BY NICK SIMON THE TIMES-GEORGIAN
Having already established herself as one of the top pole vaulters in the country well before competing in her first high school meet, it was only natural for Payton Phillips to cap her freshman season with a Class AAAAA state gold medal in hand.
And while most freshman would be perfectly satisfied with putting together a state championship performance on their very first try, the rising Carrollton High School star was already running through her head ways she could raise the bar as soon as she stepped off the podium.
That constant strive for improvement is part of Phillips' pursuit of building a legacy at CHS, one where she hopes to topple numerous school, state and even national records throughout her prep career.
The freshman phenom notched her first major accolade in the high school ranks on May 10 at the GHSA Track and Field State Championships at Grisham Stadium, clearing 11 feet, 5 inches to run away with her first state pole vaulting title at the high school level.
She reflected on how special her accomplishment was, given how many athletes from around the state would dream to be in her shoes.
"It's really cool because there are a lot of seniors out there that sometimes can't even do that," Phillips said.
Lady Trojan head coach Gwen Engram was extremely proud to see one of her slew of underclassmen from this past spring emerge victorious on the state's grandest stage.
"We don't have ninth-graders usually win a state title, so that was a big deal for her," Engram said. "She just continued to work hard every day throughout the season. When we went to meets, she was always real competitive. We always knew that she had a chance to be real successful here."
Phillips distanced herself from the rest of the competition when she hit the runway at state with the next four state finishers all only clearing heights of 10 feet.
However, Phillips was slightly disappointed with her mark at the AAAAA meet.
Coming just short of breaking Mauri People's 10-year Lady Trojan record (12-2.75) just a few weeks earlier at the Class AAAAA West Sectional, the freshman, who delivered the nation's top leap at the junior high level last year, was gunning for the CHS mark at state.
"It made me mad because I wanted to break the school record because I was just two inches off at sectionals," Phillips said. "It would've been so cool to get over that and to beat a record that's been there for so long."
Nevertheless, the Carrollton newcomer still came up big like she had done several times throughout the season.
The standout athlete described what goes in to preparing for these events on a weekly basis, which mainly consists of getting over the mental block of starting heights.
"Usually, starting height is a hard thing for a lot of people to get out of their heads," Phillips said. "Sometimes it's hard for me to do, but I started to get more confident with it. The starting height isn't as much of a struggle anymore."
As a result of her state championship performance, Phillips got the opportunity to head to Marietta on May 19 to compete at the Georgia High School Meet of Champions.
Finishing fourth with a vault of 10-7.5, she reflected on her experience in mixing it up with the best track and field athletes the state has to offer.
"It was pretty cool," Phillips said. "There were a ton of seniors there that easily qualified. I may not have done necessarily my best, but I placed with all of these seniors that either won state or were close to winning state."
Now with her freshman year officially complete, it's on to year two for the now sophomore, where she will continue to try to elevate herself to heights never seen at Carrollton.
Along with some of her goals like clearing 13 feet, she described some of the other lofty tasks that she wishes to accomplish moving forward.
"There's a few weight room goals that I know will help me get to higher heights," Phillips said. "On top of that, it's another one of my goals to be able to balance everything. School, track, church and everything else."
As for Engram, she's thrilled that she'll be able to watch Phillips grow and develop for another three years.
"It's amazing," Engram said. "All we're hoping for is that she continues to get better and at the end of the four years, she can go to school some place and get an education."