On a night when humidity and searing heat made for sauna-like conditions, the smooth, calculated stride of 11-year-old Andrea Harding created a cool wind as she breezed over hurdles Monday at Lakewood High School.
Harding showed definite signs of becoming a future track star for the Piners as she and 60 other kids ages 9-14 gathered at LHS for the Summer Youth Track Program. The program, directed by LHS track coach Jack Boylan, is held on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday nights and gives area kids a chance to improve their skills while getting a taste of what the sport is all about.
"I really like to run a lot so I thought that I would give this a try," said Andrea, a sixth-grader at Clifton Avenue School who has attended the Summer Youth Track Program for the last four years. "I want to be on the track team when I get to high school. This is a good way to get practice."
Now in its seventh year, the Summer Youth Track Program runs for four weeks during the month of July. From 6-8 three nights a week, young athletes meet at the LHS track and work on running mechanics and strategies, and are introduced to the rules of the sport.
With the help of Mike Matta and the Lakewood Community School, Boylan spearheaded the project seven years ago. The program is free and is open to kids who live outside the Lakewood area.
"I have received a lot of support from Mike Matta in running this project," Boylan said. "I feel it is an excellent program for young athletes who feel they might have an interest in track. We get them out here three nights a week and work on different aspects of the sport. We try to keep it simple and fun. If the kids aren’t enjoying themselves they won’t stick with it."
On this night, Boylan was instructing runners in the art of jumping hurdles. Some cleared the height with ease. Some fell and tripped, and a few sprinted to the hurdle only to stop and step over it giggling. But it was apparent all had a good time.
"He’s been a very good and patient teacher," 13-year-old Christina Perez, an eighth-grader at Lakewood Middle School, said of Boylan. "He always encourages us to do our best or to keep trying. He wants us to stay with it until we get better."
Monday and Tuesday nights are reserved for instruction. Every Thursday night Boylan holds a track meet where runners compete according to age. Medals and ribbons are awarded to individual winners in each event.
"I think the kids get really excited on the nights when we hold the meets," Boylan said. "We bring out the big clock so the kids can see their times. And we use the starter’s pistol to try to give it a feel of a real track meet."
The number of kids can range from 60-75 on any given night. Boylan said those numbers are up significantly since the start of the program in 1993. He’s still hoping to attract more local youths.
"There are a lot of other programs going on at the same time," Boylan said. "You have gymnastics and basketball, so a lot of the kids go there. But once those programs finish, we’re hoping to get the overflow."
Boylan has plenty of help. Dave Sauls and Randy Holmes, both assistant track coaches at LHS, help out, as do students Mike Wittenburg and Erin Cunliffe.
Wittenburg is a junior sprinter at Lakewood. He was a first team All-Shore conference pick in the mile relay. He got involved when Boylan asked for his help.
"It’s been a lot of fun so far," Wittenburg said. "I like working with kids. A lot of them know my younger brother Austin, so I’m familiar with them. Plus, it gives me a chance to work out three days a week. I get here early and either go to the weight room or work on technique. It’s a way of staying in shape and helping out Coach Boylan."
Cunliffe will be a freshman at LHS this fall. A promising young middle-distance runner, Cunliffe attended the Summer Track Program for four years. This year she is an instructor.
"This program is very instructional and helped me a great deal," said Cunliffe, who runs both the 800 meters and the mile. "We work on mechanics and kids get a chance to learn the basics."
Eleven-year-old Andrece Harding, the twin sister of Andrea, said she has improved her sprint mechanics since she started four years ago, but admitted she liked working on field events as well.
"I think I’ve gotten a lot better since I’ve been coming here," Andrece said. "I want to be a runner in high school and this helps me learn what I need to do in order to keep getting faster."