During the 1995-96 academic year, The Sun tracked the progress of six athletes who were seniors at area high schools. In addition to their accomplishments on the field, the stories reported on their work in the classroom as they tried to meet the NCAA's tougher academic standards.
The mission, as Donna Mullings called her final track and field season at Howard High, was to win four gold medals each at the county, region and 3A state meets.
"To keep raising my hands in victory over and over again," said Mullings, a two-time All-Metro selection.
But Mullings, a Jamaica native nearing the end of her second year in the United States on a student visa, didn't count on collapsing at the state championships. An injured right hamstring meant a nightmarish end to what had otherwise been a dream season.
Having finished second in both the 100-meter dash (12.69 seconds) and the triple jump (39 feet), Mullings was rounding the final turn in the 200 when she suffered a slightly pulled hamstring.
"It really hurt coming out of that turn, and there was no way to finish it," said Mullings, whose injury also meant she was out of the long jump, in which she was second a year earlier.
"Yes, I cried, but not so much because my leg hurt. I cried because I wanted to win that 200. I wanted to win everything -- the 200, the long and triple and the 100."
It is that "competitive attitude," said Howard coach Joe Thomas, that has many Division I programs ready to offer Mullings a full track and field scholarship, despite her nonqualifying Scholastic Assessment Test score.
Mullings, powerfully built at 5 feet 8 and 150 pounds, has area bests in the triple jump (39-0, third best in state history), 100 (12.2) and 200 (25.4). Her best long jump is 18-6. She won all four events at the county meet, three at the regional and was fourth in the long jump at the Penn Relays. Twice, she has won Howard County's Iron Woman award.
"I've never had an athlete like Donna, who is the full package. She works very hard, knows what she has to do at practice every day, listens and is very coachable," said Thomas, listing programs such as Florida State, Florida, Texas A&M;, Iowa, Houston, Oklahoma State and Arizona State as having expressed interest in her.
But under Proposition 16, the NCAA's new standards for freshman eligibility, Mullings won't be eligible next fall unless her cumulative 2.3 core-course grade average is accompanied by at least a 900 SAT score. Mullings' most recent score was 610. She has taken the test again and expects the results in July.
"I do worry about it a little because I'd like to start out at a four-year college," said Mullings, who plans to major in nursing and become a U.S. citizen.
"I've talked to the coach from Iowa and the coaches from Oklahoma. They've kept encouraging me on and off the track. Both of them are offering full scholarships, and both are willing to wait if I have to complete junior college first."
Proposition 16 uses a sliding scale to determine an athlete's eligibility. It combines a minimum grade-point average in 13 core academic courses with scores on the SAT or American College Test. The lower the test score, the higher the GPA must be.
The minimum required SAT score of 820 must be accompanied by at least a 2.5 GPA; a student with a 1,010 SAT score can qualify with a 2.0. GPA.
Last year, her first in the United States, Mullings struggled with some minor language barriers and posted a cumulative 2.0. She persevered, however, making the honor roll this past winter, and presently has a cumulative 2.7.
Cheryl Alexander, whose family is host to Mullings, has been involved in helping Mullings academically. "Because she's from another country and not always familiar with some American words or expressions, something gets lost in the translation," Alexander said.
"The other day, for example, I said, 'We have little critters running around outside,' " said Alexander, referring to moles burrowing in the yard. "She was like, 'What's a critter?'
"This girl is smart," Alexander said, "but she gets very nervous during tests because she knows how important they are."
If Mullings doesn't meet the requirements, at least one school, Southern Illinois, will offer her a full ride, said Thomas, her high school coach. But she would have to sit out her freshman season.
"If she can do it at this level," Thomas said, "there's no doubt in my mind she can excel at the next. She's overcome so much already."
"There were rough times and successful times," Mullings said of her childhood. She was a toddler when her father died and a job forced her mother to move away. Her grandmother raised her.
Mullings, who came to the United States two years ago, regularly writes to her mother and grandmother in Jamaica.
She initially stayed with friends of her mother in Howard County, but that relationship soured. Last September, a friend, Genny Gissentaner, encouraged her to move in with Van and Cheryl Alexander and their 9-year-old twin sons, Brent and Ryan.
"She gets along with my children very well, and she's always volunteering to help out," said Cheryl Alexander. "She's very shy, but she's got a great personality. She's very serious about track."
Duane Fisher, C. Milton Wright: The 6-4, 190-pound Fisher, who will attend the University of Virginia on a foot- Fisher ball scholarship, completed a three-sport career by earning football All-Harford County recognition three times and All-Metro recognition twice, once as a defensive back and once as a wide receiver. Fisher, vice president of Maryland's Future Business Leaders of America, made recruiting easy for Virginia, grading out with a 2.7 core-course GPA and a 980 SAT score. He had received 50 or so letters from a variety of programs, including Maryland, Wake Forest, Boston College, North Carolina State, Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Penn State and Notre Dame. He was also a two-year starting power forward in basketball. As a hurdler in track, he was second in the state 300 hurdles as a junior, and won the county 110 and 300 this year.