At the start of the indoor track season, Parkland sprinter Del’Nique Penn was a relative unknown. But after running the race of her life, she’s no longer flying under the radar.

Six weeks ago, Penn won the 55-meter dash in dramatic fashion at the NCHSAA Class 3-A state indoor track and field championships at JDL Fast Track. In the final, she bolted to a lead that she never relinquished. Penn also ran a leg on the Mustangs’ 4x200 relay that won a state title, and she received another medal with a fourth-place finish in the 300-meter dash.

“I knew I would run good (at the state), but I wasn’t sure if I could win,” Penn said. “At times, I doubt myself a lot and I know that I shouldn’t. I have people around me who have more faith in me than I have in myself.”

Entering the 55-meter final, Penn, a junior, was viewed — at best — as a longshot to win it all. Jordan Sales (Greenville Rose) and Alyson Davis (Northern Guilford), who had the fastest times in Class 3-A during the season, were supposed to battle it out for supremacy.

With 10 meters to go in the race, Penn led, but Davis started to close the gap quickly. In response, Penn called upon her inner reserves, held steady and leaned at the finish line to win with a personal best of 7.13 seconds. Davis was the runner-up at 7.16 and Sales ran 7.21 for third place.

“Before the race, I was super-nervous,” Penn said. “When I got settled in the blocks, my mindset changed. I kept telling myself that I could beat them. I kept telling myself that I had to get there first. Once I got out of the blocks, I felt I could pull through and I did.

“Late in the race, I could feel her (Davis) coming on strong, so I took a deep breath and kept on pushing until the very end. I didn’t know for sure who had won until I looked at the results on the big TV screen. Winning was unbelievable.”

As the outdoor track season gets underway, all eyes are now on Penn. In the moments following her indoor win, Coach Antwan Hughes of Parkland made sure to remind Penn that she will not catch anyone by surprise anymore.

Translation? Penn is sure to face some worthy challengers in the 100-meter dash this spring.

“Del’Nique deserved it (state championship) because she did the work and executed the way she’s supposed to,” Hughes said. “But now, the target is on her back and there’s no doubt that everybody will be coming after her.”

Penn fully understands how perceptions change when you rise to No. 1. The opposition is always eager to compete and always ready to prove themselves to be just as a good, if not better.

“It’s important to remain humble,” said Penn, who also runs the 200-meter dash, along with the 4x100 and 4x200 relays. “For me to be my very best, I know that I need to push harder. Every race is an opportunity for me to prove that I’m a state champion, and I look forward to that challenge.”

Penn’s trek to stardom did not begin with her performance in February. The seeds were planted during cross country season last fall. Sprinters benefit from distance running because it helps develop endurance and strength.

When combined with the proper mix of weightlifting and resistance training (running hills and sled running), it’s typical for sprinters to lower their previous best times consistently. Penn, a co-captain on Parkland’s cross country team, credits much of her improvement to distance training.

“To be honest about it, I hate cross country,” said Penn, who expects to attract a hefty share of Division I college scholarship offers between now and next year. “But I did it because I knew it would help to make me better. In the time trial we had after cross-country season, my times (in the 55 and 300) were so much better than I thought they’d be.”

Hughes is confident that Penn can win a state outdoor title in the 100. While he realizes it won’t be easy, he acknowledges that it’s an achievable goal. Keeping Penn healthy, he explained, is a crucial part of the plan.

“As long as we can control Del’Nique’s training so that she doesn’t miss training time because of injury, she’ll be OK,” he said. “With her background in cross country, plus her running the 4x400 relay (indoors), she does have the endurance base.

“That’s going to help a lot in the 100. It’s all a matter of her getting out fast, taking control of the race, and having the strength to hold her top speed until the end. There’s no question that she what she did indoors, she can also do outdoors.”

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Craig T. Greenlee

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