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Belize school makes progress at Penn Relay

From left Vice Principal Ray Lawrence, Head Coach Gary Francisco and Principal Jacklyn Cayetano at the Calabash Restaurant and Lounge in Philadelphia.
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Officials at Stann Creek Ecumenical College, the only Belize high school to compete to date in the illustrious Penn Relays Carnival at the Franklin Field Stadium at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, have expressed satisfaction with the school’s performance for the second successive year.

“Overall, the results this year were way better than that of last year’s in terms of participation and performance,” said Head Coach Gary Francisco, in an exclusive Caribbean Life interview after his school competed in the games late last month.

“As a coach, that’s one you want and one that you can live with,” he added. “We are progressing. We are getting better.”

In addition to the boys’ team, Francisco said a girls’ team competed in the games this year.

Last year, the inaugural year for any Belizean high school competing in the carnival, only a boys’ team from Stan Creek Ecumenical College participated in the three-day meet, during the last week in April, starting on Thursday and ending on Saturday, with the marquee races.

On the Thursday, Francisco said the highlight was “to see the girls completing their race (4x100m) without dropping the baton.

“Meeting them at the end shows that not only myself and other supporters were happy for them, their emotions showed exactly what success means in accomplishing your purpose, as they hugged and cried together,” he said. “Right there and then, I told them, ‘job well done’ and continue walking with your heads up.”

The next day, the head coach said the school “went all the way in with confidence, hope and faith.

“We knew we would make noise,” he said. “The 4×100m males had us jumping, dancing, shouting with all kind of mixed emotions. To hear the announcer calling your school name gave us something to be super proud of and about.

“Placing fourth — with the challenges of not having an actual track, coming from a tropical climate country having to run in such weather conditions and still finished in the top five — does a lot for the kids, our school, our community and even our country to a certain extent,” he added.

Francisco said the Saturday “was the day of toughness and resiliency, one of the hardest events and our hardest challenge, the 4×400m.

“The start was our biggest downfall, but to see them (athletes) fighting through the other remaining legs did more than what was expected of them,” he said. “They competed and finished strong at 8th place.

“Taking the good out of the bad, we knew right there and then that we have three (athletes) good enough to compete out of the four runners to better prepare for next year,” he added. “So (there is) a level of hope, and I was pleased with the results knowing they did their best.”

Dr. Jacklyn Cayetano, principal of Stann Creek Ecumenical College, who, along with Vice Principal, Ray Lawrence and a chaperone, accompanied the teams, said the school was happy to compete in the Penn Relays, for the first time, last year.

“We participated this year, because we appreciate the opportunity afforded to us and we knew we could have done better this time around, having the experience from last year,” she told Caribbean Life.

She credited James Cordice, the Philadelphia-based pioneer and coordinator of St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ participation in the Penn Relays, for pushing Stann Creek Ecumenical College in its history-making role.

“He is our host once we are in the US,” Dr. Cayetano said. “He provides us with accommodations, transport, food and tremendous support to our team.

“Mr. Cordice keeps constant contact with our school through the school year, ensuring that we are on track and getting ready for the upcoming games,” she added.

Cayetano also lauded the school’s Board of Governors for “approving finances in the current budget and even approved more finances when our costs went way over budget.

“We also need to credit the teachers in the Sports Committee for our participat­ion.,” she said. “They help to coach and prepare the students and even help in fundraising initiatives. We also need to credit our local business community for pitching in to support this very costly and ambitious venture.”

Cayetano said her school intends to continue competing in the Penn Relays “some time to come.

“We believe that it is important to have our student athletes compete at this level,” she said. “Participat­ing affords our students exposure and increases the chances for scholarship opportunities for them.

“It also means that our students have the ability to improve their skills, and this could even propel them to even higher levels of competition,” she added.

For Lawrence, the Penn Relays is “a once in a lifetime experience for any athlete, much less for students from Stann Creek Ecumenical High School, who overcame significant odds and broke substantial barriers to make their mark on behalf of their school and country in such a prestigious event.”

He said Stann Creek Ecumenical High School “continues to be the beacon of hope for young people in the southern region of Belize, with its focus on discipline, aesthetics, sports and the academics as a means of creating opportunities for young, vulnerable students of the South.

Located in the “Cultural Capital” of the country, Dangriga Town, Lawrence said “this prestigious institution saw the opportunity to participate at the Penn Relays as a direct means of exposing our students to the concept of using sports as a vehicle to achieve their goals and advance their career aims.”

He said the school’s participation in the Penn Relays last and especially this year “immediately transform their (athletes) frame of mind positively and built their self-esteem.

“I was personally overwhelmed at the professional and advance level at which our athletes performed this year, signaling immediately that we can compete with the best of the best globally, despite the marginal resources available to us for training and support,” the vice principal said.

Additionally, he said his students were exposed to the “soul-fulfilling spirit of collaboration and comradery as demonstrated by Mr. James Cordice and the SVG (St. Vincent and the Grenadines) community and Team Jamaica Bickle (the Queens-based philanthropic organization that provides meals and other accommodation for Caribbean athletes participating in the Penn Relays).

“If nothing else, they learnt that, with home grown support and team work, one can achieve beyond their imagination and expectations, even if they come from the tiniest place on earth,” Lawrence added.

Last year, Belize created history by becoming the first country in Central and South America to compete in the distinguished Penn Relays in over 80 years.

“In 1937, a Panamanian team came to the Penn Relays and, since that time — until now — there has not been a team from Central America participating in the games,” said Cordice last year.

Cordice, a community advocate, was instrumental in having two St. Vincent and the Grenadines high schools — The Thomas Saunders Secondary School and the St. Vincent Grammar School — compete in the Penn Relays Carnival for the past nine years.

For the past two years, Cordice has been trekking to Belize, convincing at least one high school — Stan Creek — to participate in the oldest and largest collegiate athletic meet in the United States.

Updated 1:46 pm, June 4, 2019
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