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When every point counts, track coaches seek more options

Pikesville coach Adam Hittner rolled the dice in the final minutes of the Class 1A indoor track state title meet last month.

He told Morgan Jones to skip the 1,600-meter relay — the meet’s final running event — and just participate in the pole vault, which took place around the same time. The move paid off as she finished second in the pole vault, and Pikesville still won the relay to edge out Manchester Valley by four points and capture the state championship.

“It was a gamble either way, but one we were prepared to take, and having more talented and prepared athletes around certainly helps your confidence as a coach,” Hittner said.

Hittner was looking to maximize his potential for team points, highlighting a change in coaches’ thought processes in recent years — they’ve become like poker players, moving athletes into more events and gambling for a big potential payoff — as more talent seems to be available.

In last month’s indoor state meet, the four team championships for girls were decided by the grand total of 161/2 points. The boys were almost as close — the number there was 171/2. Outdoor track is different, as it features more events, but four of the eight state championships last spring were decided by only 101/2 points combined.

A few points here or there make a difference.

“Now you have kids that can contribute and coaches are looking at the bigger goal, which is the state title [for public schools],” said Mike Sye, coordinator of athletics in Baltimore County. “Now that the focus has gone more from the individual to the team, more coaches are looking at how to maximize their points at the state level.”

A big reason for that is the new scoring system that’s in place for those bigger meets. The top six places used to score points, but the public schools made it an eight-place system for their championship meets in the 2010 indoor season. The private schools also went to eight places in 2012.

It might seem small, but those two places gave coaches more options to find points and added competition. Athletes can compete in up to four events in a meet, and that’s still happening often, but more kids are on the team for just one or two events — to get points, here and there.

“Every little point helps,” said Joe Sargent, state indoor track committee chairman. He’s also the athletic director at Milford Mill, whose girls lost the Class 3A state title by just one-half point this winter.

Aberdeen coach John Mobley said he’ll talk to athletes in other sports at his school to illustrate how track and field can help them.

“I find myself having to show correlation to athletes … on how track and field can help them in their ‘passion sport,’ if you will,” Mobley said. “I talked to basketball players about how the high jump or 400-meter dash helps them. I talk to football players about how track can diversify their athletic skills. I show soccer players how middle and distance events help them.”

The interest certainly seems to be there. Sargent said that about 12,000 athletes were entered for the regional qualifying meets during indoor track this winter, almost double from last year.

Coaches also are changing how they work with the athletes. Often it’s not just one or two coaches running the show anymore. The coaching has grown much more specialized on many different teams.

For example, Pikesville uses six coaches through all three of the running seasons. Hereford always tries to have a throwing coach, a horizontal jump coach, a hurdle coach, a vault coach, a distance coach and a sprint coach. Some schools still stick with just a few coaches, but the bigger staffs are becoming the norm rather than the exception.

“It pays to have a diverse coaching staff,” Hereford girls coach Brad Duvall said.

In the end, the search for points is giving many teams better depth. Longtime Dulaney coach Chad Boyle said experienced coaches know it’s easier to win titles with a more balanced and rounded program. Some coaches have done this for years, trying to cover as many events as possible.

It’s just that more are doing it now.

“I think if you have a great athlete, you can get a variety of events out of them,” John Carroll coach Rob Torres said.

Pikesville scored points in nine of the 13 events at the state meet it won, and Hittner was ready to make his gamble — he had told Khala Marshall-Watkins she might need to sub in for Jones in the relay; she was ready, and ran very well.

“That was a card I held in my back pocket the entire championship season, knowing that if I needed to make that switch I was ready — and so was she,” Hittner said. “More talent will always give you more options.”

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