HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – A few of days ago, a longshot dream became a reality for Jeff Small.
On Monday morning, Marshall’s track and field team practiced on the newly striped oval in the Chris Cline Athletic Complex’s indoor facility for the first time.
Small, 56 and in his 20th season at Marshall, is entering his 19th as head coach of the women’s program. And his team will make its indoor season debut at home for the first time in history.
On Saturday at 1 p.m. – 2 1/2 hours prior to the kickoff of the Florida Atlantic-Marshall football game in adjacent Joan C. Edwards Stadium – the indoor track facility will be formally dedicated … as the Jeff Small Track.
“It’s humbling, really,” said Small, whose father, former petroleum executive Richard Small, made the naming possible with a $1 million contribution to the MU Vision Campaign for Athletics. “It’s a little embarrassing, but I`ve come to terms with it.
“I’m going to try to enjoy it. It’s humbling, and I really appreciate it.”
Not for one minute does the veteran coach think this is about him. It’s about Herd track and field and the program’s student-athletes, who haven’t had a home oval since the Lefty Rollins Track was torn up following the 2005-06 school year – the Herd’s first in Conference USA — to make way for new dorms and the Rec Center and its adjacent field next to the Henderson Center.
“Absolutely, this gives us a chance to be better than we’ve ever been,” Small said.
The 330-meter, six-lane track (eight lanes in the straightaways) also gives Marshall the opportunity to host meets during the indoor season – and the Herd’s new house will be the site of three this season.
On Dec. 4, the Ohio Dual will be held between the neighboring Bobcat women and the Herd, at 6:30 p.m. That’s Marshall’s only event before the semester break, and replaces what in recent years has been an early December jaunt to the Oiler Open at Findlay (Ohio) University.
The next two multi-team meets on the Small Track will feature men’s and women’s competition – the Thundering Herd Invitational, with 12-13 teams, on Jan. 30-31, and the Marshall Invitational with 8-9 teams, on Feb. 13-14.
Marshall hasn’t had a home track meet since April 4, 2000, when the aforementioned Bobcats came to the Rollins oval and won the Ohio Dual Meet 82-81 (men) and 105-63 (women) on the Rollins outdoor oval.
The Cline Complex’s track facility has bleachers with a capacity of 880. Small gives the organizational credit and kudos on the three Herd meets to his assistant coaches, Don Yentes and Travis Coleman, but said the Small Track is about more than staying home for a few meets each winter.
“I think training-wise, it’s going to be incredible, and having it indoors and it will help tremendously,” said Small, who also coaches the Herd cross country teams. “No. 1, I think we’ve kind of morphed into an outdoor team just because we can’t get the work done we’ve needed to do early (in the indoor season), like we’ll be able to do now. Our team is going to become n better indoor team than we have been because we’ve never been able to run circles until we’d get outside, in April or something like that.
“Being able to practice running in circles will be great, and where we’re going to see a lot of effort, improvement, too, I think, is we’ll be able to long jump and land in sand or triple jump and land in sand. We can start pole vaults now. The high jump we had set up on level E (a Henderson Center concourse served as the runway) wasn’t the best, so it’s really going to help us in our natural training.
“I’ll no longer have to go up and — quote-unquote — have a GA (graduate assistant) shovel snow from Lane 1 at Huntington High to practice up there. I’ve got some photos of some practices up there … We were there whether it was 10 below or 30 degrees. This past winter was so bad, we were told we couldn’t make the kids go outside, and that’s never happened before.”
Redshirt sophomore sprinter An’drea Gaither could hardly believe her eyes when she entered the Cline Complex and stepped onto the polytrack surface earlier in the week.
“After practicing outside and on Level E for three years it was really exciting to go in there,” said Gaither, of Berryville, Va. “I really felt like we had traveled somewhere else for a meet. It’s hard to believe that’s our own facility.
“I think it’s going to make a big difference all-around, not just indoors. We won’t have to travel so far to practice and it will be warm in there, help us get acclimated. What’s going to make a difference is we have a place to call our own.
“Even (Tuesday), practicing in there, I was nervous to step on the grass (of the football turf) or something, like we really aren’t supposed to be in there.”
Then, there’s the benefit not just to Marshall student-athletes, but also in trying to land those who are considering the Herd.
“It’s going to be a great benefit and of course, the recruiting aspect is going to be tremendous,” Small said. “I think it already has helped us. (Former Herd runner and Big Green staffer) Travis Epling met with all recruits and would show a video presentation of what it was going to be.
“Now, we’re in there. The last group we had in here visiting, they were all taking photos with their cellphones, kind of, `Wow, look at this place!’ Our kids here are still are talking about how they’re nervous about getting to run in front of the home crowd, having their parents, boyfriends, classmates there. But I think it’s a good nervous.
“The reality of it is I don’t think any of us still believe it.”
Without a track, Small’s program has had NCAA nationals finalists like Erin Compton, Vanessa Jules, Crystal Walker and Jasia Richardson. There have been five C-USA individual champions. In the school record book, 13 indoor and 16 outdoor marks have been set since the Rollins Track disappeared.
This week is special to Small, and not because it will end with a day on which his name will hang in large letters on a sign in the Cline Complex indoor facility. He never thought he’d see this week, never thought the Herd would be the home team for a meet again.
“After they tore the track out, and they relocated all the other teams that lost their facilities – I’m talking about softball, tennis, those that lost their space – we didn’t have a place,” Small said. “When they didn’t do that for us, I didn’t know if we’d ever get something like this built.
“And I’m really excited now, because if they would have built an outdoor track instead of this facility, how much of a benefit would we have gotten out of that? You can’t long jump around here outside in January. You can’t pole vault in January. You can barely run. So, this is exactly what we needed.”
Yes, the Small Track is a really big deal.
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