Once-natural partnership between track, football withers for one coach

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Tue. February 14, 2012 | Bob Putnam | Email

Once-natural partnership between track, football withers for one coach

CLEARWATER — When Countryside High School’s Eileen Givens examined her priorities after a bay area record 18 straight district track titles (12 with Lakewood’s girls, six with Countryside’s boys), she was convinced the time had come to walk away.

“It was just becoming too much to juggle everything,” said Givens, also a physical education teacher at Countryside and a supervisor at Campbell Park Recreational Center.

Lap splits and training programs used to be Givens’ biggest concerns. But a more gnawing one emerged the past few seasons. With a roster decimated by graduation, Givens hoped to fill the holes in her lineup with football players. But this season, Countryside has only a handful competing in track. Most are junior varsity players.

“It’s always been a battle to get football guys out for track here,” said Givens, 46, who plans to retire from the school district in eight years or so.

The divide was evident during Monday’s practice. Two-dozen runners, jumpers and throwers stretched on the track before practice with new coach Jazmyn Shorter, a former Lakewood/University of Kentucky track standout. A few feet away, football players did the same drills on an asphalt court as part of a conditioning program.

Countryside football coach Jared Davis, in his third year with the program, said he does not discourage his players from running track.

“Eileen is a great coach and we’ve had quite a few guys run track,” Davis said. “The choice is up to them. If they’re with us, we have them lift more than run because we don’t want to burn or wear them out.”

Football players are the lifeblood of any boys track program, particularly in the sprints, hurdles, jumps and throws. Many area standouts who played high school and college football have won multiple state titles or set records in track.

• Twelve years ago, Leto’s Michael Jenkins (Ohio State/Atlanta Falcons) nearly won a state team title for his school after winning the triple jump and taking second in the 400 meters.

• In 2002, Dixie Hollins’ Kevin Marion (Wake Forest) set the state record in the long jump with a leap of 25 feet, 5 inches.

• Last year, Wesley Chapel’s Hunter Joyer — who played football that fall for Tampa Catholic and committed to Florida — won a title in the shot put with a throw that was a few feet shy of the state record.

The benefits for football players participating in track do not just come with medals. The compression, quick bursts and fast finishes help players with conditioning and build speed in the offseason.

“We encourage our guys to be involved in track,” Armwood football coach Sean Callahan said. “The thing I like about it is that they’re still competing in some way. In track, there’s nowhere to hide. It’s not so much about wins or losses. It’s more about the competition and staying in shape.”

Most football and track programs at high schools have a peaceful coexistence. But with the passing leagues, seven-on-seven tournaments and combines popping up in the spring, football has become as specialized as any other sport.

Countryside, as well as many other schools in Pinellas County, competes in a spring passing league sponsored by the Police Athletic League.

“We have some quarterbacks and some skill guys that we’re trying to work in so we’ll throw a little more than we normally do,” Davis said.

With football becoming more of a year-round activity, the appeal of picking up track as a second sport could be fading away.

“It’s tough because I put in so many hours and a lot of hard work to build a successful program,” Givens said. “But that’s not enough to convince football players.”

One of Givens’ success stories was Ricy Brown, who won a state title in the 800 meters last season. Brown was strictly a football player before running track as a junior. He became so good that he quit football to concentrate on running as a senior and signed with Bethune-Cookman.

“I don’t want to say it was ever discouraged, but the football coaches always wanted to make sure I was getting bigger by lifting weights,” Brown said. “They also feared that we would get hurt. I think once some of the other guys saw that I was doing well in track they decided to come out. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore.”

Many track programs have coaches who are assistants in football and are able to get athletes to juggle time in both sports.

“Track coaches have to be able to work with us to be successful,” Callahan said. “We have a pretty good situation here.”

Givens has trouble understanding why players shy away from her sport.

“Football players say they need to get ready for spring football,” Givens said. “I guess I’m still old school. It was always my understanding that spring football started in May.

“I could understand it more if I was just some newcomer and the football coaches didn’t know what I was about. But I think my accomplishments in the sport are pretty much known.”

Bob Putnam can be reached at putnam@tampabay.com.

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