The only thing rising faster than the price of gas in Ayer is stock in local track and field phenom Ijeoma Ezechukwu.
Known to her classmates as IJ, the Nigerian-born sprinter has flipped on the afterburners during her final year at Ayer Shirley High School, earning a state title in the 55-meter dash at the Div. 5 State Championships and rewriting the school’s record book a handful of times.
This past weekend, Ezechuckwu became the first Panther to ever qualify for the Nike National Invitational this past weekend, laying claim to the best 200-meter time in the state. “She was a late bloomer,” Coach Chris Donovan said of his captain. “It’s no fault of her own, she just got started a little late.” Immigrating to the states two-and-a-half years ago, Ezechukwu (pronounced Ah-Za-Choo-Koo) placed her initial focus on her classwork, where she is an AP student. But her superior talent didn’t keep her hidden for long. “I remember hearing rumors about a new girl in the school who looked like a really good athlete,” laughed Assistant coach Andrew St. Germain. “But she’s blown any expectations we had out of the water. She’s a great, hard-working athlete to be around.” Germain, the team’s sprint coach, took the 5-foot-5 speedster under his wing upon her arrival, personalizing a workout plan for the new student. “She trusted in what we had planned for her,” Germain said. “She showed up and worked hard every day.” Donovan, Germain and the rest of the coaching staff had a long-term vision in mind with Ezechukwu, geared towards having her peak in late winter. They believed with hard work and a little luck, she was capable of competing for a state championship. “She really peaked at the right time,” Coach Germain said. “Her training was geared to running really well at the end of the year. We knew it frustrated her, but she also knew she was better off for it. She’s the type of kid who really does well on the big stage.” In addition to winning a state title in the 55-meter dash, Ezechukwu ran a season-best 42.31 seconds to place second in the 200-meter dash at the Div. 5 State Championships. A week later at the All-State Championships, she broke her own school record, bettering her time with a 40.91-second performance and a fourth-place mark. Ezechukwu now holds the school’s best indoor marks in the 55- and 60-meter dashes, as well as the 200. She is part of the school’s record-breaking 4x100 outdoor team, as well as the 4x200 indoor team. “She’s one of the best athletes I have ever had the chance to coach,” said Germain, who helmed a four-year run at Burncoat Academy in Worcester from 2017-2020. “She’s one of a kind.” Ezechukwu has yet to declare her intention to participate in track during college but is expected to do so. Academics remain a top priority, though her recent success has Div. 1 NCAA schools like UMass Amherst in pursuit. “She’ll go to the D-1, D-2 level,” Coach Donovan said, noting that Merrimack and American International College were also in the mix. “I think [IJ] will take the best combination of academics and athletics that are offered to her.” Donovan is grateful for the impact the senior sensation has had on his program, this year, and for many to follow. “We’ve got a big middle school group,” he said. “A lot of them look up to her. She’s a natural athlete with a great work ethic. It’s really good for the kids to see a role model like that.” “She really embodies that leadership role really well,” added St. Germain. “All of the girls look up to her.”