TUNNEL HILL — Two years ago, Jonathan Willman was a budding athlete at Northwest Whitfield High School, competing for the Bruins’ basketball and track and field teams.
But in the summer of 2011, Willman’s athletic career suffered a major setback when he injured his left knee in a pickup basketball game. Surgery to repair ruptured ligaments was followed by nearly a year of rehabilitation.
He missed all of his junior year, and he hasn’t been back on a basketball court except to shoot by himself or take on friends in a game of H-O-R-S-E. Instead, he has concentrated on running and jumping without the chance of getting laid out taking a charge.
It’s a decision that is working out well for both Willman and Bruins track and field — the senior led the way for the boys Saturday, and the Lady Bruins helped make it a sweep of team titles for the hosts Saturday at the Northwest Invitational.
“I have had to spend a lot of time in rehab and workouts just to strengthen my knee to get to this point,” Willman said. “It took over 10 months of rehab just to feel good enough to test it.”
He passed his tests with flying colors at the meet as he took first-place finishes in a wide variety of events. He was first in the long jump and triple jump to win the top individual boys field performer; on the track he won the 100-meter dash and was part of both the winning 4X100 and 4x400 relay teams.
“He was very apprehensive about his knee when he first came back out, and you can understand that,” Northwest track coach Chad Brewer said. “We have kind of eased him back into it, and you see what he can do. As he gets more comfortable, he will get better and better.”
Willman won the 100 with a time of 11.06 seconds and took the triple jump with a leap of 41 feet, 6-1/4 inches. His long jump was 20-8 3/4.
The Northwest Invitational featured all of the schools within Whitfield County as well as Murray County High and Heritage-Catoosa. Northwest’s boys scored 160 points to best runner-up Heritage (137.5). Dalton finished third.
For the girls, Northwest finished 15 points ahead of Southeast Whitfield and 19 points ahead of Dalton to take the title.
While Northwest won the overall title for the girls, Southeast’s Lady Raiders won what was arguably the most exciting race of the day in the 4x400 relay. Southeast’s first three runners — Wendy Perez, Isabell Salinas and Kayleen Mullins — had staked Brittany Painter to roughly a 20-meter lead for the final leg of the run, but Dalton’s Susan Meinders, who won the 300 hurdles at last year’s Class 3A state meet, was in pursuit.
Meinders steadily closed the gap on the back stretch of the track and seemed poised to overtake Painter coming out of the last turn. But Painter held off the charge and took the victory by a couple of seconds.
“I heard her coming up behind me, and I knew I had to go,” Painter said. “She is one of the most competitive runners I know, and I couldn’t have done it without my teammates giving me a big lead. That was our first time running together, and it turned out very well.”
Perez and Coahulla Creek’s A.T. Smith shared the outstanding girls field performer honors, while Meinders was the clear winner on the track after winning the 400 by more than four seconds as well as the 300 hurdles.
McKinley Hopkins led the Lady Bruins with wins in the triple jump and the 100 hurdles.
“I am very pleased with how well the girls did today,” Brewer said. “We are a very senior-heavy team, and they showed they have been in a meet before today. We have a really good shot of having a special year.”
Ketwan Burns of Heritage took the outstanding boys track performer honors.