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Few would have thought it would be possible to mention the words "Anderson County" and "regional track power" in the same volume, much less the same sentence, 3 years ago.
Don't look now, but with the Central Kentucky Conference meet being held Friday, May 16 and the regional meet scheduled for Tuesday, May 20, Anderson County has at least an outside chance at a pair of unlikely crowns.
Both meets will be held at Henry Clay High School in Lexington. That school is considered to be the favorite in both, but Anderson believes it can come away with its fair share of hardware.
"We had 2 kids go to the state last year - Jordan Sloan in the high jump and Ben Joseph in the pole vault. I really don't want to make any predictions on who may or may not go to the state this year," says Anderson coach Travis Gay. "We have a lot of great kids that have a shot at making it this year."
Making that statement without a sense of false optimism shows how far the program has come since Gay took over in 2006.
That Anderson is doing it in Class AAA, considered to be the most difficult of classes, is remarkable. That Anderson is again a major player in a region that includes all of the Lexington public schools and Scott County is almost unbelievable.
When the Bearcats won the boys competition at the Mercer County All-Comers last week, it marked the third consecutive meet the Bearcats had won. Such a modest string is something to shout about at Anderson. Friday, however, the streak was broken by longtime power Danville in the Boyle County Invitational Friday.
Part of the resurgence is undoubtedly linked to having some outstanding athletic talent. Despite a pair of disappointing outings last week in the Mercer County and Boyle County, Sloan is tied for the best high jump in Kentucky this season, regardless of class. Sloan turned in an effort of 6-feet-7-inches two weeks ago, tying him with Madisonville's Jon Hood for the state's top jump.
Yes, that is the same Jon Hood that gave a verbal commitment to play basketball at Kentucky last week.
Fighting some seasonal allergies, Sloan struggled at Mercer last week, unable to get a good grip on the surface, even though he won the competition. Friday, at Boyle, he was fourth with a jump of 5-10.
But any discussion of the players at the regional and state meets has to include the Anderson sophomore. "I had a tough day," Sloan said of his efforts at Mercer, but adds, "I can see myself at the top of the state, hopefully."
Another sophomore, John Updike has been in the state's top 10 in the shot put and discus all season. While the competition at the regional will be fierce, Updike has a real shot at advancing to the state finals, which will be held at the University of Louisville.
Updike, who has added 5 feet to his discus throw and 7 feet to his shot mark this year, says there is no secret to what has brought Anderson back. He says Gay's work ethic is contagious.
"(The Bearcat coaching staff) show a lot of hard work and dedication," he says.
"Our coaches work hard," adds distance runner Jayson Barnes, a freshman. "We have different workouts."
And that might be what is most amazing about the revival of Anderson track: Gay never participated in the sport until being named head coach. A former football star at Campbellsville University who also played basketball at Floyd Central High School in Indiana, Gay should receive consideration for some coach of the year awards.
Numbers are up from less than 20 when he started to about 75. It is a rare occasion when Anderson does not have a competitor in an event.
But track is more than just going out and running faster and jumping higher. Technique often means the difference between winning and finishing well back in the pack.
"There is more technique involved in track than any other sport I have been a part of," says assistant coach Derek Skaggs, who played football with Gay at Campbellsville and is also an assistant football coach at the high school.
"It's everything in the high jump," says Sloan.
Gay and his staff have immersed themselves in the sport, learning the correct way to run, jump or throw. "We are dedicated to becoming great track coaches," Skaggs says. "When I ran track in high school (at Taylor County), I had great coaches.
"Everyone thinks they know how to run, so what we have to do is take something they have done their entire lives and reteach them."
So far, Gay, Skaggs and the other 4 coaches have done a marvelous job.
In addition to Sloan and Updike, pole vaulter B.J. Robinson has to be considered one of the regional favorites. Devin Davenport has consistently been one of the best around at 400 meters and in the triple jump while Cody Dixon has been a force in the 100, 200 and 400-meters.
On the girls' side, sprinter Madison Carter has been a pleasant surprise and could contend in the 100 and 200 while senior Erin Rogers has been strong in both events as well. Hurdlers Sabrina Shelton and Evie Sprague have also put up good times.
Distance runner Kristin Moninger has been solid all year, too.
"I think a lot of their success has come from the fact that the coaches have worked so hard to get the students involved," says Anderson athletic director Rick Sallee. "They are getting kids in their best events, where they can be successful."
Anderson, the county not the school, has taken notice. At last week's Mercer meet, the Bearcats had far more supporters than any of the other schools participating.
"It was like a basketball game," says Updike, who plays that sport as well and has witnessed Anderson often having more fans than the home team.
"The kids are having fun and are ready to practice," Sallee noted.
Such was the case at Mercer, when Gay had enough runners to put a second team in a relay. He opted to go with Updike and some of the other bulky throwers. The foursome finished well back of the winners, but that didn't seem to matter. "That was a lot of fun," Updike said.
Most of all, Updike underscored the attitude Gay is trying to convey: Do your best and get better. Updike had won the discus and was second in the shot put at Mercer but was not happy with the results. Neither throw was an improvement.
But that cannot be said about the Anderson County track program. No one is venturing a guess at how the Bearcats and Lady Cats will do in their two big meets, but to even be speculating says things are different.
And they will only get better.