjappa and Nick Deamer in the county race en route to finishing in 9:53.34, a new personal record. While he could not match that outing at the state meet, he capped his indoor career with a runner-up result.
Nick Deamer, Howard. Coming off a season in which he won boys cross country Runner of the Year, Deamer rarely won during the winter campaign but posted plenty of admirable results. He finished second and third in the 1,600 and 3,200, respectively, at the county race before earning top five finishes at regionals. At states, he placed seventh in the 1,600 (4:32.41) and 15th in the 3,200 (10:14.04).
Justin Dunklin, Howard. Dunklin cleared a personal-best height of 6 feet, 2 inches at the first meet of the winter season, setting the tone for a commendable campaign. He won the county championship by clearing the same height. Plus, he secured runner-up in the long jump (20-06) and placed seventh in the triple jump (39-05.50).
Nate Gilmore, Howard. Gimore also excelled in the jumping events. He won the triple jump at the county meet (41-10) while taking third in the long jump (personal-best 19-08). He also took second in the 55 hurdles at the county championships.
Anish Nanjappa, River Hill. Aside from Muniz, Nanjappa was the only other boys athlete from the county to win an individual state title. He ran away from the competition in the 3,200, crossing with a time of 9:40.29. He then teamed up with three other Hawks distance runners to win the 4x800 relay in 8:12.37.
Juan Parra, Centennial. Parra set personal records in the 300 and 500 at the county meet. In the shorter event, his time of 36.14 second was enough to beat the entire field aside from Accardi. However, his 500 time was enough to earn an individual title. He added two more of those at the region meet and took fourth at the state championships in the 500 (1:06.84).
Raymond Tien, Howard. As a sophomore in 2016, Tien did not participate in shot put at the county meet. Last season, he finished third. And this year, Tien capped his indoor career with a league title. He bested the field with a personal-best throw of 44-07.75.
Cameron Vereen, Oakland Mills. Vereen set a personal record in the 55 dash in the county meet (6.40 seconds), which helped him win the indoor league title for the first time in his career. He then won the 2A East region meet and had the top time in the preliminary races of the state championships. But in the final, he missed out on a state championship by less than one hundredth of a second.