Gibbons track team runs to one last championship

Racing against time and the archbishop's decision

May 09, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

At Cardinal Gibbons School, associated famously with baseball because of its connection to Babe Ruth's early life in Baltimore, there is a spring track team, and here in the final weeks of the life of the school, attention must be paid.

The Crusaders track team has no high-jump equipment, no pole-vault equipment, old starting blocks donated from a richer Catholic high school, an asphalt track that causes shin splints in runners, and a 24-year-old coach who runs the team between his day job in heating/air conditioning and his night job as a waiter.

And yet, the Cardinal Gibbons track team is a championship team — undefeated in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference. This spring's was the seventh conference championship for Cardinal Gibbons in the last 10 years. The 2010 team won the Patriot Games the other day, an end-of-season meet, and now the boys are preparing for their final competition in Crusaders colors, the MIAA championship.

The Crusaders have a 33-meet win streak.

Zach Zentz, the head coach, is a 2004 graduate of Cardinal Gibbons. He was a sprinter on Crusader track teams that won three of those seven championships. He's been involved in coaching since graduation. He's particularly proud of the accomplishments of the runners and jumpers and throwers he's trained: Sean Jenkins and Rodney Harris, Mike Valentine and Salim Council, Adam Mason and Markus Massimini, to name a few.

"They're like my little brothers," Mr. Zentz says.

The Crusaders have so little equipment, some of the boys can only practice their events just before they compete in them at meets at other schools.

Monty Ebron, a high-jumper, throws himself into a chain-link fence near the Cardinal Gibbons football field to practice his form. Ben Brown uses a rope to pull himself up and over the cross bar on the football goal posts, horizontally and feet first, to build strength and develop his pole vaulter form.

"This is the first year we ever had hurdles," says Mr. Zentz. The sprinters' starting blocks are hand-me-downs from Calvert Hall. The runners all train hard on the grounds of the school and on a nearby hill. Sometimes Mr. Zentz makes his team flip old tires up the hill to build strength.

He's very proud of his school — and very distressed at what is about to happen to it.

"Seven championships in 10 years is what many would consider a dynasty," he says. "And now it is for nothing."

The parents and alumni who are trying to change the archbishop of Baltimore's mind about closing the school are not making progress. They want to buy the property from the archdiocese and turn Cardinal Gibbons into an independent Catholic school. I'm told they offered between $5.5 million and $6 million.

But the school is not for sale — at least not right now — and the archdiocese remains unconvinced that Gibbons parents and alumni can create a plan for the school's long-term survival.

"In the end, we felt their goals were not achievable and that it wasn't fair to hold out hope for the students for something that wasn't likely to occur," Sean Caine, a spokesman for the archdiocese, told me Friday. "Had we done so, we most likely would have created a situation identical to the one that occurred at Towson Catholic, leaving students with little time to cope with the decision and to plan for next year."

But many Cardinal Gibbons supporters believe the archdiocese just wants to sell the school and its 33 acres to the highest bidder, probably a commercial developer.

"If they had just come out and said, this property is worth a lot — it's near I-695 and I-95 in Baltimore City, near a hospital [St. Agnes] — and we need the money and the property's going up for sale, I could have taken this a lot better," Mr. Zentz says. "You know, if they had just treated us like men, and been straight with us. … I tell my team all the time, 'Act like men. Don't make excuses for being late for practice. Be men.' What kind of message is this for them, when the [archdiocese] is not straight with us?"

Mr. Zentz has had offers to coach at other schools next year.

"But I don't know if I can," he says. "I got into this because I wanted to coach at Cardinal Gibbons. I don't know that I'd have the drive to do this at another school."

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