How a little momentum and a lot of Marlin spirit have transformed VWC Track & Field from an idea to an institution in the making
By Leona Baker
It’s a late summer morning at Virginia Wesleyan. The air is already thick with humidity as a crescendo of cicadas vibrates the air. The grass on the expanse of lush green athletic fields on the campus’ north side is still wet with dew.
In a just a matter of weeks, these fields will be teeming with activity – soccer and field hockey players running drills, intramural athletes warming up for a fun game of flag football or ultimate Frisbee. At least one of the fields is also likely to double as a practice space for VWC’s youngest collegiate athletic program – track and field.
“Sometimes we’ll measure out a handmade track around the field hockey practice field with cones,” says Head Men's Cross Country and Track & Field Coach Mat Littleton.
A little ingenuity has gone a long way for Mat and his wife, Krista, who is the Head Women's Cross Country and Track & Field Coach, since the program’s inception. Though competition in cross country has existed at various times throughout the College’s history, track and field was not added until 2004.
The two Coach Littletons, both originally from Illinois, share an office with their respective desks pushed back to back, a controlled chaos of papers and books piled here and there as they prepare to welcome back returning athletes along with a promising crop of incoming freshmen for the 2011-12 season.
Without a regulation paved outdoor track to call their own, the team has to juggle schedules with nearby Norfolk Academy, work on starts and sprints on the 178-meter indoor track in the Batten Center, and come up with a variety of creative ways to get their athletes prepared for competition.
“I think where it affects us the most is in the technical events,” says Krista, “the field events where they need the sand pits and the runways for the long jump or the triple jump, or they need the high jump matting to do the high jump and the pole vault.”
It also means that meets can’t be held on campus, so the team has to travel every time they compete. An outdoor track and field complex is among a list of capital projects on the College’s short-term master plan. Remarkably, the lack of a dedicated facility has done little to impede the program’s progress.
“We went from not even having a track program to having close to 50 athletes this year,” says Mat. “The fact they we get them to come here without a track is almost a little mindboggling at times.”
Perhaps not so mindboggling when you consider that many students are looking not just for a place where they can excel athletically or academically, but a sense of belonging – something Wesleyan’s small, close-knit campus community is known for.
“I like being a part of this team because we’re like a family,” says rising sophomore Courtney Mebane, who was named rookie of the year at the Old Dominion Athletic Conference's indoor and outdoor championship meets in 2011 and won the conference in the 55m and 100m hurdles. “We have a lot of team dinners and activities. I can rely on my teammates for help or advice on anything.”
The team spirit on and off the track is something the coaches go out of their way to cultivate. The men’s and women’s teams even take an annual camping trip together as a bonding exercise – most often to First landing State Park in Virginia Beach.
“We try to have a family-type atmosphere,” says Krista. “Virginia Wesleyan tends to treat this institution like one big family, and I think we try to do the same thing.”
That means coaches are often more than coaches.
“You know if you come here, you’re going to have people that care about you,” says Mat. “I think all the coaches here are great about that.”
It’s not only the coaches who create the family atmosphere; it’s the students themselves. This network of support has been a major factor in attracting strong athletes, including those who could easily attend larger Division II or Division I schools.
“I made my decision to join this team because they are there for you as friends when life gets tough outside of academics and running,” says another team standout, distance runner Sean Whitson ’12, who recently became the program's first men’s provisional national qualifier. “I feel like we are a close team having friends that are distance runners, sprinters and field athletes. We cheer and push each other, but we are a hard working group that earned the success this team has today.”
Track and field is a democratic sport in that it offers a wide variety of opportunities for athletes with different skill sets. Most athletes specialize in two or three events.
“That’s the great thing about this sport,” Mat says, “you’re going to be able to find an event that plays into some kind of strength that you have. If you’re a bigger muscular person, you can throw. If you’re fast, there are sprints. If you’re somebody who has athleticism and can jump, then there are jumping events. If you’re more of an endurance person, there are distance events.”
When the coaches are looking for students to recruit, however, they’re looking beyond athletic ability.
“Ultimately we’re looking for what kind of person they are,” says Mat. “I think we have a certain culture in our program we’re pretty proud of as far as how they do academically and how they behave on campus and things like that.”
The team begins practicing in October, right after students return from fall break. Their first meet is in December, and competition continues through spring semester. Track or no track, this team has what it takes to go the distance.