Janie O’Conner made a deal with her coaches before she stepped on the track as a Zachary High sprinter. Soon the sophomore-to-be found out what a difference one change can make.
“Before high school I didn’t like the 400,” O’Conner said. “I did mostly the 100 and 200. Our deal was when I got to high school I’d work on the 400.”
O’Conner’s “deal” wasn’t as earth-shattering as a blockbuster baseball trade or an NBA free-agent signing. But it helped Zachary win its first outdoor state title in girls track and established O’Conner as one of the Louisiana’s rising track stars.
“When she started running against the best girls in the state and doing well, you could really see it,” Zachary track coach Chris Carrier said. “And when she ran against (former McDonogh 35 star) Marcquita (Stalbert) and beat her that was definitely an indication of how good she is.”
Just how good is O’Conner? As good as she wants to be, said Roderic Newton, her New Era Track Club coach. Like most 16-year-olds, O’Conner isn’t exactly sure what that ceiling is.
She’s on a quest to find out. O’Conner is set to compete in the Youth Olympic Games, formerly known as the World Youth Championships, in Nanjing, China, next month. This time, she won’t be going full circle. O’Conner will do the 100 and 200 meters. Sorry, no 400 meters this time.
“Right now it’s hard to say what her best event will be,” Newton said. “The important part has been getting her and her dad on board with the idea that this is a process.
“We want to make sure she’s doing what her high school coach wants her to do and what is the right thing for her at her age. It has to be a progression.”
Carrier said his decision to have O’Conner do the 400 last spring was more about team need than anyone’s desire to make a statement. Because the Broncos lacked depth in some areas, putting O’Conner in the 400 gave ZHS 10 points it could count on during its run to the 5A title.
Regardless of what Newton and Carrier’s next progression is, O’Conner has established herself as one of Louisiana’s top sprinters in any classification. She recorded the top state meet time of 55.10 seconds in the 400 at the Louisiana High School Athletic Association’s Class 5A Outdoor Championships and also had a 54.88 time at the District 4-5A meet. O’Conner’s regional-meet time of 24.01 seconds in the 200 meters also was among the best. Her 11.80 ranked just outside the top marks in the 100.
She edged Stalbert, a Texas A&M signee, to win the Division I indoor 400 meters in 57.03 and handed Baton Rouge High’s Mikiah Brisco, an LSU signee, her lone loss in Louisiana when she ran the 24.01 in the 200 meters.
“Going into the year I was kind of nervous,” O’Conner said. “I didn’t know what everybody else’s speed was going to be like. To start off by winning state my freshman year is great for me. I guess it helps give me a reputation, but it means so much for the school. I like that we did something a lot of people haven’t done.”
Getting to know O’Conner personally is just as compelling as the times she runs, Carrier said.
“She’s been running summer track forever,” Carrier said. “So wherever we go she knows people. When we went to McNeese for the first indoor meet, and she knew everybody there. We went to the Sugar Bowl meet in New Orleans and it was the same thing. A few high school coaches didn’t know her, but the other runners did.
“She’s grounded. Her dad is great, and he has been good with her, making sure she’s the friendly person people meet and that she still gets to be a kid. She’s a good student. She had a 3.5 (grade-point average) last year.”
O’Conner started running summer track at age nine. She sees Brisco, McMain’s Aleia Hobbs (also an LSU signee) and Katherine Drexel’s Shannon Ray, as contemporaries and role models. The foursome teamed up for several relays this summer. She also counts current Texas A&M star Kamaria Brown, the NCAA champion in the 200 meters, as a mentor. Brown starred locally for Baton Rouge High and McKinley.
“I ran with KY (Track Club) when I was young and she (Brown) was with KY and I used to get to practice with her,” O’Conner said with a smile. “She helped me and showed me how to do things.”
Thanks to video work done by her father, Charleston, O’Conner reviews many of her races, checking not only her technique, but also that of other runners. Newton is stressing improved form, noting O’Conner needs to work on using her arms and finishing with her knees high.
One goal for 2015 is breaking Zachary’s school record of 11.72 in the 100 meters and lowering that time to an elite level, perhaps an 11.5. Of course, she’ll also be back to the 400.
Before that, she’ll get to compete on an international stage for the first time.
“I’ll get to see China and have fun and hopefully run fast,” O’Conner said. “This is my first chance to go international, and I want to enjoy it.”
Carrier, Newton and others will be watching from afar, pondering the future.
“She’s got so much potential,” Newton adds with a laugh.
“Did I tell you she can run the 800 too?”