Impressive job for a program without a track

(Editor’s note: This feature, published in the June 6, 2013, edition of the Republican-American, discusses the success of the Oxford High track program — despite not having a home track. This feature was a finalist at the 2013 Connecticut SPJ Awards among sports features in the 40,000-plus circulation category.)

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — The little amphibians in Frogger have never won an event at the State Open track meet. The Wolverines of Oxford have — two, in fact, on Monday. But that doesn’t mean the competitors don’t have anything in common.

Oxford’s track team can actually empathize with what its video game counterpart has been battling for more than 30 years. While the frogs hop and scurry away from traffic to reach safely the other side, the Wolverines dodge vehicles to get better.

They call it practice.

Oxford, in its fifth varsity season, has never called a track home. There are no running lanes, sand pits or throwing circles to be used atop the hill on Quaker Farms Road. Instead, the Wolverines practice in a parking lot.

It must be effective. Of more than 160 high schools in Connecticut that offer boys and girls track, only four earned gold medals in both boys and girls competitions at the State Open.

Bloomfield, which won both State Open titles, is one. Westhill and Windsor, a pair of LL and L schools, also did it. All three have facilities. The fourth, of course, is the new kid without a block: Oxford.

Wolverines girls coach Ed Lucas, who works alongside boys coach Charlie Rizzio, described what a typical Oxford track practice looks like.

“We have to guess how far the distances are in our workouts,” Lucas said. “You walk it off or mark it with a tape measure. The most hurdles we can do in practice for the 300 hurdles is four in the parking lot because we run out of space. You have 10 hurdles in the actual race, so it affects everything we do.”

The lack of a track didn’t hinder the boys 4-by-800-meter relay squad, which pulled a stunning upset to win as the No. 13 seed. Brandon Au, Christopher Faber, Ryan Flach and Cameron Swift shaved off more than 22 seconds from their seeded time to win by almost a second in 7:53.49.

Immediately, the foursome bound for Saturday’s New England meet went from unknown to undeniable.

“People that we don’t even know were congratulating us,” said Swift, a senior whose anchor leg was by 2 seconds the best he’s ever run.

Taylor Drayton, a junior thrower, had the best individual day of any Wolverine at Willowbrook Park. She won the shot put with a personal-best throw of 41 feet, 9 inches, and placed third in the discus. Both performances earned her spots at the New England meet.

Drayton works with throwing coach Mike Thompson but doesn’t enjoy any more luxuries in practice than her speedy teammates.

“I throw from a handicapped parking spot,” Drayton said.

Last Wednesday proved a particularly challenging day for the Wolverines, who were recovering from a pair of top-four finishes at the Class S championships. Oxford’s baseball and softball teams hosted well-attended state tournament games that afternoon.

“We were practicing in the parking lot as cars and buses are flying around the school,” Lucas said. “We’re lucky nobody’s gotten hurt.”

Oxford won’t be relegated to the parking lot forever. A new track and field facility is under construction and should be ready in plenty of time for next season. Now, though, the blacktop gives the Wolverines one advantage.

“It gives them something to focus on,” Lucas said. “They say, ‘Hey, we have nothing. Let’s show the other schools what’s going on.’”

The 129th-largest high school in Connecticut so far has done a good job.

“Oxford’s always been a small area,” Drayton said. “Now we’re starting to get bigger.”

“We’re Oxford. We’re the small school,” Swift said. “We’ve been the underdogs for years. Nobody knew Oxford; now everybody does.”

(Editor’s note: Here’s how the feature looked in print.)

What do you think?