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Culver’s approach to America’s most popular high school sport

By Scott F. Johnson ’94 W’89, Director of Marketing & Communications, Assistant Track & Field Coach
 

Jan. 11, 2023

It’s hard to beat track and field when debating the best sport for high school student-athletes.

Track and field is a no-cut sport at many schools, meaning all students can take part. Participants learn basic movement patterns and foundational fitness principles that apply to most other sports. Track and field is popular worldwide. Best of all, though, track and field is a sport participants can pursue their entire lives.

Culver boasts a rich history and a unique variety of athletic opportunities. From rowing to fencing, polo to lacrosse, this Indiana boarding school offers an abundance of sports to suit nearly every student. In fact, more than 80 percent of our 830 students are members of at least one of our 65 athletic teams. Clearly, athletics are an important part of life and how we approach holistic wellness and whole-person education here at Culver Academies.

I’m fortunate to be part of the coaching staff for a sport that consistently and quietly helps kids get a little better each day. It’s interesting to note that while track and field, outside of the Summer Olympics, is not a high-profile spectator sport in the U.S., it is our country’s most popular high-school sport in terms of participation. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, each year over 1.1 million student-athletes participate in track and field, including indoor and outdoor seasons. Football and basketball rank no. 2 and no. 3, respectively. I’m tempted to include cross-country, since the vast majority of cross-country runners also compete in track and field, and the programs generally share coaches. Doing so brings the total number of high school participants to 1.5 million.

BENEFITS

Why do so many high-school kids run, jump, and throw? One reason stands out immediately: accessibility. Many schools, including Culver, take pride in the fact that their track and field programs are no-cut activities. That means that every kid makes the team, regardless of their abilities. Our varsity and JV programs serve both elite, college-committed athletes and novice, just-want-to-stay-in-shape kids, focusing on overall wellness and continuous improvement for each. Also, at least at Culver, we have integrated three-times-a-week weightlifting into practice, giving novice competitors their first taste of strength-training, and elite athletes valuable experience with many of the movements they’ll encounter in collegiate weight rooms. Our track and field program is accessible to any student-athlete who wants to work and improve.

The world’s oldest sport is also a lifelong sport, accessible to people well into their golden years, as evidenced by the popularity of USA Track & Field (USATF) masters events and general running events around the country and world. Well into their 40s and beyond, masters athletes such as Charles Allie inspire awe as they continue to run times rivalling much younger athletes.

While scoring tends to be mysterious to spectators, from the athlete’s perspective results are immediate and it’s easy to track improvements. Did I run faster, throw farther, or jump higher than my competitors? Did I do better than I did yesterday? Yes? Congratulations and keep it up! No? I need to do something differently. Subjectivity matters not, and style points don’t apply. Do or do not – Yoda would make a great track coach.

Finally, few other sports offer the pure development of speed, stamina, strength, and overall athleticism in a relatively safe environment. Runners, jumpers, and throwers at track meets do not get tackled, checked, or hit by fastballs. Of course, certain events like pole vault and javelin pose their own specific risks, but in general, track and field offers a safe way to improve overall wellness in a competitive environment. Consequently, it’s common practice for college-bound football players at powerhouse high-school programs to run track in the spring to develop that speed, stamina, and strength required to excel at football. Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Indiana, is an excellent, close-to-home example, having won multiple boys’ state championships in track and field and football under coach Eric Moore. At Center Grove it’s simple: if you play football in the fall, you run track in the spring. The results speak for themselves.

 

The pole vault is one of 16 track and field events available to athletes in Indiana.

 

EXPERTISE & PHILOSOPHY

I hate to brag, but Culver Academies’ track and field program claims a coaching crew besting any independent school in the nation. Our current squad of seven coaches boasts 165 years of combined coaching experience. For context, that’s 37 more years than our school has been in existence and over twice as long as the Soviet Union was a country.

Our head coaches stand out as notable experts, with nearly 50 years of experience for CGA’s Mike Chastain and more than 30 years for CMA’s Paul Patrick.

On top of face-to-face experience with athletes, some of us competed at the collegiate level and most of us continue to train and compete in road races, mini-marathons, and in the USATF masters track and field series. The fact that we, as coaches, have experienced and continue to experience similar training load, aches, pains, and general challenges as the kids make for a stronger coach-athlete relationship. We’ve been through, and in some cases are still going through, what they are.

