Roundtree, Brown rivalry showing why future of Champaign sprinting is now

May 6—CHAMPAIGN — Nina Brown didn't start sprinting competitively until eighth grade. Her only goal at the time was to keep improving and "see how far I could go."

Izzy Roundtree's introduction to the sport was similar. There wasn't a lot of structure to her middle school track and field experience, and she treated it as a way to "get to know the fun in running."

Here they are a couple years later, Brown a sophomore at Centennial and Roundtree a sophomore at Champaign Central, preparing for Thursday's sectional meet after trading places at the top of area leaderboards all season.

"We run for the same club team, Vipers Track Club, over the summer, so that helps us understand where each other are," Roundtee said. "When we split off into our rival teams, we get to race each other and push each other, which is really fun."

The latest installment of their friendly rivalry came during last Friday's Big 12 Conference girls' championships at Harold Jester Track. The 100-meter dash featured both area standouts, and while neither won the race, they battled for a spot on the podium. Roundtree ended up taking third place with a time of 12.69 seconds, just two-tenths of a second away from the win and 16-hundredths of a second ahead of Brown in fourth.

The sophomore stars were at it again later in the 200-meter dash. This time, it was a photo finish, and Brown got the edge. Brown was runner-up in the race with a time of 25.96 seconds, and Roundtree was just two-hundredths of a second behind in third.

"It's an amazing experience they're getting because it's just going to push them both to go further and further," Central sprints coach Caleb Ball said. "That competitive side of it is something not everyone is gifted with. It gets them to push each other in the next meet. The conversation I had with Izzy after (the 200) was, 'Nina got you this one, but we're going to get her the next one.' I want that to be brewing between the both of them because that just builds up the running in this area."

Their back-and-forth competition makes the sprints must-watch events, and Centennial coach Laura Koterba-Buss watches them run side by side every time, wondering "Is it going to be Izzy, or is it going to be Nina?"

Roundtree and Brown admitted they have surprised themselves with how much success they've already seen this early in their high school careers. Now, they both have their eyes set on making state and continuing to lower their times. Roundtree specifically mentioned running faster than 12 seconds in the 100 and breaking a few school records.

"I came in with no expectations, and I surprised myself at the first few meets," Roundtree said. "I've just been placing higher and higher and getting more and more PRs. I've definitely thought about all the progress I've made. I like to appreciate it because I never would have thought I'd come this far."

Brown views her road to where she is in the same way, adding that she loves the competition with her friend and rival.

"I started kind of late, and I didn't expect to be where I am now, but I'm happy that I am," Brown echoed. "I'm pretty proud of myself, and I just keep trying to work harder."

Koterba-Buss didn't have these expectations either. The longtime coach of the Chargers' girls' program didn't even know of Brown until she showed up as a freshman last year. Koterba-Buss put her in a relay early in the season and couldn't believe what she saw once Brown took off.

"The first time I realized how special Nina was at an indoor meet at Olivet Nazarene her freshman year," Koterba-Buss said. "She was on the 4x200, we gave her the baton and I was just like, "Oh my gosh. This is a special talent and a special athlete.'"

Just a year after that moment, and the belief is Brown "will do some great things in the Centennial uniform."

Meanwhile, the Maroons saw Roundtree's potential a little sooner. Central's coaching staff works closely with the Vipers Track Club during the offseason, so they knew what they were getting before she joined the team. Ball said all the pieces for Roundtree to become the Maroons' next great sprinter were there, and all it was going to take was putting them together.

"The numbers are going to be there. She's going to hit the times, but it's the attitude she brings to the team that opens up everything else," Ball said. "She's getting other kids to buy in the same way she is, and that brings Central up to a new level."

As Koterba-Buss put it, "The speed is fun," and Roundtree and Brown have had a lot of fun this season. And fans will continue to watch them dash side by side to the finish line for the next two years.

It's safe to say the future of Champaign girls' sprinting is now.