By Kyle LoJacono
Gaither track and field was at a low point just four seasons ago.
The Cowboys boys and girls each placed fifth out of six teams at districts in 2010. The girls earned 51 points and the boys took 30, about 200 behind the league champions.
Jeff Ditman took over the boys program the following year, and, now in his third season at the helm, he sees steady progress with the squads.
“It takes time to rebuild a program, and seeing the success we’ve had recently, especially last year, has really built interest,” Ditman said. “It’s gaining momentum, and me and coach (Patrick) Geanconteri coaching the girls we’re hoping to continue that into the future.”
Ditman said part of that energy comes from University of South Florida scholarship athlete Paul Barrett, who became the second boy in Gaither history to win a state track title by claiming the Class 3A crown in the 300-meter hurdles last season.
“The hard work that Paul put in every day was evident and shows people what that can do for you,” Ditman said. “We’re trying to instill that in these kids, that natural ability can only get you so far. If you want to be an elite athlete you have to put that work in.”
The boys and girls squads have also been helped from the fact that their points at districts have steadily increased the last two years, up to 70 and 78 in 2012, respectively.
The boys have seen an influx of athletes, including junior hurdler Matt Williams, who took last season off from track, and senior thrower Brad Smith.
Also new is thrower Arkady Naus, a junior foreign exchange student from Holland.
“Arkady was out for football, and he actually expressed interest in doing track, and that’s what we want,” said Ditman, who also coaches Gaither’s offensive line in football. “It’s one thing to comb the halls and try to find people, but when they want to join the track team, that’s what we want. He’s worked hard to work on his technique for the shot and disc, but the raw ability is there.”
Naus wanted to play defensive tackle this season, but paperwork issues prevented him from competing.
He practiced every day with the football team in the fall and this season in track. He was finally cleared to compete for the first time March 16 at the USF/Steinbrenner Invitational.
“It’s awesome that I get to compete,” Naus said. “It’s tough that it wasn’t football because that’s my main sport, but it’s still fun.”
The girls team has also seen an infusion of new talent like sophomore hurdler Cassidy Lawless.
“Our goal for her as a new athlete is to get her comfortable in the hurdles and feeling some success,” Geanconteri said. “Next year she can really kind of blossom and be really a key for us as we build this program up.”
The girls also have some seasoned returners such as Kiana Bryant and Rachel Cazares.
Bryant, a senior sprinter, has won districts in the 100 her first three seasons and placed second in the 200 the last two years.
“I want to win districts again, PR and break the school record,” Bryant said. Her personal record (PR) in the 100 is 12.2 seconds, just 0.1 from the school record.
Cazares had what she called her best cross country season during the fall when she placed third at districts and was a first-team The Laker/Lutz News selection. The junior 800-meter runner had plenty of motivation.
“I felt like I had some meets to avenge from last year, just some days when I screwed up and didn’t do the way I wanted to at all,” Cazares said. “I just wanted to make sure I came out here to make up for it.”
Cazares said the most painful performance last year was finishing one place and 1.8 seconds from advancing to consecutive state meets.
“I got to regionals and got that miserable fifth place,” Cazares said. “I was feet from getting to states. I got boxed in early in the race and couldn’t get out.”
Cazares is using a simple method to cut her own school record of 2:18 set earlier this season.
“I know my weakness is running with people, running next to them and around them, so I’m trying to get to a point where I’m fast enough to not be near them,” Cazares said. “I’m trying to beat them out early with brawn rather than brain. I want to win my own race and not worry about any of that.”
Geanconteri said Cazares helps with more than her times.
“Rachel’s work ethic is really evident, and with the times she’s putting up that shows the other kids what that level of hard work can do,” Geanconteri said. “She’s also a really good leader, and that brings others up to her level.”
The boys squad’s big returner is Samson Moore. The 6-foot-2 sophomore finished as the 110 hurdlers state runner-up last year but is switching up his events to focus on the 200 along with the 100 and long jump.
“I’ve been a hurdler and a 400 runner my whole life, and those get you really conditioned, but that’s not really speed,” Moore said. “This year I’m working on speed and quickness out of the blocks to help me for the 110s and the top speed in the 300 hurdles next year.”
Ditman said the approach is the best for Moore’s development.
“I’m hearing a lot of grumblings about why he’s not doing the hurdles this year, but we’re taking the long view,” Ditman said. “What’s best for the kid, and what’s best in the long-term for the program. The natural instinct is to try and score as many points as I possibly can this year, but long-term for him is why we’re doing it this way.”
Gaither hosts the Class 3A-District 8 meet 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