The track and field program at Fort Cherry High School started when former athletic director Frank Rohm arranged a meeting with a longtime teacher.
After the school had been without a program for more than a decade, Rohm approached teacher Ben Maxin about organizing a girls team. Maxin, who ran track in high school and calls the sport his passion, immediately accepted.
Despite not having a track, throwing circles for field events or an indoor facility on school grounds, Maxin started a girls club team in the spring of 2004.
Eight WPIAL individual championships and two state titles later, Fort Cherry has become one of the best track and field programs in Class AA.
It all began with a small gathering of girls in the spring of 2004. Maxin remembers the day vividly.
Twelve girls attended the Rangers’ first practice. When Fort Cherry’s head coach prepared his team for drills, he witnessed an awestruck look on their faces. With only a dirt track surrounding the high school’s football field, Maxin’s creativity was put to the test.
“We had to make them run, but without a track to run in lanes, we used what was around us,” Maxin said. “I remember looking around and seeing the large hill next to the football field. I thought to myself, ‘well, hills build speed and endurance, so let’s have them run those.”
At that time, Fort Cherry did not have the luxury of well-trained athletes. It was a group of girls giving a new sport a try. Success was a bonus and some semblance of fun was needed. Without the necessary means of truly training his kids for the sport, Maxin had girls compete against each other and made sure there was enjoyment.
“Without any kind of fun, practice would be like coming down for an hour and half of sweat, torture and pain,” Maxin said. “That can turn kids off easily, so we had to be creative with trying to make it fun, create some challenges and split them up in groups to have them compete against each other. Once they were able to run on a track at a meet, they were pretty much hooked.”
Fort Cherry’s girls program began to compete in the WPIAL in 2005. The boys program was adopted in 2006 and numbers were never an issue. The Rangers’ boys team clinched the Section 5-AA title last week with 30 athletes, and one of the girls team’s 30 members is the WPIAL’s top competitor in the javelin: Central Florida recruit and 2013 PIAA Class AA state champion Jenna Lucas.
Participation and success have increased while the cinder and dirt track at Fort Cherry remains. During practices, participants toss the javelin up the massive hill next to the football field, the shot put is thrown in the dirt next to the concession stand, distance runners take laps around the school’s parking lot and the discus is thrown on the football field.
The lackluster conditions for sprinters have put pressure on the Rangers’ field athletes to dominate their respective events.
“We definitely feel like success is resting on our shoulders,” Fort Cherry senior Zak Dysert said following the Washington-Greene County Coaches’ Track Championships last Saturday. “With our runners not having a track, we need to control what we can and take care of our respective events to help the team.”
Although the conditions are anything but ideal, results have not changed. The Rangers continue to dominate field events and their distance runners are excelling. One of the latter is senior Sean Darragh, who runs the 800 meters and recently accepted a scholarship to Lipscomb University, a Division I program in Nashville, Tenn.
Darragh won the WPIAL Class AA championship in the javelin as a sophomore in 2012. After a shoulder injury his junior year, Darragh turned his focus to the 800.
As a freshman, Darragh remembers his classmates being surprised Fort Cherry had a track team without a home track.
“You kind of get used to it, but it’s definitely not ideal,” Darragh said. “We find ways to get around it. It gives us more motivation that we don’t have as nice as facilities and we still feel like we can go out and compete with anyone. We do the best we can, and you wouldn’t think we would have as good a track program as we do.”
Fort Cherry’s team spends its Saturday mornings at Burgettstown High School’s track. Of the 15 throwers on the Rangers’ boys and girls teams, all but one or two make it to every optional practice. It is the type of dedication Maxin loves to see out of a group that has every reason to have excuses for shortcomings or failures.
“Not having a track makes it tough,” Maxin said. “It limits what you can do. We can’t take it for granted like other schools. Our kids are pretty much in the best shape, compared to almost every team we compete against, because they have to be.”
Maxin rarely hears an athlete complain about the conditions. Talks have begun about installing a track, but nothing is certain.
The only certainty is Fort Cherry’s success in track and field is not going away.
“Nobody ever complains about it,” Darragh said. “We know we have a good program, so we just make the most of what we have. The upperclassmen have never had a track, so the freshmen don’t want to be the ones to complain about it. That’s the mentality here and I don’t think it will ever change.”