FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Three evenings a week, a group of dedicated young athletes, 8 to 14 years old, prepare for competition at the 193rd Infantry Brigade track or on the hills behind Hilton field.

Midway through this year's track season, the team sponsored by Child, Youth and School Services has turned in impressive performances against runners from much larger teams from across the Midlands. The team, which had only nine members last year, has grown to 41 athletes this season and will be sending seven runners to the South Carolina State Championships in June.

Head coach Ken Covington attributes the success to two factors -- dedicated athletes and parental support.

"We focus on teaching the fundamentals and character, but these kids have discipline and are putting in the hard work, pushing themselves in training," Covington said. "Also, we have great support from active duty military volunteers, giving their time and experience to all of these kids, enabling us to tailor training for individual runners. It's a community effort, and great to see the teamwork. These kids are having fun, and you can see the pride in their faces at the finish lines on Saturday mornings."

The athletes' dedication has paid dividends, as 26 Fort Jackson boys and girls earned an invitation to the district invitational competition Saturday. Team members participated in track events ranging from the 50-meter to 1-mile races, and field events such as the standing long jump and the softball throw. Although the competition at the district invitational was known to be steep, the team looked forward to the challenge.

"I am ready," said 10-year old sprinter Blake Willis before the meet.

"I have already improved so much this season, but I am going to break my record in the 400 meter," predicted DeShaun Scott, 11.

The Fort Jackson team members ran fast at this meet, with nearly all runners turning in their best performances of the season, including Scott. Seven runners earned top place finishes and a berth in the South Carolina State Championships, which will take place in Mount Pleasant June 9.

Eleven-year old Jaden Young summed up this season so far. "It is hard work, pulling each other along, and sometimes those practices hurt, but we are almost at the finish line, and I'm going to the states," Young said.