By Kyle LoJacono
Steinbrenner girls track has established itself as one of the most competitive in the region with district titles the last two years and a regional runner-up finish in 2012.
The fourth-year program graduated five seniors who helped bring in 33 of the Warriors’ 41 points at regionals. Among the departures is 2011 Class 2A 100-meter hurdles state champion Alexis Wright.
Ladd Baldwin, who started the program in 2010 after coaching at Gaither and Chamberlain, said they still have a strong core of seniors, but the roster has been boosted by 16 freshmen.
“We’ve had more freshmen come out, but I’m not sure I’ve had this many freshmen come in together with this kind of promise,” Baldwin said. “Sometimes you’ll get 20/25, but only a couple look like they can score in meets. All of these freshmen can score for us this year.”
One of the additions is freshman Lauren Adams, who has risen to the squad’s No. 3 thrower. Several of her teammates also played with her in basketball and convinced her to try track.
“I came out the first day and threw the shot 28 feet, so I decided to stick with it,” Adams said. “I felt like I had the form the first day in the disc for whatever reason. I just grabbed it and threw like 70 feet.”
Adams said senior thrower Jess Weatherman, who also plays basketball, has helped with her form.
“I try to be there for the younger girls as much as I can to help them out,” Weatherman said. “They know if they ever need any help they can come to me.”
Baldwin said it was clear Adams would be a thrower from Day 1, but finding the best spot for his athletes is usually more difficult.
“First you have to get them out here, and then it’s about finding the right event they can have success in,” Baldwin said. “In the smaller dual and tri meets you have the opportunity to try things. Sometimes they take to something completely different than you thought. Alexis wasn’t a hurdler until her sophomore year, and she won a state championship.”
The process was the same with senior Jessica Brewer, who joined the squad as a freshman and tried nearly everything before finding the long and triple jumps.
“Every year besides this one coach would tell me, ‘Jess, you’re going to be a hurdler,’ and every year I’d kick and scream about it,” Brewer said. “He had me test everything. I did the 800, and I’m not a distance runner. He had me pole vault once. … I was a Level 5 state champion gymnast in the vault growing up, which made me comfortable on the runway. I just had to test other things first.”
Brewer reached states last year in the long, and said early results have her excited for her senior season.
“Last year I started off long jumping 14-feet and got to 16-11.5 at states, versus now I started at a 15-06,” Brewer said. “I’m hoping I can go to states again and crack that 17.”
Brewer said not having Wright is like losing a “mentor.”
“It’s kind of weird because I’m the mentor now,” Brewer said. “I missed a meet with a heel injury, and coach Baldwin had me go watch the younger girls to help them. I like being the mentor now, and it’s nice to help others and better myself by teaching others.”
The distance program is led by seniors Lauren Garris and Caroline Murray, who joined the squad as freshmen. Garris is focusing on the 1,600 and the 800. Murray will stick with the 400 while picking up the 800.
“My favorite is the 400, and I’m not totally comfortable with the 800,” Murray said. “It’s a lot different just sprinting one lap versus doubling it. I just have to get used to it.”
Garris, who reached the Class 3A state meet last year in the 4×800 relay, was limited from an appendectomy performed just before the cross country season.
“I feel like it really never happened, but I feel like I haven’t improved from last track season,” Garris said. “I’m still at the same times as I was last year. … During cross country when I’d try and run my stomach would hurt right where the surgery was, and I don’t feel that at all anymore.”
Garris was also a member of the Warriors soccer team, which she credits to helping get her back into form.
“I think being knocked around during soccer helped toughen me back up,” Garris said. “It’s easier to be able to run after you’ve been knocked around.”
Murray said she believes in the squad’s potential despite the youth.
“I have confidence in us because we’re such a diverse team,” Murray said. “We can score in everything. Most schools can’t do that.”
Brewer credits Baldwin with creating that depth.
“Coach Baldwin has been the most amazing coach ever,” Brewer said. “He’s a great mix of happy and understanding, and he’s going to push you. If you say you don’t want to do something, he still has you try. It’s a great environment, and it makes the girls want to stay out here.”
The Class 3A-District 8 meet is at Gaither April 17, followed by regionals at Leto April 24 and states at the University of North Florida May 3.
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker