Local teams notice strategy changes lead to success in track and field

Pikesville track coach Adam Hittner
(Doug Kapustin / For The Baltimore Sun)

The times are changing in track and field.

In previous years, it was common to see teams bring only a handful of athletes to big meets and perform well -- sometimes even win.

Coaches would routinely put their best athletes into four events and hope for as many points as possible.

That concept, however, has changed recently. The event limit for an individual athlete remains four, and some coaches still use that tactic. But it isn't done as often as it was about 10 years ago because track and field has become more popular.

An article in the Chicago Tribune last August said that "the most recent survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations, for 2010-11, showed more high school girls are in outdoor track and field than any other sports. Only football is more popular among boys."

Simply put, coaches often have more -- or better -- athletes on their teams. As in other sports, depth has become a big plus in track and field.

"You can utilize depth because your team is better than it was, but the days of a four-, five-, six-person team winning a state title, even in indoor track, are gone," Pikesville coach Adam Hittner said. "I've got more bodies, and I've got more people I can use."

The depth carried Pikesville to its first state track championship in school history last month. The Panthers boys had at least two people in each track event and qualified athletes in two of the three field events, a big reason they edged Boonsboro, 110-103, to win the Class 1A indoor title.

One reason track has gained popularity is because more athletes use it as a way to stay in shape during the offseason of their primary sport. That adds to the depth and lets coaches make more adjustments to their lineups. Pikesville even used boys who ran exclusively in relays at the indoor state meet, a tactic not seen as much in the past.

Recently, improved technology also has helped coaches with their lineups. They can easily search online for what an athlete does, and video sites allow them to see the performers in action. It helps coaches set their lineup as they try to adjust in areas where other teams are weaker.

"It's kind of like a chess match," said Northwestern coach Jerry Molyneaux.

The Hereford girls won the Class 3A indoor track state championship last month with a similar approach as Pikesville.

"I always try to pick each athlete's best event and allow them to run that as fresh as possible, and hope that they can come back in a secondary event and pick up some extra points," Bulls coach Brad Duvall said. "It pays off to choose your battles and put your kids in a situation where they can be the most successful."

With that outlook, coaches also are using more caution with their athletes in recent years. When an athlete participates in multiple events, coaches need to consider how much time is needed to recover.

If Severna Park coach Josh Alcombright knows his team isn't going to have a chance to win at a championship meet, for example, he said putting his best guys into four events won't be an option.

"For me, personally, I don't like to extend young kids too much, only on a limited occasion will I have a kid in four events," he said. "That is usually only done in a championship meet that I think we can win."

McDonogh coach Jeff Sanborn and others agreed that putting kids in four events usually happens more now in the meets with meaning.

"While placing athletes in four events is not ideal, it sometimes depends upon the time of year and the significance of the meet," said Sanborn, whose boys and girls both won conference championships in indoor track in February.

Now, it's common to see good athletes participate in only two or three events at championship meets. Coaches realize that less events for an individual can mean more for the team's success. If athletes are fresher, they'll often perform better.

But coaches can let the best athletes do less now because there's more overall talent on the roster. That depth takes pressure off the stars.

"The best strategy once you get to the big meet is to set your lineup based on what will give your athletes the best chance at being successful, and let the cards fall where they may," Hittner said. "Some athletes can double or triple up in events, while some others need to focus on fewer races done well."