published Sunday, May 5th, 2013

Hamilton County schools' tracks in bad shape

Coach Steven Lewis walks near cracks in the track at Central High School.
Coach Steven Lewis walks near cracks in the track at Central High School.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

It would be the equivalent of a football team practicing tackling drills on asphalt or a basketball player using a gravel parking lot to work on his ball-handling.

Because most of the schools in Hamilton County have such deplorable track and field facilities, that's the type hurdle facing many local athletes just to prepare for competition.

Other than Ooltewah, Red Bank and Signal Mountain, the county track and field facilities lag far behind much of the rest of Tennessee, forcing athletes to find makeshift ways to practice their sport.

"The kids at most of our county schools never get to practice on a quality surface, and some really don't get to practice at all," said Soddy-Daisy coach Steve Henry. "So many kids just show up at the meet and run, and that's a shame because it always makes you wonder just how good some of them could be if they could really work at it.

"The sad thing is, you go anywhere else in the state -- Murfreesboro, Knoxville or just about anywhere outside of Chattanooga -- and there are several quality facilities. The kids in our area are getting shafted."

Resurfacing a regulation-size, six-lane track can cost $200,000 to $250,000, a steep price for nonrevenue-producing sports such as track.

As many as four to six other teams typically get permission to work out at Red Bank several times a week to prepare for competition. And as the season winds down, and so many athletes focus on qualifying for postseason events, that number and frequency increases.

Red Bank hosted a 27-team meet last week and is typically the host site for state-qualifying events each spring. The school's rubberized track surface was laid in 2000, and coach Hugh Enicks said the facility is already in need of reconditioning because of so much use by prep athletes and the general community who uses it as well.

The concrete surface at Soddy-Daisy was put down in 1984 and is riddled with cracks and breaks to the point that it has become a hazard. Several other county schools face similar conditions, but none are worse than at Central High, where the 25-year-old asphalt surface is in such bad shape that there are more cracks and breaks than distinguishable painted lines.

The paint for lanes 4 through 6 has completely faded, and the cracks run two inches wide and nearly an inch deep in places.

"I couldn't believe they even let kids on a track like this when I got here," said Central boys' track coach Steven Lewis, who came to the program seven years ago as an assistant. "I was in shock. I couldn't believe a school this size could be in such bad shape.

"Some of the best athletes in the school, like a lot of football players, won't come out for track because they fear injury. We've had athletes who round the turn and have their feet slide out from under them because the track crumbles and flakes up. Even as good as we are locally, we could be a state contender every year because of the talent level walking the halls."

The runway for jumpers is a broken sidewalk overgrown by clumps of grass shooting up between the cracks, and Central high jumpers practice in the gym, with two athletes holding each end of a bungee cord and jumpers taking turns jumping over and onto a used gymnastics pad that the team bought from a local church.

Ooltewah High loaned four old hurdles to Central to use for practices, an appreciated gesture but insufficient for hurdlers to prepare properly for meets.

"I've never seen a school this size, with this many kids on a team, have such bad facilities," said Central volunteer coach Luke Robinson, who ran track at Scottsboro (Ala.) High and later competed at Auburn University. "It makes it really tough for them to get ready to compete. The first time these kids actually jump is at a competition. There is no practice. We can work on approach and their steps a little but not the full jump."

After a rash of shin splints and ankle and back injuries, Central coaches began limiting the number of hours each week that runners are allowed to practice on the track, alternating between the hard concrete and softer football field for both sprinters and distance runners. One female sprinter recently missed competing in four meets after twisting her ankle by stepping into one of the cracks, and one day after Coach Lewis found and disposed of a king snake he had found in front of the team's run-down equipment storage unit, another snake was found stretched across the doorway of the same storage.

The Pounders typically gather well before the start of a meet to begin working on baton exchanges or simply get adjusted to running on smooth surfaces while wearing spikes.

The season before Lewis took over, Central had 12 track athletes and did not even have team uniforms. His first year as coach that number jumped to 30, with one qualifying to compete in the state meet. Lewis wound up writing a personal check to cover some of the team's cost for expenses such as uniforms, entry fees and travel expenses as well as food for athletes.

The Purple Pounders have had six athletes qualify for state each of the last two years, and this year Central has 68 track and field athletes and coaches expect as many as 10 to reach the state meet.

The Pounders have several of the area's top sprinters and jumpers, as Jaaren Warren and TaQuan Johnson have produced two of the four fastest area times in the 100 and JaQuaris Cole is one of the area's top 200-meter runners.

Four of the team's eight seniors already have scholarship offers, including Chancis Jones, who won the state title in the triple jump and placed second in the long jump last year and has signed with Austin Peay.

"It's hard, especially jumping and running, because of the shin splints," said Traviunta Trammell, who runs the 400, 4x200 and 4x400 and competes in the triple jump. "But it makes us practice harder knowing what others have and what we don't. We just have to make do.

"When we went to away meets, you see what we don't have and it makes you wonder how good we could be if we could practice like other teams. And it would be nice to host a meet so our parents could come out and watch us here."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293.

about Stephen Hargis...

Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 23 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including nine in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation at the Associated ...

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