Richmond Hill High School coach Levi Sybert has built the school’s track and field and cross country programs into area powerhouses since he arrived in 2007.
Now, he and supporters are hoping to transform the school’s facilities into some of the area’s best.
Sybert, along with booster club member Colette Hammesfahr, whose daughter is a distance runner at RHHS, recently made public the group’s plans for a track and field complex and running trail which they say if built will be among the best in the state and open to use by everyone.
“Our vision is for the entire community of Richmond Hill and Bryan County,” Hammesfahr said during a presentation to the Bryan County school board.
That vision won’t come without a cost, however. The price tag for everything on the group’s wish-list is $650,000, according to information the group provided.
And while the group hopes to get BoE funding for some of the project, they’re apparently also willing to knock on doors.
“We’re ready to seek a single large corporate sponsor with the board’s permission,” Hammesfahr said, “(while also seeking help) from smaller corporations, businesses, the public and alumni.”
A major component in the group’s plans and a first step is the resurfacing of the school’s existing asphalt track, replacing it with a rubberized surface coaches believe is less likely to cause injuries to runners.
Over time, Hammesfahr’s group hopes to add facilities to allow the school to host steeplechase — essentially a distance run with obstacles thrown in for good measure — events, while adding lighting, a pavilion, and items for field events such as pole vault and long jump so that the school can host full-fledged track meets.
The group also wants a running trail built near the school for the cross country program, which currently hosts meets at the Richmond Hill Fish Hatchery. In recent years, more than 2,200 runners from 229 cross country teams have competed in meets at the fish hatchery, and it’s there that RHHS has hosted the two most recent Region 3-AAAAA championships and will host the next two, Hammesfahr said.
“We’ve had an excellent relationship with the fish hatchery,” she said. “But it’s on federal property, so we can’t charge for admission, we can’t sell concessions or t-shirts.”
In addition, students have to be bused across town there to practice.
There were only five kids left on the track roster at the end of Sybert’s first season as RHHS coach in 2007. There were 83 at the end of the 2014 season. Similarly, there were 23 cross country runners at the end of the 2010 season; 39 runners finished the 2014 campaign.
Growth in the program is at least in part due to the school’s booming enrollment — it now competes in Class AAAAA, the state’s second highest classification based on enrollment. But success has also played a role in the turnaround.
Sybert’s two programs have propelled 23 kids to eighth or better individual finishes at the state meet – that includes two individual state titles and two individual runner-up finishes. But if track is an individual sport, it’s also about the team, and Sybert’s cross country teams won back-to-back Region 3-AAAAA titles in 2012 and 2013 while his track and field teams garnered two top team 10 finishes at state.
That success has come without a home field advantage. The track program is the most traveled of all Richmond Hill High School’s sports teams, according to information provided by Hammesfahr and Sybert.
Boys’ soccer had 13 home games and 7 road games in 2014. Seven of the football team’s 11 games were at home.
Of the track and field program’s 12 regular season meets, only one — the Wildcat Relays — was held at RHHS, which made it difficult for family and friends to attend meets.
Giving the program a place to call home is not the only reason to improve facilities, supporters said.
Hammesfahr said a running complex could enhance the school system’s already positive relationship with the recreation department by providing a site for recreation track and field programs while also attracting such events as the Georgia Special Olympics.
School officials seemed impressed by the presentation, which included charts and graphs and even included a breakdown of team GPAs — the cross country team GPA in 2013 was a 3.66; the track team posted a 3.34 team GPA.
But being impressed doesn’t necessarily translate into funding.
“We do know here’s a need,” school board chairman Eddie Warren said. “We’re just trying to balance the needs of competing sports and figure out how we can make it happen.”
Still, Warren said he was intrigued by the idea of corporate sponsorship.
“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “I know in a lot of neighboring counties, some of the athletic facilities they have, the school board didn’t pay for them, they had corporate sponsors. I know we’re a smaller county and we don’t have a lot of corporations, but it would be good if we can get that kind of help.”
Among the plan’s biggest proponent's on the school board is Dennis Seger from North Bryan, who noted the total estimated cost of the track complex was less than the roughly $1.1 million spent on a new fieldhouse for Bryan County High School and Bryan County middle School. Seger said hosting track meets has provided BCHS with revenue.
“This is something the board really needs to look at,” he said. “It’s nothing but profit. If it can be worked out, it needs to be started soon.”