Starting up Rock Hill's A-Head-A-U track program required great leadership and experience -- the kind that Bob Jenkins has. He spent years at Northwestern High School as track and field coach and is now the head coach at South Pointe.
Jenkins had about 30 kids participate in the South Carolina Junior Olympic Track & Field Championships this weekend at Winthrop's Irwin Belk Track. The number is lower for the first-year program than he would have liked, but history shows it is a good starting point.
He has been a coaching role model in the county and, in fact, the state, for years. He knows the value of a club program. Having kids compete through the summer, set goals, and ready themselves for cross country in the fall are all worthy aspirations.
Those were enough for him to initiate the program this year.
There were large contingents of athletes and parents from all over the state this weekend at Winthrop. Aiken, Florence, Summerville, Spartanburg, Mt. Pleasant and others were on hand.
Spartanburg's Striders and the Mt. Pleasant track club were started by coach Tami Dennis. Just as Jenkins is for high school coaches, Dennis is a role model for all coaches starting club programs from scratch.
Dennis started an after-school running club for youngsters in Spartanburg more than 20 years ago. The idea came from a discussion at her adult running club regarding children's fitness.
She started "Footsteps to Fitness" with one school that first year. She had about 150 kids. They would practice twice a week. She would help the children set goals for participation that would enable them to win prizes like a T-shirt at the end of the year.
"Footsteps to Fitness" blossomed to include more than 30 schools in Spartanburg County, involving 2,500 children.
"When I started it I knew it was meant to be," Dennis said Sunday morning, taking a rare few minutes of attention away from her team. "Now I'm afraid to stop."
Dennis moved on to start Spartanburg Striders track club where she had more than 100 kids participate. She enjoys keeping up with those athletes. Tamik Foster, a Broome High School hurdler, won the 3A state title this year in the 400 hurdles. Dennis mentored him with the Striders when he was just an 8-year-old.
Dennis and her husband moved to Mt. Pleasant in 2003. Soon she was lured back into coaching by Jimmy Stephens, now the president of the USA Track & Field for South Carolina.
Stephens grew up in Spartanburg and knew Dennis. He was serving as the recreation coordinator for the city of Mt. Pleasant at the time.
"My job was to get the track club going," Stephens recalls. "I knew if I got her (Dennis), it would take off. Her enthusiasm is easy to see. Kids see the energy and love she has for the sport and for each of them."
"That first spring the track club drew 15-20 kids. But it grew exponentially from there," Stephens said.
Now, five years into it, Mt. Pleasant track club boasts about 160 members. About 90 percent of her team is 12 years of age and younger, according to Dennis. She enjoys being a feeder system for the high schools.
Wando High School won the state 4A cross country title last fall. Six of the seven runners on that team ran for Dennis.
Equally impressive is the way she has of enlisting parents to serve in volunteer roles.
"I used to call her my dictator," Stephens slyly grinned. "She makes sure people are accountable and committed to what they do."
Jim Kirwan's son James competes in the 1,500, 3,000 and the 800 for Mt. Pleasant. He was a volunteer this weekend.
"Tami is an awesome coach," Kirwan said through an enjoyable Irish accent. "I have never seen a coach with so much time for all the kids, not just the elite."
Eight-year old Noah Spencer describes his coach as "very, very nice." Spencer set a state record in the 1,500-meter race with a time of 5:43. He shaved 12 seconds off the previous mark.
Spencer fidgeted under a tent with some of his teammates after competing in a long jump event. "She pushes us a lot. She has confidence in us."
Dennis donned a visor with numerous blue stars on its bill this weekend. The visor and her chirrup-like encouragements are her signatures. She is all about setting goals for her team. This weekend's goal was to finish with 28 champions.
The reward for becoming a champ was the opportunity to sign Dennis' visor next to a blue star.
"I didn't have to be reminded to sign it," Spencer said with a smile underneath a mop of blonde hair.
That's what this weekend was all about, achieving goals set weeks ago.
Coach Jenkins' A-Head-A-U is in its infancy, but the rewards are likely predictable. The program will grow and become a strong feeder system for local high schools' cross country and track and field teams for years to come.
The Junior Olympics will return to Rock Hill on July 10-13. South Pointe High School will host the Regionals and welcome athletes from four states and the District of Columbia.