02:15 PM EDT on Friday, July 13, 2007


Journal Sports Writer


As Nathan Balcom prepared to take the starting line at the Rhode Island Hershey's Track & Field State Championships on Saturday, he admits he was feeling some butterflies.

Competing in the boys 11- and 12-year-old 100-meter dash at Rhode Island College, the 11-year-old from Smithfield knew it was going to be tough to beat Derek Jackson, a Providence boy who had beaten him in an earlier meet.

Once Balcom took the starting line, though, he says, ``I looked straight at the finish line and ran my hardest.''

With that, the soon-to-be seventh-grader from Gallagher Middle School covered the 100 meters in a personal best 13.6 seconds, edging Jackson by one-hundredths of a second to win the race.

The gold-medal performance not only earned Balcom the state title. It also earned him an all-expenses-paid trip to Hershey, Pa., where he will compete against other talented 11- and 12-year-olds from throughout the United States and Canada at the 30th annual Hershey's Track & Field Games North American Finals from Aug. 2-5.

``I've heard all the cool stuff about it,'' said Balcom, who also won the 200-meter dash (29.34 seconds) and placed sixth in the long jump (6 feet, 3 inches) at the state meet . ``I'm just blown out of my mind.''

Balcom isn't the only one who will be representing Rhode Island in a few weeks.

Kevin Paygai of West Warwick and two Providence Cobras relay teams have also earned the chance to compete at the event, which considers itself to be ``the longest-running youth fitness program of its kind'' in North America, as well as the largest with more than 400,000 youngsters participating in the various qualifying events each year.

The road to the North American Finals for these Rhode Islanders began last month, at local meets hosted by various park and recreation departments throughout the state. From there, they advanced to the state meet, where competition in three age-group categories (9-10, 11-12 and 13-14) was held in a number of basic running, jumping and throwing events.

The athletes' winning performances were then matched up against those of the top performers from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Canada's Atlantic provinces to determine who would move on to the North American Finals.

While Balcom will be competing in the boys 11-12 100-meter dash, Paygai has qualified for the boys 9-10 50-meter dash after posting a winning state meet time of 7.86 seconds.

The Providence Cobras' foursome of Ariana Abbott, Daria Brayboy, Lakisha Dacruz and Ebonee Marrow has qualified to compete in the girls 13-14 4x100-yard relay after handily winning the event at the state meet in 54.09.

Meanwhile, Darrell Britton, Danzell Floyd, Daniel Payne and Michael Washington, also from the Cobras, will run that event in the boys 13-14 division, having qualified with their time of 52.28.

Hershey's Rhode Island state coordinator Matt LaFazia points out that while some of the berths that Rhode Island has received in years past were handed down from other states to ensure that each state has at least five participants, all of this year's representatives from the Ocean State earned their invitations outright.

And even before their times were matched up against those from around the region, this year's competitors first had to be up to the challenge at the state meet, which at nearly 300 entrants featured one of the largest fields in recent memory, LaFazia said.

``There were a couple of big winners in the distance events and the relays (at the state meet), but overall the times were relatively close,'' said LaFazia, who credits being able to hold the state championships at RIC's new track facility in recent years for helping to elevate the meet. ``In most of the events, the top three kids were neck and neck coming down the stretch. So the competitiveness has definitely been raised two or three notches, and it shows in that we have 10 outright berths, which is a first since I've been here.''

LaFazia, who will be accompanying the Rhode Island contingent, says the athletes are going to be in for a treat.

In addition to competing in their respective events at Henry Hershey Field, which is located on the campus of the Milton Hershey School, they will be extremely busy during their four-day stay. The participants will witness the introduction of the Hershey's Track & Field Games Hall of Fame and be treated to exhibition races featuring some of the legends of the sport, perhaps even having a chance to meet some of them. The young athletes also will visit Hershey Park and receive a tour of Hershey's chocolate plant.

``They do a heck of a job,'' said LaFazia, who is also Johnston's assistant parks and recreation director. ``From the moment you get there, if you're not eating or sleeping, you're involved in something. And Hershey picks up the whole tab.''

While this will be the first time competing at the national meet for Balcom, Paygai and the boys relay team, the members of the girls relay have qualified multiple times in their young track careers.

Abbott, Brayboy and Dacruz also earned invitations as 10- and 12-year-olds. Marrow was part of the 11-12 girls 4x100 relay with Erica Johnson, Dakota Dailey-Harris and Tyesha Forbes that placed sixth last year with a time of 56.7 seconds.

``For a lot of the kids, this is their first time flying, and that's an experience in itself, outside of the track meet,'' said Cobras coach Thom Spann. ``That's the fun part about it. Hershey's focus is on making it a fun experience for the kids with something for everyone.''