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The Daily Tar Heel

Three UNC students on what it's like to compete against star athletes before college

Nassir Little Zion Williamson Duke ACC
Before starring for Duke, Zion Williamson dropped 38 points on UNC student Alex Jenkins in high school.

High school mixtapes are popular for a reason.

As fun as it is to watch two dominant athletes go head to head, it’s just as entertaining — if not more — to watch future stars wreak havoc against, well, lesser competition.

Media outlets such as Hoopmixtape and Ballislife have made a lucrative business of such videos; players such as Aquille Carr, Sebastian Telfair, John Wall and Seventh Woods have ridden their coattails to mixed college and professional results (and that’s just basketball).

But what about those on the other end of the equation?

The Daily Tar Heel spoke with three current UNC students who competed against elite athletes at the high school and middle school level to find out.

'Once-in-a-blue-moon type athlete'

As current UNC student Sawyer Covington remembers it, his Hawfields Middle School football team was “god awful.” He hadn’t played the sport in his life before the season.

But as for Jamie Newman, the Graham Middle School quarterback that Covington and the rest of Hawfields’ defense had to defend that game?

“He had the speed and agility of a high schooler as a middle schooler and 25 pounds and a couple inches on everybody already,” Covington said. “I’d imagine it would be like an NFL player stepping into college football.”

As a wide receiver and backup safety, Covington was a part-time participant and full-time witness of Newman’s “absolute domination” in Graham's win against Hawfields. The quarterback evaded tackle after tackle on scrambles, powered through three defenders on runs and dotted up the field with ease as a passer.

“There wasn't a single thing the kid wasn't capable of,” Covington said.

And once they entered high school in 2012, Covington watched Newman blossom from a middle school stud to a household name in Alamance County.

At Graham High School, the dual-threat quarterback was a four-year starter from 2012-16. He signed with Wake Forest, where he spent two years on the bench before flourishing in a starting role. Last season, Newman had 3,442 yards of total offense and 32 touchdowns for the Demon Deacons, who went 8-5 and rose as high as No. 19 in the AP Top 25.

Now a graduate transfer, he’s the presumptive starter at SEC stalwart Georgia.

Covington, who played as punter for Eastern Alamance, didn’t directly match up against Newman in high school as he did in middle school. But Graham High and Eastern Alamance were frequent opponents, so Covington saw plenty of Newman’s highlight plays from the sidelines. He called the quarterback a “once-in-a-blue-moon type athlete.”

And once college football ultimately starts back up, at least one of Newman’s middle school football opponents will be rooting for him.

“There are thousands of standout players in middle schools, high schools around the country,” said Covington, a senior business administration major. “Rarely does that play out. The herd thins, so to be able to watch Jamie continue to excel at the next level, that's really inspiring.”

'Every sport has their Kobe Bryant'

Tammy Gitonga's appearance at the 2016 New Balance Nationals, which she calls the Olympics of high school track and field, wasn't a fluke.

At Marist School in Atlanta, she helped her team win three state championships and, as a senior, won an individual title in the 300-meter hurdles. She also accepted an athletic scholarship to UNC, where she competed on the track and field team for two years before medically retiring.

But she’s happy to admit that, at the New Balance Nationals, she got “absolutely destroyed” by Sydney McLaughlin, the youngest American to appear in the actual Olympics since 1976.

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“It’s like how every sport has their Kobe Bryant,” Gitonga said. “She was basically that for women's hurdles.”

Gitonga and McLaughlin crossed paths in June 2016. North Carolina A&T was hosting that year’s outdoor New Balance Nationals in Greensboro, and the two runners were in the same heat (or starting group) for the women’s 400-meter hurdles, McLaughlin’s specialty.

In the race, which is about a quarter of a mile long, runners clear 10 hurdles while maintaining what Gitonga called a “timed sprint” pace. Anything under a minute is a respectable time, she said.

That’s around the mark Gitonga hit; she placed 22nd in the race with a time of 1:02.48. Plenty of other runners hovered around the 1-minute or 59-second range.

McLaughlin, a high school junior at the time, did it in 54.46 seconds — cruising to a first-place finish while the rest of the pack had a good 60 meters and three hurdles to go.

"She's, like, drinking her water and pulling off her sneakers by the time we're crossing the finish line,” Gitonga said.

Two months later, Gitonga watched her one-time opponent run the same race for Team USA in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. McLaughlin was 16 when those Olympics began and turned 17 a few days later.

The phenom went on to a single year at Kentucky, where she won SEC titles in three events and an NCAA title. She’s now a professional runner with a New Balance contract.

Gitonga, a senior biology major planning on pharmacy school, still gets a laugh recalling her brief conversation with McLaughlin and a few other runners four years ago, as they waited around in the 95-degree North Carolina heat for their race to begin at a meet that ran behind schedule.

“We were joking around: ‘Oh my gosh, I don't want to do this. If you jog, I'll jog,’” Gitonga said. “Just the meet jokes everyone does. (McLaughlin) didn't jog. At all.”

'This guy's the next LeBron'

You can use Alex Jenkins as a litmus test for Zion Williamson’s meteoric rise.

When Asheville Christian Academy traveled to Spartanburg Day School in fall 2015, Williamson was a bouncy sophomore forward whose name was well-known in high school basketball circles but still getting traction nationwide.

When Asheville Christian hosted Spartanburg Day the following year, Williamson was a social media sensation. The gym was standing room only, the baselines were lined with cameras and the crowd cheered louder for Williamson than it did the home team. A month later, the rapper Drake was posing in the 16-year-old junior’s red and white jersey on Instagram.

And guess who had the honor of defending (or trying to defend) Williamson in both of those games?

“The most terrifying experience of my high school career,” Jenkins said with a laugh, “but definitely an interesting story to tell.”

Jenkins, who’s around 6-foot-3 and played small forward, considers their first meeting a rare treat. He got to play against a world-famous athlete back when he was, well, just an athlete. The hype train was still gearing up at the station.

“That game I held my own, I'd say, until the third quarter,” Jenkins said, “and then I got gassed and he started torching me … we ended up having to switch defenders.”

In a Spartanburg Day win, Williamson finished with 32 points on 15-19 shooting. On an inbounds pass under his own basket, he also nearly elbow-bumped the rim on an alley-oop slam. Jenkins, on the court for that moment, remembers thinking: “Geez, this kid is unreal.”

And when Williamson went for 38 on 15-20 shooting a year later — leading Spartanburg Day to another win over a strong Asheville Christian team ranked among the state’s best — Jenkins’ mind was made up.

“I called it at that point,” he said. “This guy's the next LeBron (James), player archetype-wise, with the athletic ability.”

Williamson has since flashed that transcendent talent in one season at Duke and an abbreviated rookie year with the New Orleans Pelicans. And Jenkins, a junior business administration major, has had some fun with the YouTube mixtape that spawned from their second meeting.

When Williamson became the No. 1 overall pick in last summer’s NBA Draft, Jenkins posted a short clip from the video on his Instagram story. In it, Williamson splits two defenders at halfcourt before meeting Jenkins (No. 11) in the paint and putting his shoulder into him.

Williamson glides by for an and-one. Jenkins, meanwhile, falls down and disappears from the frame.

“I’m coming next, Zion,” Jenkins’ post read. “Don’t worry.”


@DTHSports |