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Not so crowded at summer track

By DAVID La VAQUE, Star Tribune, 07/11/12, 6:55AM CDT


Track and field this time of year offers more opportunities for better weather and better performances.

Athletes warmed up and stretched out before a recent practice at Brooklyn Center High School. High school stars are in short supply on the summer track and field circuit. Photo by Carlos Gonzalez • cgonzalez@startribune.com

Taylor Anderson, Minnesota's reigning high school 100-meter dash queen, admits her track and field career began with a false start.

"You had to be 5, but when I was 3, I just got out there and started running," Anderson said with a laugh. "I was just smiling and waving to the crowd."

Anderson's passion would lead to great performances. Her winning 100 time of 11.71 seconds at June's Class 2A state high school championships broke Heather VanNorman's all-time state mark set in 1986 and drew interest from major Division I programs.

Anderson, who will be a senior at Hopkins this fall, is competing this summer with Track Minnesota Elite, an AAU club. Started 14 years ago by her father and former Gophers football player and track and field athlete Melvin Anderson, Track Minnesota boasts 71 athletes ages 6 to 18 this summer, making it the largest of the state's eight or nine youth summer track and field clubs.

Anderson said 90 percent of Track Minnesota's participants over the years have received college scholarships. Alumni include past state champions Kadisha Fortune of Minneapolis Washburn and Robbinsdale-Armstrong's David Gilreath, currently a wide receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

While track and field is a popular spring sport, high school stars are in short supply on the summer track and field circuit. The Minnesota State High School League's annual survey showed that in 2010-11, track and field ranked No. 1 among girls' sports with 15,328 participants. On the boys' side, only football (26,151) drew more athletes than the 16,101 who participated in track and field.

Yet few teammates from a strong Hopkins program join Anderson beyond the spring season. Summer track and field offers athletes more opportunities for better weather, and in turn, better performances at state and national competitions. But competition from sports such as football, soccer, basketball and hockey is fierce.

"This is not a track state, so it's not taken as serious," Melvin Anderson said. "It's not about connecting with the club teams to develop kids and move them forward. We get a lot of kids who come to us as juniors and seniors who wished that they would have learned about us sooner to help them develop."

Fast learners

Athletes train Monday through Thursday each week at Brooklyn Center High School. They compete in local, regional and national meets, including the AAU Junior Olympics games July 30 to Aug. 4 in Houston.

With fewer participants than their high school teams, athletes competing in summer track and field enjoy more individual and detailed instruction. Anderson said his Track Minnesota staff all competed for collegiate track and field programs and excel at coaxing mental and physical improvements.

"When you're in school, they just teach you the fundamentals, but out here they get into the technical stuff," said Hopkins junior Shaheed Hickman, who anchored the Royals' boys' 4x100 and 4x200 relays at June's state meet. "You get a little bit more here because it's not just about state. You're going against cats from like, Texas, who are fast and you have to learn more to succeed."

Hickman has run with Track Minnesota since age 7. Newcomers such as Jedah Caldwell, an incoming freshman at Centennial, are finding out what he already knows. Caldwell, in her second summer with Track Minnesota, said rewards have come both on and off the track.

"I'm running better because of what I've learned here so that gives me the confidence that I can do well in high school next spring," Caldwell said.

Competing for kids

The high school-summer track continuum that Melvin Anderson seeks has been slow to develop. Jack Mayeron, one of Anderson's coaches and a former assistant at perennial track and field power Mounds View, said, "I think most high school coaches are aware there is a vibrant summer track opportunity for their kids. Why more don't participate I don't know."

Mustangs boys' track and field coach Ross Fleming admitted, "I've probably dropped the ball on it, personally."

Fleming used to promote summer track programs and meets, but his efforts were met with little interest.

"The bottom line is this: How many kids consider track and field their No. 1 sport?" Fleming said. "A track program's bread and butter are the football players and soccer players. Most of them would say those are their No. 1 sports."

Hopkins girls' track and field coach Nick Lovas concurs. He doesn't push summer programs but encourages those athletes who show interest.

"You have to kind of swallow your pride instead of telling kids to lift weights or train specifically for track and field," Lovas said. "We have to recognize and accept that we are not most athletes' No. 1 priority."

'Another level'

Hickman plays football but said track is his priority. The same goes for Eagan junior Jake Gourley, who just missed the state meet qualifying mark in the 100 this spring.

They also share an understanding of going it alone in summer track and field.

"I got real close to getting a couple guys out here, but they were like, 'Nah, I don't want to do it,'" Hickman said. "I'll keep talking to them."

Taylor Anderson, a skilled point guard also participating in AAU basketball this summer, doesn't begrudge any high school teammate who doesn't run summer track. She's got more pressing concerns. Duke, Notre Dame, Princeton and Stanford showed interest in her after June's state meet. She is trying to hit the 11.65-second mark in the 100 to further solidify her place among the nation's top sprinting prospects.

She said she "would be nowhere close to where I am right now" without summer track and field.

"It's definitely another level," she said. "AAU is more serious than high school. There are more meets out of town, so you have to take it more seriously. People think it's harder, but it's not. I think if they did it, they'd get faster. They'd be better when they went back to high school."

David La Vaque • 612-673-7574

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