Team Louisiana, Plaza Make Memories in ABQ at GSW Classic!


     Twenty years ago, when Juan Plaza took two local track and field athletes to Albuquerque, New Mexico for the Great Southwest Track & Field Classic, there was no need for a 15-passenger van. It was Plaza, former NFL defensive back Jonathan Wade and Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins in Plaza's '98 Toyota RAV 4.

      Gas prices aren't the only thing trending up, the number of athletes Plaza takes to the Land of Enchantment has increased over the last two decades. This year there were 9 in Plaza's traveling party. There were two other groups, one from Ruston and another from Southwest Louisiana, who made the trip as well.

         Athletes from Caddo/Bossier making the trip included Byrd's Elliott Cochran, Hudson Roberts, and Trent Wells, Calvary's Jackson Burney, Loyola's  Tripp Roemer, Parkway's Gabe Falting. There was even an athlete from East Texas. Joquain's Victoria Byrd, who will soon make her way to Natchitoches to continue her career at Northwestern State University, joined the Team Louisiana group because Texas did not send a team this year. 


      When it all started, Plaza didn't have to drive all the way, like he does now. The late Great Southwest Classic meet director, John Haaland, offered to pay for Wade's airfare since he was the No. 1 ranked high school sprinter in the nation. All Plaza had to do was come up with airfare for himself and Perkins. Three for the price of two. 

       While Wade and Perkins performed well during the 2002 meet, it was the flight to Albuquerque which stands out in Plaza's mind.

        "Those two had never flown before," Plaza said. "It's funny because both have flown all over the world now. On their first flight, I made the mistake of sitting between them. They both grabbed my wrist or hand when we would hit turbulence."

         As the plane approached ABQ, Perkins, according to Plaza, "flipped out" when the plane turned to get lined up with the runway.

        "He was like 'what's going on. coach? What's happening?," Plaza said. "I had to explain to him that the plane was turning to get lined up with the runway. There wasn't any laughing about it then, but we laugh about it now."

          Plaza has been to track meets all over the world, but the Great Southwest Classic is one of his favorites. And while the performances are always great, it's the experiences-like a future NFL defensive back and future mayor on their first trip on a plane-that stands out for Plaza.

        "The thing I like to do with this trip is to make it a reward for the athletes and their accomplishments," Plaza said. "We try to make it as stress free as possible. Sure, we want to compete at the meet, but this is a reward. We go to Sante Fe Plaza. None of them have been there. They get to briefly experience what the Sante Fe culture and the cuisine are like. They see the Native Americans selling their crafts in the plaza and see the art museums."

         For lunch, Plaza took the team to a restaurant on the top of Sandia Peak where they had amazing views from both sides of the mountain. The restaurant was called 10-3 because it sits at an elevation of 10,300 feet. 

         The side trip to Sante Fe is personally gratifying for the coach, who grew up in the town, as well.

         "My father was a jockey," Plaza said. "I have some great memories of running up in the mountains with my brother, Mario, while my mother looked after our two younger brothers."

         Another byproduct of a 13 hour trip in a van full of athletes from different high schools  is that the athletes form friendships which last a lifetime.

         "It was quiet for the first four hours in the van," Plaza said. "After someone breaks the ice, it was non-stop. It's like a party in the van when they would all get going."

Plaza hasn't done it alone. He has been helped by coaches across the state of Louisiana.

          "The reason it works is because coaches like Johnny Giordano (St. Louis Catholic), Allen Whitaker (Ruston High School), Trent Ellis (Brusly High School), and the late Dr. Edmond Donald," Plaza said. "They check their ego at the door and it's really all about the kids."

            Giordano's traveling party from Southwest Louisiana included St. Louis pole vaulter Mason Abshire, Kenzie Touchet, Tia Reder, and Reese Trahan from Barbe. 

           Just because the Team Louisiana group has made memories off the track, doesn't mean there haven't been memorable experiences at New Mexico University, where the meet is held.

           In 2014, with the help of Donald, Plaza was able to get Mikiah Brisco and Aleia Hobbs. Brisco was a Baton Rouge Magnet product. Hobbs attended McMain in New Orleans. Both sprinters were All-Americans at LSU and have represented Team USA in the past, and may make the team to represent USA in Eugene, Oregon later this summer. But the first time they ran in a relay together was at the Great Southwest Classic in Albuquerque in 2014.

           "We got them out there and had one day to practice," Plaza said. "We had a relay 101 class. I asked them who ran the anchor leg, and they all raised their hand. I explained to them that would be a problem. We went over some relay fundamentals."

            While the class help, when they got warmed up and we started going through handoffs there was a problem.

            "Brisco was too fast," Plaza said. "We ended up taking 28 steps back and putting the tape down on the track at that point. I've never had to do that with any sprinter, male or female."

            While the practice didn't go as planned, the team was able to get the baton around the track in a time of 44.60, the second all-time fastest time in Great Southwest Classic history. Only an all-star team from Texas has ever run faster at the meet. 


             In the field events, Team Louisiana has put up some equally impressive performances. LSU javelin thrower Tzuriel Pedigo, who will try to defend his 2021 NCAA championship this week, holds the meet record with a throw of 229-09 in 2018. 

        As usual, Team Louisiana represented "The Boot" well in New Mexico.

        The boys 400 relay, which was made up of Ruston Bearcats Brandon Green, Brady Beason, Carson McPherson, and Jalen Paige came away with gold medals despite being the "undercats" going in. Ruston finished as the LHSAA Class 5A runner-up with a time of 41.47. Something about the high altitude and Land of Enchantment suited the Bearcats well as they posted a season best of 41.32.

         Trent Wells, coming off a 3200 state championship last month, finished second in the 1600 meters with a 4:26.76. While the high altitude helps the sprints, it hurts the endurance runners. Wells handled the high altitude well. 

        Two other Ruston athletes finished in the top three. Ruston junior Joshua Anding had a personal record in the 400 meters with a 48.67. Green finished third in the long jump with an effort over 23 feet, but struggled with a nagging injury in the triple jump and was unable to get a mark during three preliminary attempts. 


         Team Louisiana had three teams to medal. The Boys 4x200 finished, which was comprised of Ruston sprinters Joshua Anding, Brady Beason, Carsen McPherson, and Jalen Paige) finished third with time of The Boys 4x800 relay (Byrd's Trent Well, Parkway's Gabe Falting, Ruston's Josiah Whitaker, and Byrd's Elliott Cochran) finished fourth with a time of 8:20.28. The Girls 4x200 (St. Louis' Tia Reder, Kenzie Touchet, Barbe's Reese Trahan, and Joaquin's Victoria Byrd) finished fifth with a time of 1:41.84. The Boys 4x400 (Mansfield's Jaden Youngblood, Ruston's Carsen McPherson, Ruston's Joshua Anding, and Byrd's Elliott Cochran) finished sixth with time of 3:22.28.  

        Coaches or parents interested in their son or daughter representing Team Louisiana at the Great Southwest Classic in 2023 may contact Coach Juan Plaza at