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Residents of all ages can improve their athleticism through a program run by a man who just loves the sport.


Topper Ellis works at the veterans hospital in Baltimore as a linens supervisor. His shift runs from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. five days a week, a schedule that would leave most people wanting to relax and rest on work nights.

But Ellis is different. He loves track and field, and sees the sport as an outlet that can help children in northern Anne Arundel County during the summer.

That's why Ellis helped start a track and field development team that uses the track at North County High School, and, even though it's entering its 10th summer and it doesn't have an official name, the program has grown in popularity.

Ellis keeps things simple. Practice is open to anyone of any age who wants to come to North County from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., five days a week. Children, adults - anyone interested in track and field - can show up as often or infrequently as they want. Ellis said he has seen children as young as 4 and adults as old as 71.

The cost is $10 for a season, which runs through Aug. 10, and people can join at any time.

"It's not just for kids. It's for anybody, and it's wide open," Ellis said. "It's about teaching people the game. It's a lost art, and I have fun with it."

Ellis said more than 100 children have taken part during each of the last few years. He attracts not only runners, jumpers and throwers, but also athletes who compete in football and other sports.

Ed Harte, track and field and cross country coach at North County, works with those who opt to learn field events such as high and long jump, discus and shot put. Harte also helps put on meets several Thursdays during the summer.

"We can draw more people because we've got all kinds of body types - endomorph, ectomorph and mesomorph," Harte said. "We want to teach them. That's why we do it."

The program started almost by accident.

Ellis has three children who have run on North County teams. His son Topper ran on a state championship 1,600-meter relay team in outdoor track. Younger son Kiki won two individual state titles in indoor sprints plus one in an outdoor 800 relay. Daughter Tinisha also ran on the school's track team.

But back in 1996, Ellis was looking for a program his kids could run in. He went to coach at the New Carrollton Boys and Girls Club in Prince George's County, but found himself taking several Anne Arundel County runners back and forth while working informally at North County.

Ellis started the New Carrollton-North Boys and Girls Club in 1998 and led that club for four years.

Coaching and teaching things to be done the right way are important to Ellis, who ran a variety of sprints and relays while in the Army. Ellis is the junior varsity football coach at North County and also has coached indoor and outdoor track.

But Ellis has no illusions about spawning Olympic athletes. He said his objective is simply to teach the sport he loves.

"It's about teaching kids the right way to run," Ellis said. "Kids come out there, and they say, 'Coach, I'm fast. You don't need to teach me.' But once they start seeing the mechanics, the techniques [of running correctly], some kids drop a whole second or second and a half off their times by the end of the summer."

Said Harte: "He's motivated, and he wants it and he loves working with the kids."

Ellis said his coaching techniques often depend upon who shows up each evening. He'll often put the kids through drills and body coordination work every night. Ellis said each person has to understand how the body is supposed to be "formed to run for speed."

Ellis also said that some youngsters, such as football players, come to the team during the summer to work on specific things, such as agility and quickness. So he and Harte and the several other coaches who are there regularly work on drills to help with that.

Old Mill coach Janet Liimatta said most coaches look at the summer as a time to get rest and relaxation, which makes what Ellis does more impressive.

"It's really the best opportunity for kids to get exposure to track and field, in the summer," Liimatta said. "He's responsible for kids of various age levels. Track is 18 different events that he's trying to coach and teach to up-and-coming athletes. It's a huge commitment."

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