On a doughnut-shaped dirt track with Signal Hill as a backdrop, the track teams at Poly High School have raced to success.
Poly is the solid favorite to win the girls state title, and the boys team is expected to score well when the state meet is held June 5 and 6 at Cerritos College. Qualifying for that meet takes place Friday in the Masters' Meet at Cerritos College.
Poly, in fact, is expected to be a force in both boys and girls prep track for years to come. Only 10 of about 100 athletes who went out for both teams this spring are seniors. Five of the Jackrabbits' top girls scorers are underclassmen, and they were instrumental in helping Poly win the CIF Southern Section 4A Division girls title last Saturday at Cerritos College, besting three-time champion Pasadena Muir, 81-47.
The Jackrabbits' boys team finished second in the 4A finals with 42 points, five behind Moore League rival Wilson High. Senior Bryan Woodward, who has the second-fastest time in the nation in the 800 meters (1:50.76), won the 4A Division 800 last week in 1:53.52 and also ran a leg on the 4A Division champion 1,600-meter relay team that went 3:15.74. He will be leaving after this season, but talented underclassmen are expected to pick up the scoring slack next year.
Poly has succeeded despite training on an antiquated practice facility. Its track, which runs along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue at the back of the campus, was built in the 1930s. The dirt course is round--more like a doughnut--compared with today's oblong tracks with long straightaways. The rounded configuration makes it difficult for runners to pace themselves or use proper striding techniques. And without straightaways, the inertia generated by the circular configuration forces runners to concentrate more on getting around the track than on speed.
"They learn a lot of bad habits on this track," Coach Don Norford said. "Then they get on another track on a tight curve and they are at a disadvantage."
The young athletes, particularly the girls, have found a way to overcome. Freshman sprinter Andrea Anderson won the 4A Division 100- and 200-meter runs and also ran the anchor in the winning 1,600-meter run. Her cousin, junior Chanelle Anderson, will compete at the Masters' Meet in the 100 and 200 and the long jump.
A stumble at the start cost freshman sprinter Aminah Haddad a shot at the Masters' in the 100 last week. But she did qualify in the 200-meter run and as a leg on the 1,600-meter relay. Junior Latasha Prothro also qualified in the 400-meter run. Marquita Knight (triple jump) was the only senior to qualify for the Masters. In all, Poly qualified athletes in nine girls events and four boys events.
The Jackrabbits' girls team had an easy time at the Southern Section meet without its best event--the 400-meter relay. At the Moore League finals, Poly's 400-meter relay team dropped the baton, failed to qualify and was done for the year.
The glue in putting together a strong team has been Norford, a congenial, fatherly taskmaster who is in his third year as both boys and girls coach. He stresses teamwork in an otherwise individual sport.
"I've never seen anyone able to blend people together like Don does," said Poly Principal H. J. Green.
A school staff assistant, Norford has been at Poly since 1976. He has served as an assistant track-and-field coach and as an assistant football coach. "Papa Don," as he is known, stresses academics first and athletics second. Explained Chanelle Anderson: "Here they stress school work, then track, and if we take care of both we know that means a (chance at a college) scholarship."
Most of his eight-man, two-woman coaching staff are Poly graduates whom he coached at one time.
"I'd do anything for that man," said hurdlers Coach Charles Clinton, who played football under Norford and went on to have a brief career with the Houston Oilers in the mid-1980s. "He's that kind of guy. He spent that kind of time on me and that's the least I can do for him."
Many runners see the track team as sort of an extended family.
"(The coaches) take care of us," said hurdler Zandrea Shorts, a senior. "They look after us. They (are) sure to keep you in line."
Norford encourages parents to get involved with their children and to attend practices. About 25 to 30 parents belong to a track booster club that raises money through barbecues, garage sales and candy sales. Before big meets, Norford has taken team members off the doughnut to run at Veterans Stadium or at Cal State Long Beach. Parents often volunteer to drive the runners there.
"This track team is a true investment in time," said Susan Anderson, mother of standout freshman sprinter Andrea Anderson, during a recent practice. "You either pay now or you pay for it later."
Anderson, who sells real estate, spends many an afternoon at the track. There are times, she said, when she knows she should be working but finds herself drawn to the doughnut. She likes the fact that Norford encourages parents and community members to get involved.
But despite a good deal of support, Poly has a large share of athletes who come from poor economic backgrounds or broken homes. Norford said that those kids require the most attention.
"You have to take care of the entire package," Norford said. "Show the kids that you care. Sometimes (as a coach) you have to get right inside the house to understand where many of these kids are coming from."
Clinton said that Norford insists that the staff set an example for the athletes.
"Look at us," he said. "We have eight black males as coaches. We need to serve as positive role models for these kids. A lot of kids don't get that."
Norford does not like to talk about his success in building the teams.
"I try to keep my ego locked up," he said. "Once you start thinking you know it all, that's when you begin to make mistakes with the kids."
It is not uncommon for Norford to show up on a doorstep at 6 a.m., wake a startled athlete, then race down to the beach at the foot of Cherry Avenue for a five-mile run. Another time it might be a run that starts at the track and ends on top of Signal Hill.
Coach Clinton and others credit Norford for teaching them the meaning of hard work. Now they are preaching the same.
They point to the progress of junior Jo'luana Gilford, a quarter-miler who struggled at another track power, Hawthorne High. "They told us we couldn't do anything with her," said distance Coach Clarence Rhome. "They said she was lazy."
Gilford, a junior, relocated near Poly with her father. At her first track workout last fall, she pulled up in the middle of circling the track.
"They told me, 'You do your workout or you get out,' " she said about the reaction from the coaching staff. "They taught me the things I needed to accomplish in life. If I want my scholarship, I better do my stuff."
Gilford went on to score valuable points at the Southern Section finals for the Jackrabbits by finishing sixth in the 400-meter run.
"She just needed some direction," Rhome said.