June 30, 2013

Catching fire: Sparks offer summer track option

Right now, the North Georgia Sparks are a “resource for training and development,” as one local athlete put it.

Eventually, coach Eric Bishop wants the Sparks to be a serious summer track and field team.

Bishop is the driving force behind the fledgling program, which uses Coahulla Creek High School’s facilities and provides training to high school competitors and even younger athletes. Bishop was an assistant for Coahulla Creek’s track teams this past school year. He previously headed up the track and boys basketball programs at North Murray High School before resigning last summer to take a job with Whitfield County Schools.

And he coaches from experience. Bishop was a track standout at Murray County High School who went on to earn All-American honors and win a pair of NCAA high jump titles in 1996 and 1997 at the University of North Carolina.

Right now, there are athletes from around northwestern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee practicing with the Sparks via a come-as-you-please schedule. The group includes Coahulla Creek standouts Josh Foxx and Ationza Smith, who became the first from their school — which opened in 2011 — to earn medals at the Georgia High School Association state meets.

Bishop has visions of a set schedule next summer, along with uniforms, meets and everything else one would expect for a legitimate team.

“We’re trying to get it off the ground with a couple kids. This year we’re just trying to get them involved and (get them) exposure,” said Bishop, who didn’t know the exact number who use the track but said he works with some 15 kids in jumping events.

At this spring’s Class 3A boys state meet in Jefferson, Foxx finished eighth in the high jump at 5 feet, 10 inches. He advanced to state after taking second in the event at the Region 5-3A meet and fourth at the Class 3A sectional A meet.

Smith won region titles in both the 100-meter dash and long jump, then took fifth in the former and eighth in the latter at the sectional meet. That qualified her to compete in both events at the Class 3A girls state meet in Albany, where she finished eighth in the long jump with a best of 16-10.75.

Neither Foxx nor Smith, who are entering their junior years, knew summer competition was an option for track.

“I didn’t know at all until coach Bishop came to us,” Smith said. “On the last day of the high school season, he was telling us about summer track league and about how he was forming a team.”

Bishop said ignorance of summer competition is typical, but he’d like to see that change because he doesn’t want athletes to neglect their offseason training or rank track behind other sports. Although he also played basketball at Murray County High School, Bishop was encouraged to put plenty of effort into track by Mike Durham, who’s currently the head track and field and girls basketball coach at Southeast Whitfield High School but coached Bishop when he was at Bagley Middle School.

When asked if he remembers a summer track program for the area, Bishop said, “Not around here.”

“That’s why the kids say, ‘Really? You’re doing summer track? I didn’t know there was such a thing,’” he said. “They get into football and basketball and we lose so much of that talent. ... I know it’s considered a secondary sport — even I considered it that way because of basketball — but coach Durham told me I had a skill and should consider pursuing it at a higher level. That’s what I’m trying to do for these kids.”

Foxx said he had “no clue” there were summer meets, but he loved the idea of joining a team dedicated to the sport when school is out.

“(Bishop) said it’s more of a resource this year, but next year it’ll be more of a team,” Foxx said.

Foxx and Smith will participate in national events this summer. Smith will compete at the USA Track and Field Junior Olympics on Thursday in Orlando, Fla. She’s entered in the long jump and 100 after qualifying at meets in Carrollton and Hoschton. Foxx will compete in the high jump at the AAU Junior Olympic Games starting July 26 in Ypsilanti, Mich.

While the Sparks may not be a fully formed team yet, Bishop knows the benefits have already begun for those who are practicing and competing.

“If they pull off national titles,” Bishop said of Foxx and Smith, “then imagine their confidence going into the state meet.”

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