Jun. 22—Kemper County graduate Sha'Kenye Darden took up track and field in 10th grade and couldn't complete his rookie season due to the COVID-19 pandemic canceling spring sports in Mississippi.
In 2021, Darden finished second in the MHSAA Class 3A state championship meet's 800-meter run. Following realignment, Kemper County moved down to Class 2A, and Darden set his sights on capturing the gold medal at the 2022 Class 2A state meet.
He accomplished his mission, finishing in first place in the boys 800-meter run with a time of 2:06.31. He was also a member of the Kemper County boys 4X400-meter relay team that placed first at the state meet in late April and part of the boys 4X800-meter relay team that finished second. As a team, the Kemper County boys were No. 2 overall with 74 points at the state meet, four shy of first-place finisher Amite County, which had 78.
Because of his individual contributions to the Kemper County boys track and field team, Darden was named the 2022 Premier Preps Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year.
"It's an honor," Darden said of the recognition. "I never believed I could do it. It's all because of God."
Track and field wasn't even on Darden's radar until his sophomore year at Kemper County, when his friend invited him to a practice. There, he met head coach Keith Cole, who saw a raw runner with a lot of potential.
"I didn't know anything about track, but he motivated me and taught me, and when I kept doing it I became good at it," Darden said. "I just became better and better."
Cole said Darden is the most humble runner he's ever coached and is also a sponge for knowledge.
"He's ranked No. 1 in 2A, and he acts like he's just a regular person on the team," Cole said. "He's also a quick learner. He only started track in the 10th grade, and then we had COVID, so his first full year of running track was last year, when he place second at state (in the 800 meters). I knew this year, having a year under his belt, that he would win."
Winning the 800 meters was impressive enough, but Cole said having him on the relay teams was just as critical.
"He's my MVP," Cole said. "You put him on the 4X800 and he'll get you the lead, and you'll just about win. In the 4X400, you put him on the first leg. He's just a great athlete."
Winning an individual championship in the 800 meters and a team championship in the 4X400 was equally satisfying, Darden said.
"It felt like a dream come true," Darden said. "I put all that work in and kept praying on it and working hard, and I put my faith in my coach, and it all paid off. In the relays, it felt good to be able to win with my teammates, knowing we've been working so hard to get to where we want to be."
Earning Premier Preps recognition will hopefully help get Darden some looks at the collegiate level, Cole said.
"It means everything," Cole said. "For him to be recognized, it could help him forward his education."
In the meantime, Darden has been working out at Meridian Community College's track trying to stay in shape, and he has even bigger goals that just running in college.
"I want to be in the Olympics one day," Darden said. "I want to become something great so I can take care of my family, and I want a better life for myself."