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Renewing an old tradition

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A one-time power, Anderson making its name again

By John Herndon

To current members of the Anderson County track team, saying the words “Anderson County” and “traditional track power” are a language as foreign as Russian or Japanese.

Most weren’t even born when Anderson was one of the state’s top five Class AA programs in the 1980s and early ’90s. And many might not even know that the school’s only state championship came in girls’ track 45 years ago.

But what is certain is that Anderson County track and field is quietly becoming a force in Class AAA, to which it was moved several years ago.

It could be a new tradition.

“I can’t define that,” says Anderson coach Travis Gay. “We just don’t talk about the past a lot. We focus on getting better.”

And that getting better has put at least two Bearcats in the hunt for the program’s first individual state champions since Rob Bradshaw in the mid-1990s.

But it has also transformed Anderson from a program just made up of a few strong performers to one that is a threat to win nearly every meet it enters.

Despite being short-handed due to a senior class trip coupled with spring break, the Lady Bearcats were second in the Henry County Wildcat Relays on April 4, finishing only behind North Hardin. The same day, the Bearcats were third, trailing North Hardin and Oldham County and beating Louisville St. Xavier.

To be sure, Anderson is still a long way from that “power” status it enjoyed 20 years ago. For one thing, Class AAA is the largest schools, making numbers a huge part of team success.

The team had just five state qualifiers last year, a number well off the elite status but significant after having just one qualifier in Gay’s first season three years ago.

“I can remember when we would go to a meet and not have enough people there for relays,” recalls senior Evie Sprague, a five-year veteran of the track.

Under such conditions, winning a meet was unheard of. Simply finishing with a good time or not being embarrassed could have sufficed at that time. But three years ago, the Lady Bearcats broke through with their first team win in over a decade, taking an all-comers meet at Western Hills.

“That was awesome,” smiles Sprague, a strong hurdler and middle distance runner for the Lady Bearcats.

That win at Western Hills was only the beginning.

Gay has gradually increased the difficulty of schedule, but Anderson is competing, and winning. In an ironic twist from those days Sprague referred to, some of the strongest Anderson entries, at least when all hands are on deck, are in the girls’ relays.

But it is on the boys’ side where Anderson has some serious state contenders.

Sprinter Cody Dixon has been strong at 100, 200 and 400 meters and John Updike has turned in performances ranked in the state’s top 10 in the discus.

High jumper Jordan Sloan set a school record at 6-07 last year and has been ranked as high as second in the state this season.

“Last year, I finished sixth (at the state meet), but I want to be higher,” says Sloan, a junior.

His biggest competition is well-known. Madisonville’s Jon Hood, the state’s Mr. Basketball and a University of Kentucky signee, won last year.

While Sloan could win the event, Gay cautions, “Jordan is just not going to go out and jump 7-02. It’s a lot of mental things and a lot of little things that go into it.”

Sloan says that even a strong wind coupled with nicking the crossbar can cause a scratch. “The high jump is all mental,” he says. “If I scratch at 5-08, it kills me.”

So far, Sloan has won two of five meets and was second in the others.

Updike, another junior, has thrown 133 feet this year and has a career best of 137-8 and could be a threat to Apollo’s Harrison Blevins.

Yet, like Sloan, Updike’s event hinges on many variables, not just arm strength. “I might not get good traction,” he said. “The weather can play a big role. A lot of it is mental.”

That might be the biggest misconception the casual observer has about track and field.

The mental aspect can be as important, often more important, than the physical. When competitors are close physically, Gay says, the mental aspect takes over.

“For instance, in the long jump, if you take off on the line it is a foul. Then if you take off several inches behind the line, it can cost you,” he explains.

Just as being content with a good performance can cost a team. When Gay took over the program three years ago, his emphasis was simply on getting better.

Now, with the numbers needed to compete, he is also talking about how to win a meet or do better as a team.

A case in point is sophomore distance runner Maggie Conley, who admits to simply coming out for the sport last year in order to stay in shape for another.

She discovered a love for running and has constantly been improving.

While Conley is not considered a state threat, her contributions have been vital to the team.

“It’s more about scoring points,” she says. An improved time is important but overtaking an opponent to place higher in the point standings is just as important.

And while track is largely an individual sport, that team element is important to the competitors. “They want to get better for each other,” Gay says.

“I think that pushes me more,” Conley adds.

It is not uncommon to see team members who are waiting to compete or are between events straining over a retaining fence or getting close to an event to cheer teammates on.

Gay has developed that team atmosphere simply by dispelling the notion that track is a monotonous sport of running laps or doing the same thing over and over.

“He makes it fun by playing games and stuff,” Conley says. “I look forward to it.”

At Anderson County, there are different goals for different people. For some, getting better, scoring points or even qualifying for the state meet are worthy goals. For others, the ceiling is higher.

“My goal is to win it all. I want to beat Hood,” Sloan says with a wry grin.

“I want to break 150 feet in the discus,” Updike says.

Gay is fine with both schools of thought, as long as the individual is pushing himself to a realistic level of success.

“It is an amazing thing,” says Gay, an all-conference tackle at Campbellsville University who also had a mean basketball game in high school. “In track, you can’t measure success by wins and losses. In football, you have 10 wins and you have had a great season.

“In basketball, you win 20 and you have had a great season.

“In track there are so many variables. I want the kids to have fun but I want to give them all an opportunity to be successful.”

From the looks of things, Anderson County track is doing just that.

E-mail John Herndon at jpherndon@theandersonnews.com.