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Glitch has Rock Hill track teams on the run

Gabrielle Lee, a Rock Hill High School track runner, was looking forward to competing at the school in front of fans cheering her on before she graduates this year.

But a costly construction error delayed the district's plan to rebuild the running tracks at Rock Hill and Northwestern high schools, leaving students to spend another year without a home-field advantage.

Last school year, district officials deemed the tracks at both schools too dangerous to run on. Their surfaces were cracked and bubbled up in several spots, tripping students as they ran. In some places, the granite-like rubber surface was crumbling. Athletes said it felt like running across loose gravel.

Neither campus hosted a meet last season. And neither will this season, which started last month. Both teams plan to move competitions to other stadiums, rather than forfeit. For Rock Hill High, this marks the third straight year of being a perpetual away team.

"It's kind of irritating because we can't be at home," sophomore runner Brandon McFerren said. "It's a hassle, but we'll get through it."

The school board voted last year to spend $1.5 million on building new tracks. Crews dug up the old tracks and started rebuilding Rock Hill High's over the summer. Everyone expected both tracks to be ready by this season's start.

But in the fall, after the Rock Hill High track's foundation was put down, Rock Hill schools' operations director Mike Armour said, workers noticed that whenever vehicles and heavy machinery crossed the foundation, it moved.

They had to start over.

Then, weeks of ongoing rain and occasional snowfall delayed construction even longer.

In all, Associate Superintendent Bill Mabry said, scrapping the partly built Rock Hill High track, retesting the soil and delays added an extra $140,000 to the bill.

The district, Mabry said, will pay for that with money it planned to spend on paving the parking lot at its central office.

Armour blames WPC Engineering, a firm hired to work on the project, which he said probably erred when testing the soil where the new tracks would lie. He hopes the firm will pay for the new soil tests.

Mabry, who oversees the district's finances, said those details won't be worked out until the project is complete.

WPC declined to comment.

For Rock Hill High runners, the news was a letdown.

"They're frustrated," coach Micah McCoy said. "Every year they ask me, 'Coach, are we going to have a home meet?'"

Workouts a problem, too

This season has brought new headaches.

"We're practicing wherever we can," McCoy said. "It's been difficult for us this year."

The group has been training at Castle Heights Middle and at the district's Flexible Learning Center. Northwestern students have been running at Dutchman Creek Middle.

The Rock Hill High team hasn't been able to haul all of its training equipment to practice, which means runners had to cut certain exercises. McCoy and students believe that's hurting their performance.

"Because we can't do the workouts, the speed development part of our training is not there," said McCoy, who worries that could hurt students' chance of winning college scholarships.

Last year wasn't as bad, McCoy said, because students were able to practice on portions of their track and use equipment there.

The team's in-school recruiting efforts have also been hurt, McCoy says, because some students only become aware of the track team when they see it practice after school. Since the team's not there, it might never occur to those students to try out.

Athletes said that in the three years they've been competing away from home, fewer friends and family have shown up at meets to watch them compete.

"When your meet is at 5:30 and your parents get off work at 5, it's hard to get down to a meet in Columbia," McCoy said.

For some students, getting to practice away from school is a challenge.

"It's kind of hard getting a ride here," said 15-year-old John Rainey, who added that he sometimes runs from school to practice at the Flexible Learning Center, just over 2 miles away.

But despite the setbacks, the group has persevered. The team won its first meet this season. And Lee has gotten scholarship offers from several colleges, McCoy said.

Still, Lee, who hasn't competed at home since her freshman year, said she would've liked to run in at least one meet at Rock Hill High.

"They've been working on the track since the summer," she said. "It should've been done by now."