When the Bellefonte track and field team gets into the starting blocks for a meet, it’s almost always at a disadvantage.
That is especially the case this week when the Red Raiders compete in Thursday’s District 6 Class 3A championships. While other programs spend weeks upon weeks conditioning on all-weather tracks, racing down smooth runways for jumps or making an approach to launch a javelin, Red Raider athletes only know that feeling when they are at away meets — since they don’t have facilities of their own.
“It’s just the way things are,” Bellefonte jumper Moryelle Fernandez said. “It’s normal.”
However, the team has been undeterred. They are competitive every season in the Mountain League — they won the league meet girls’ title last season — and they have managed to get a handful of athletes to the PIAA championships over the last few years. They’ve drawn plenty of admiration from fellow coaches.
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“We’ve done pretty well, honestly,” a prideful Fernandez added.
Bellefonte is not alone in this plight. St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy also has been competing without a track, though the small private school is just 5 years old.
A track has been a topic of discussion in Bellefonte for well more than a decade, but for various reasons it has not become reality.
So, athletes adapt.
They train for running events on a gravel track around Rogers Stadium with corners instead of the typical curved ends. Bumpy grass and dirt runways define the jumps behind the bleachers. A throwing ring is up the street at the middle school. Distance runners put in miles winding around the streets of Bellefonte. The sprinters practice their starts using 4-by-6-foot mats used on the floors of horse stables and livestock barns.
Coach Seth Miller said the biggest challenges are in the technical events, in which inches and fractions of seconds make huge differences. The handing of batons in the 400-meter relays or the technical steps in the triple jump are greatly impacted by conditions and footing.
“It’s embarrassing but it is what it is,” Miller said. “What are we going to do about it?”
Having to employ those adaptations, like the livestock mats or running in the gym, also has its drawbacks — especially for those distance runners who trot through the neighborhood.
“We see an astronomical amount of shin splint issues every year,” Miller said. “We can’t get everything we can out of the kids because we’re battling the injury bug, shin splints, all season literally after the first week of practice.”
However, there will still be Raider contenders at the district meet. At the West Central Coaches Invitational in Altoona on May 5, several Raiders had high finishes including Cole Hovis taking fourth in the 400-meter dash, Brett Pope placing third in the 3,200, James Boland finishing third in the discus and Nate Wert grabbing fourth in the pole vault.
The success has gained admirers.
“As an athlete, it’s incredibly tough to prepare for a meet without having a mental understanding of your race,” said Penns Valley coach Kendyl Paolini, who has seen the struggle both from her current post as well as a former Lady Ram runner. “Running a 400 on grass is a totally different feel than a 400 on a track. Just the act of running in spikes adds a whole other dimension to a race. I can’t imagine preparing for races all season in flats and putting the spikes on at meets and being ready to go.”
Steve Shisler, whose State College team will be contending for the district title with top athletes in nearly every event, also wondered how much easier Bellefonte would be able to promote the program to students.
“It’s a little bit hard to believe that they still don’t have a facility to train on and that makes it difficult to run a quality program,” Shisler said. “They always have some outstanding athletes. They don’t have the depth that State College can have, but I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they don’t have a facility to train on.”
However hard it was to get there, the Raiders are always thrilled when they get to a place like Mansion Park, and Miller’s athletes appreciate the opportunities they have.
“I know they get frustrated,” Miller said. “But they have good attitudes, and that’s the best thing.”