As coaches, our mission is to make a positive impact on our student-athletes through competition. We care deeply about the overall well-being of each athlete. Well-being is a buzzword nowadays, but our mission was the same when well-being was simply known as “health.” Coaches and team captains remind the team daily the importance of sleep, proper nutrition, and adequate recovery. We challenge them to set and attain their track and field goals and beyond, all within healthy boundaries, so that proper body and mind harmony is maintained.

RESULTS

Measuring the long-term outcomes of overall wellness for our athletes would be anecdotal, at best. Therefore, we can look at objective results. Since joining the IHSAA in the late 1970s the CMA squad has won six sectional championships while the CGA team has 10. CGA has also won two consecutive regional championships. (Note that in Indiana there is one combined class for the track and field state tournament and three levels: sectional, regional, and state). If we include cross-country then the CMA titles climb to 17 sectionals and two regionals, while CGA increases to 19 sectionals and four regionals.

Several individual athletes have progressed from the Culver programs to successful collegiate careers and beyond. The following is a sample of all-state standouts while at Culver who went onto collegiate careers in track and field from the past few decades:

  • Alex Banfich: Princeton University
  • Harry Stants IV: Penn State University
  • Waverly Neer: Columbia University and University of Oregon
  • Addison Coy: Yale University
  • Scott Johnson (your humble author): Indiana University
  • Leah Heckaman: University of Cincinnati
  • Trevor Richards: Iowa State University
  • Ryan Lindholm: Miami University
  • Lexi Allen: Princeton University
  • Dan Sweet: Wabash College
  • Kelly Norton: University of Mississippi
  • Donnie Smith: DePaul University
  • David Morrill: Southwestern Michigan College
  • Alejandro Arroyo: Princeton University

Our most recent crop from the class of 2022 consists of Cecille Figueora - Washington University in St. Louis, Maddy Rivera - Xavier University, George Bourdier - Washington University in St. Louis, and Sam Tullis - University of Chicago.

 

Culver Academies class of 2022: George Bourdier, Washington University in St. Louis; Maddy Rivera, Xavier University; Cecille Figueroa, Washington University in St. Louis; and Sam Tullis, University of Chicago.

 

RECRUITING ADVICE

These competitors, like most college-bound athletes, developed a strong work ethic in multiple facets of life and were better than average student-athletes. Most were athletically versatile in one way or another either by necessity or by choice, and all made commitments to track and field or cross-country beyond the season. They competed in multiple sports, and in multiple events in track and field, not specializing until they progressed to college.

Athletes of this caliber set performance goals and adhered to a system to get there, under the guidance of their coaches. “Trust the process” has become a popular hashtag, but there’s a great deal of truth in that phrase. These athletes believe in their training, their goals, their coaches, and themselves. Basically: have a plan and work with your coaches to implement the plan.

Next, be assertive and contact coaches of your preferred schools, especially leading into your junior year. Tell them why you’d be a good fit for their program and provide them clear, verifiable data on your performances (e.g. Fully-Automatic Timing [FAT]). Don’t be afraid to market yourself using videos and social media. Create a three- to five-minute YouTube video showing your progression over the years, peak performances, and technique and provide it to the head coaches (if your school uses HUDL you can easily grab footage from that platform). Collegiate coaches will likely search you via Google, so make sure what they find in your social media feeds and on YouTube gives them a reason to recruit you.

Like many other student-athletes at Culver, our runners, jumpers, and throwers dream of achieving an athletic scholarship to help with college expenses. College track and field scholarships are offered at the NCAA Division 1 and Division 2 levels, as well as at NAIA schools and junior colleges. While Division 3 schools do not offer athletic scholarships, over 80% of D3 athletes receive some sort of aid. Here’s a handy table for recruiting standards for D1, D2, D3, and NAIA programs that I consolidated from the NCSA website:

 

 

CONCLUSION

Clearly, not every student-athlete who passes through our program ends up competing in track and field at the collegiate level, but our program’s ability to serve each and every student-athlete, regardless of innate athletic ability, makes it an effective and egalitarian vehicle for the Culver mission. When a student-athlete comes to us, we’re focused on the education of the body. But physical exertion positively affects the mind and spirit, serving to cultivate character. Whole-person education happens in every aspect of life at Culver, including the track and cross-country course. For example, our distance runners, after a multi-mile tempo run, or our pole vaulters, after 14 uphill sprints with downhill bear crawls, would agree that those are character-building exercises!

Our program is a place for motivated students who want to get faster, get stronger, develop more endurance, learn from expert coaches, learn how to lift weights, compete at the collegiate level, or just stay in shape for another sport. We’re honored to serve these student-athletes and to help them improve a little every day.

 

Athletes compete in track and field at Culver Military Academy more than 100 years ago.

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