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In debut season, Columbia youth track team led by former baseball player is sending four to AAU Junior Olympics

A multi-sport athlete, Kenae Fullwood participated in soccer, basketball and lacrosse. But she yearned for something more.

“I always wanted to be a track star,” the 9-year-old soon-to-be fourth grader at Taneytown Elementary School said. “I think that’s going to make me famous.”

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If Fullwood continues to excel in running, she might just get her wish. Fullwood will compete in her first American Athletic Union Junior Olympics in the 200-meter dash in the 10-year-old division after capturing the gold medal in that event at last month’s AAU Region 05 qualifier in Highland Springs, Virginia.

Fullwood is one of four members of the Heart N Glory Striders Elite club based in Columbia who earned berths at the AAU Junior Olympics to be held at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina, from July 30 to Aug. 6.

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The others are: Brilee Brown, who will participate in the triathlon in the 10-year-old division; Jordan Etheridge, who will compete in the 100 hurdles in the 13-year-old division; and Laila Mallory, who will participate in the 100, 200 and 400 in the Under-8 division.

What makes their success unique is they represent a club that made its debut on the youth track and field scene. And with only 10 total members, their development as athletes is a testament to the work of coach Breland Brown.

“Just his communication with the kids and work habits, he makes them work hard,” said Roland Howard Jr., Etheridge’s grandfather. “There’s just another step with the kids. Even with the families, it’s another connection. It’s almost like a family atmosphere.”

Brown said the credit belongs to the athletes.

“It’s an amazing experience to see them qualify for such a huge event, one of the biggest youth events in America,” he said. “Just to watch them from all of the hard work and dedication they put in and then watch them reap the success for it, it’s amazing. Each one of those kids, they’re very hard workers, they’ve got great character, they come from great families. So I’m not surprised at all that this has transpired.”

Brown, 37, has had a long history in sports. A New Orleans native, he played football and baseball, employing his skills in baseball to continue his career at Northeast Mississippi Community College, where he batted .385 in his last two seasons and earned what he described as “a cup of coffee” in farm systems for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Houston Astros, New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants.

After moving to Columbia in 2014, Brown launched his own commercial cleaning company and trained several baseball players on the side. When his daughter Brilee began competing for the Severn Highsteppers track club last year, he started working with her.

“I felt like she wasn’t really progressing the way she needed to,” he said. “So I started training her myself, and the coach from Severn was like, ‘Oh wow, whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it.’ Then she asked me to start this team this year, and I love mentoring and giving back to the kids. So that was my main objective.”

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Brown recruited some boys from area football programs, and others joined after hearing of Brown’s work with others. Fullwood, who also finished seventh in the 100 at the region qualifier, said she has become attached to track for one simple reason. “I love winning,” she said with a smile.

Etheridge might have seemed destined for track. His mother, the former Ronalda Howard, starred at Long Reach and then Middle Tennessee State in the long and triple jumps, and his father, Dr. Robert Etheridge, also competed for the Blue Raiders in the 400, long jump and relays.

“My mom and dad got me into it,” said Etheridge, a rising seventh grader at Mayfield Woods Middle School in Elkridge who also plays wide receiver and safety in football. “People thought I was fast.”

The club began its track season April 7 with practices on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and meets on weekends. Brown said he tried to keep training sessions light by arranging for water balloon fights and relays pitting the girls against the boys.

“We work really hard, I will say that,” he said. “But sometimes I try to make the practices fun, and sometimes they forget they’re even working hard.”

Brilee Brown, a soon-to-be fifth grader at Hanover Hills Elementary School in Hanover, said her father has developed strong relationships with each of his athletes.

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“We really wanted my dad to make his own team,” she said. “We have a really good bond with him, and we’re having a great time with this team.”

Said Etheridge: “He teaches us right. And he has to do a lot. He gives us snack bags and helps us out. He’s a good coach.”

Brown said every athlete on the team set multiple personal records this season, which is the weekly objective. “For me, that’s always something that makes me smile and makes me happy because when you put in the small details, the small details lead to the big details,” he said.

Of the four qualifiers for the Junior Olympics — which Baltimore will host in 2028 and 2032 — only Brilee Brown has experience from the meet. She didn’t advance past the preliminaries in the 100, 200 and 400 in the 9-year-old division.

“I knew the competition was going to be very hard,” she said. “It was something I really liked.”

Brown, Etheridge and Fullwood each said their goal is to collect a gold medal in their events. “I want to make my family proud,” Fullwood said.

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Brown said he encourages his charges to dream big.

“I don’t push it because I don’t want them to start pressing, but we do have certain conversations about it because at the end of the day, I don’t want to set the bar low for them,” he said. “I don’t want them thinking, ‘Oh, I’m just happy to be here, and whatever happens, happens.’ I want them to go there with the mindset of, ‘Let’s go and try to win.’”

The team plans to leave July 29 for the Junior Olympics in North Carolina. Brown said he can envision each of the four qualifiers either capturing a medal or finishing in the top eight of their events to earn All-America honors.

“My hope for them is to put their best foot forward and just try to stay in the moment and do what’s been taught to them,” he said. “I don’t want them to get caught up in the hype and the crowd. Just stay in the moment. I feel like if they put their best foot forward and stay in the moment, I think they have a really good chance of being successful.”


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