Finishing strong

  • Concord High graduate James Wilkes (6) competes for the University of New Hampshire track and field team. Wilkes won UNH’s prestigious Jim Urquhart Student-Athlete of the Year Award last week, and on Thursday he learned he qualified for the NCAA Eastern Regionals next week in Florida. Courtesy of
Published: 5/22/2021 10:16:27 AM

Even allowing for what he readily admits may be a little recency bias, this year has been one to remember, says Concord High graduate and University of New Hampshire running standout James Wilkes.

“It’s been clouded some with COVID, but the season has been so special with everyone on their ‘A’ game and it being Coach B’s last season,” Wilkes said. “There’s definitely a lot of emotion that has gone into it for everyone involved. … This season has been hard to beat.”

Wilkes, a senior at UNH, has contributed to the highlights and emotions of the year with a breakout season of his own on the track this spring.

For his efforts, he pulled down one of UNH’s top athletic awards in the Senior Showcase that was presented online late last week. Wilkes was named the male winner of the prestigious Jim Urquhart Student-Athlete of the Year Award.

The award kicked off quite a week.

On Saturday, Wilkes raced in the IC4As at Springfield, Mass., in what might have been his last race as a Wildcat, but which also served as a last chance to make the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

He finished fourth in the 800-meter run in a personal-best time of 1 minute, 49.63 seconds, putting him on the bubble to qualify for the NCAA East preliminary round.

Late Thursday morning, the NCAA released the list of qualifiers for the Prelims. Wilkes made the field of 48 in the 800 at No. 46.

“It was a waiting game, for sure,” Wilkes said Thursday morning. “I was holding out hope. I was right on the bubble and very close to not making it. I’m excited. When Coach texted I was in, I breathed a sigh of relief. I’ve got another week of running to do.”

UNH coach Jim Boulanger was excited about the news, too.

“It’s tremendous,” the coach said. “Everything came together for him, and he’s got one more shot. You do the work, and you’ve got to hope. It’s a tough selection process and you’ve got to put yourself into that level to be able to get there, and he did that.”

Wilkes will be one of five UNH athletes competing in the East Prelims, which will be held May 26-29 at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

Grad student Alyssa Colbert will throw the discus, freshman Elizabeth Martell will compete in the 800-meter run, grad student Nicolas Sevilla-Connelly will run the 3,000-meter steeplechase and junior Nate Hobbs will do the long jump.

The goal for the 48 competitors in each event is to qualify for the NCAA Championships to be held June 9-12 at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. Only 12 individuals in each event – from both Jacksonville and the West Prelims in College Station, Tex., – will qualify for the championships.

The Urquhart Award that Wilkes collected is presented to one male and one female as “the most outstanding senior student-athletes based on athletic success, community involvement and academic achievement.”

The cross country and track teams made a clean sweep of this year’s Urquhart Awards: Senior Meg Champagne, of Plattsburgh, N.Y., was the female winner.

It was a fitting final Senior Showcase for Boulanger, the coach and director of the UNH cross country and track and field teams, who is retiring after nearly 40 years of leading them.

Wilkes progressed steadily through his UNH career and is planning his future steps in running: He has been accepted into a Ph.D. program in chemistry at Boston College (where he will get a master’s degree in the process) for the fall and will likely use his final year of running eligibility there next season.

Early on, like most athletes, Wilkes transitioned into college competition.

“I think coming in freshman and sophomore years, I was still getting used to the new intensity of college training,” he said. “I went through a couple of nagging injuries that caused me not to miss races, but to have some inconsistent races, and I was not where I wanted to be.”

That began to change during a junior cross country season that started with an impressive individual and team performance at the University of Maine.

“Our team had a great energy and morale going into it and ended up sweeping the meet, and that really set the tone for the season,” Wilkes said. “You could see the excitement, and we went on to have some of the fastest performances the team had had in some years.”

The Wildcats took the top six spots in the Maine race. Wilkes was third, and it was a big day for former Concord High runners with Forest MacKenzie finishing first and Aidan O’Hern in fifth.

That was the fall of 2019 and, despite COVID messing things up later that school year and into this one, the Wildcats were able to carry over some of their momentum, in part because of the emotion of it being Boulanger’s finale, Wilkes said.

“Coach B’s last home meet is one of the memories I’ll hold onto for a long time,” Wilkes said. “There was a lot of emotion at that meet and at the conference meet as well. They did a shout-out at the end, and there was a standing ovation for everything he’s done for the program and the conference.”

Wilkes turned in impressive times in the 800 (1:50.19 in UNH’s final home meet) and 1,500 (3:50.63 to finish third in the America East championship meet) this spring.

He improved on the 800 time in the IC4As to earn his NCAA bid.

“It started clicking with the training Coach B and I had drawn up,” Wilkes said. “I’m very pleased how this season has played out. I never would have thought I’d get to 1:50 in the 800, never thought that was going to be a possibility.”

Wilkes, who has been involved with various community projects with fellow members of the cross country and track and field teams, surprised himself and his coach.

“He’s really done it last year and this year,” Boulanger said. “He stepped up both years. His times mean he might have another level he can go to.”

Robert Hoppler, the head coach of the women’s cross country team and co-coach of the women’s track and field team, is impressed.

“He trained and put his mileage in, and every year he’s gotten better and better,” Hoppler said. “This final year, he ran great in cross country and at multiple distances on the track. It’s Jim Boulanger 101. It’s amazing how Jamie Wilkes has improved. It’s fantastic. He’s a hard worker in class and on the track and a natural leader.”

Now it’s on to the NCAAs and then Boston College.

Wilkes, who worked as a long-term substitute teacher in chemistry this winter at Franklin High School, started out in biochemistry at UNH and switched to chemistry.

“I’m real big into sustainable materials and reusable energy and carbon dioxide reduction,” he said. “I’m interested in working in materials chemistry for a greener-type science or chemistry, environmental chemistry. I guess I got it from my parents. I’ve always had an interest in recycling and wanting to make sure we’re treating the planet with respect. There’s clearly climate change going on. I think the science is pretty hard on that. Hopefully we’re able to, if not reverse that, slow it for generations to come.”

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