Getting with the program

Despite constant turnover from year to year, Bowling Brook is thriving in track and field - and also is teaching valuable life skills to its athletes.

May 17, 2006|By RICH SCHERR | RICH SCHERR,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Once a year, Joel Pechart likes to pull out his clipboard and dream just a bit.

As coach of the track and field team at Bowling Brook Prep, a school for young male offenders in western Carroll County, Pechart annually fields one of the top squads in the area. As a private school, however, the Thoroughbreds are prohibited from competing in the county championship meet.

So each May, after the county's seven public schools take their marks, Pechart takes out his pen and gets to work.

"We score the meet every year," said Pechart, who compares the performances of his athletes to those competing in the meet, then awards points based on where they likely would have finished. "That's the only way we can compete in it - to score it ourselves."

This year, those scores would have been especially lopsided in Bowling Brook's favor.

After finishing third in its season opener, Bowling Brook won nine straight meets - beating six county opponents along the way - to complete its best season in school history. Many of the Thoroughbreds' biggest triumphs came out of state.

In March, they took first out of 15 teams at the Jim Taylor Relays in West Virginia, knocking off host Jefferson High School, a favorite to win this year's West Virginia AAA (large school) state championship. Later they beat Jefferson again at the Clear Spring (Md.) Invitational, and then yet again at the Hedgesville (W.Va.) Journal-Eagle Invitational.

And earlier this month, Bowling Brook ended its season with perhaps its biggest victory of the year, beating 37 other teams, including several contenders for Pennsylvania district and state titles, to win the AA Division of the West Central Coaches Invitational in Altoona, Pa.

"I believe we made a good name for ourselves," said senior Paul Wilson, a standout in the 400- and 800-meter runs. "We weren't really noticed last year, but I believe that after the experiences we had and the competition we've brought out there, that people surely noticed us this year."

It's difficult not to notice where these athletes finish, particularly when you consider where they started. The majority of the school's 173 students - who hail from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and Washington - at some point either stopped going to school or were removed, rotating in and out of detention centers.

"Next thing you know, four, five, six years go by and they just really haven't been in a structured educational setting consistently for any period of time," said Mike Sunday, headmaster of the residential school.

Prospective students usually are recommended by either probation officers or the courts. Before they can be accepted, however, they must first pass an interview in which a school official judges their potential to make sustainable life changes.

Once in the program, the key word is structure. During the course of their 10-to-12 month stay, students pursue their education in a safe environment away from the city streets and learn to be accountable for their actions.

Athletics are a major component. Students are strongly encouraged to try out for sports teams, and those who don't participate must take part in daily physical training programs.

"We certainly believe that idleness and boredom are the devil's workshop," Sunday said. "I think the athletic program is just a wonderful area for us to really be able to teach viable life skills to kids. Getting into good physical condition ... you can't buy that from somebody and you can't steal that from somebody. There's only one way you get in good physical condition, and that's by going out and putting the work in every day."

About 110 students - nearly two-thirds of the school's enrollment - came out for track this spring. For Pechart, that's when the real work began.

Only a handful of those trying out in a typical year have had any previous track experience, and just about all are new to the program. Most are raw athletes, who Pechart and assistant Peter Dodd carefully evaluate.

"We have a lot of fun with it," said Pechart, who founded the track program 15 years ago. "We do a lot of skill testing. Some guys come out and just can't do anything, but this year we kept the most kids [46] we've ever kept."

Among them were Wilson and thrower Quinton Miller, two rare holdovers from a year ago who have helped to dispel the notion that Bowling Brook is simply a team of sprinters. Earlier this season, Wilson set a school record in the 400 (50.6 seconds), and Miller broke the mark in the shot put (51 feet, 2 inches).

Two newcomers to the program, Jermaine Higgins (who ran 14.8 in the 110 hurdles and 40.1 in the 300 hurdles) and Seth Boyd (10:43.3 in the 3,200) also have set records.

The team's performance has left an impression on opposing coaches.

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