1973 cross country team set precedent for success at Northwestern

bmccormick@heraldonline.comSeptember 12, 2013 

At halftime of Friday night's Northwestern-Byrnes football game, the 1973 Northwestern state championship cross country team will be honored. That group won the school's first state title after opening in 1971.

BMCCORMICK@HERALDONLINE.COM — Bret McCormick

Johnny Schwartz just needed to beat Brookland-Cayce’s Jimmy Jones to ensure the 1973 Northwestern cross country team would win the state championship it had talked about since the school opened two years prior.

It was a Campbell’s Soup-kind of day with freezer burn seemingly a more likely result than finishing the 3.1 miles at Brookland-Cayce. Sleet pelted the runners as they tiptoed over icy ground. But Schwartz and the other Trojans running that day were prepared because of coach Bob Jenkins’ legendarily strenuous practices.

Schwartz was Northwestern’s No. 1 runner and he knew he had to beat Jones to ensure the Trojans would have a precious advantage over their rivals from Brookland-Cayce, the No. 2 team in the state behind Jenkins’ crew.

When Schwartz crossed the finish line that day, he crumbled in a heap, exhausted from the pace and lung-burning chill. Jones came in right behind him.

After four other Trojans finished in the top-20, Northwestern had its first state championship, in any sport, in the three-year-old school’s history. Schwartz got to hoist the trophy.

“I can remember to this day, I don’t think my heart has ever beat… it felt like it was made of steel,” he said last week.

It was the first of many state championships for an athletic program that 40 years later is synonymous with success. During halftime of Friday night’s Northwestern-Byrnes football matchup, those goofy, athletic runners, who called themselves a band of brothers, will be honored for laying the first brick in the foundation of Trojan athletic success many years ago.

“We wanted to be the first state champions at our school,” said Schwartz. “Everyone else did too, but we worked hard and we were the ones that did it.”

Immediate expectation

After Jenkins’ running program won the cross country state championship in December of 1973, the Trojans claimed both the track and field dual (a tournament-style event no longer held) title and state championship meet in the spring of that school year. In the fall of ’74, the program continued its dominance, winning an undefeated cross country state title before grabbing a second track and field state championship in the spring of ’75. That helped Jenkins earn National High School Track and Field Coach of the Year honors in 1975.

“He didn’t want us to be good,” said Schwartz, “he wanted us to be great.”

The running program was the foundation of Northwestern’s athletic success and Jenkins, who passed away last April at age 79, was the Atlas that propped it up. Several Trojan runners interviewed this week credited Jenkins’ ban on practicing in anything but shorts and a t-shirt for helping them handle the frigid conditions of the ’73 state championship meet.

And it was Jenkins who planted the seed when the school first opened in the fall of 1971, not suggesting, but stating that the Trojans would win a state championship within three years.

“I think we believed it,” said team member Ronnie Covington. “He made you believe in yourself.”

Jenkins’ runners already ran 1,000 training miles per year and his decree further spurred a talented bunch of runners led by Schwartz, Covington, Robert Beaty, and Jeff Mills. Jenkins had an encyclopedic memory of every runner’s best times. He was one of the first coaches in the state to keep up with not only his own runners’ marks, but also their closest competition from across the state.

“At every meet he had a tick sheet with goals. ‘This is what time you’re gonna run today,’ and immediately after the meet we got feedback,” said Covington. “He didn’t just know everybody’s time; he knew the time he thought they could perform at.”

The ever-dangling carrot of improving pushed Jenkins’ runners.

“Establishing that vision is extremely important, because that’s what you have to help young people do, is move beyond the day-to-day,” said Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols, who was Northwestern’s 27-year-old athletic director in 1973. “Most young high school students are interested in what’s happening this afternoon. What you have to do is think about what we do this afternoon is helping us tomorrow. And what we do tomorrow is helping us for next year and preparing us for the future.”

A physical cross country team

The Trojans looked like title contenders 1972, but their hopes faded when top runner Mike Pappas broke his leg in a motorcycle accident. There was an early setback in ’73 as well when Irmo knocked off Northwestern in the first meet of the season.

“Coach Jenkins scheduled them on purpose. He wanted us to start off with the best team in the state,” Schwartz said. “They had a pretty good team and just by one point they snuck in and beat us. But we didn’t really worry about that because we could have had one guy beat one of there’s and we would have won.”

The Irmo defeat would be the Trojans’ last for nearly two years. They stormed through the remainder of the ’73 regular season, beating Irmo three meets later, and crushing a number of schools including Rock Hill and Sumter. It was all documented fastidiously by late Herald sports editor Buddy McCarter.

“He was maybe our biggest fan,” Schwartz said.

Northwestern also beat Brookland-Cayce twice in the regular season, and the Bearcats entered the state meet ranked second behind the Trojans. The weather that December day did not cooperate.

“There was ice all over the course,” Covington remembers.

“People were falling down,” said ’73 team member Bobby Rayfield.

Conditioning work from August didn’t have as much impact when the cold air stung shocked lungs and naked legs. Rayfield remembers honing his focus on the hot shower that would follow the conclusion of the meet. The wintry climes didn’t hamper the Trojans’ times though, thanks to Jenkins’ training regimens.

“You talk about physical football teams, we were a physical cross country team,” said Schwartz, who ran to school every morning, five miles.

Champions in life

Amidst a field of 200 runners, six Northwestern runners placed in the top-30. Covington placed 13th and Beaty was right in front of him in 12th. All importantly, Schwartz crossed the line in sixth, just ahead of Brookland-Cayce’s Jones. Stall and Brookland-Cayce both placed two runners in the top-10, but Northwestern’s depth allowed it to top the field by nearly 30 points, a blowout in cross country terms. Jenkins’ Trojans had achieved the goal.

“It was all about a team,” said Covington. “We had a tight, cohesive group and that really made a difference.”

“It was wonderful for the school to have that athletic success to point to,” said Echols. “Then all of the sudden people realized that we can be good, we can have success.”

The internal fortitude engendered by Jenkins’ intense practices served the Trojan runners for years to come, and still does to this day says Schwartz.

“He looked beyond high school. He wanted us to be champions in life. He told me that many times.”

Schwartz still draws strength from the ’73 experience, particularly lifting the state championship trophy into that gloomy December sky.

“There have been many times in my life that haven’t been perfect,” he said. “And there’s been times in my life where I’ve struggled with being an adult and living life, and there’s been times when I had to think back to that and it got me through.”

Friday night will be the first time in 40 years that the team is all together. Some live in Rock Hill and Fort Mill; others are flying in from as far as Florida and Baltimore. Other than a couple of the team members, Jenkins will be the only key figure missing.

“I think he’d be tremendously proud,” said Echols. “He could go back and tell you all of their names, and he could quote their times, today. He’d be tremendously proud to be there and to recall the memories of that first state championship team. They had an affection for him, and he had an affection for them.”

Bret McCormick •  329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T

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