WILLIAMSBURG — Mel Jones prefers the phrase “Lafayette High track and field family” to team, but village might be a better description. For starters, with 80 athletes in the program, the Rams are populous enough for that moniker.
And, to borrow from presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton about it taking a village to raise a child, Rams athletes face no shortage of elders willing to help. Jones, an area track coaching legend, is assisted at Lafayette by seven coaches on a staff many colleges would envy.
Some of the assistants were part of the 2013 boys state cross country championship, and all of them helped the Rams win this school year’s Group 3A boys indoor state title. Their primary goal in the 3A state meet this weekend in Harrisonburg is to guide the girls to a state title, and all the better should the boys add an outdoor championship to the indoor one.
“That would be great because the girls have never won a state track title in school history,” Jones said.
Jones knows his Lafayette track history, having coached the sport at the school since its 1973 opening. He had assistants as a younger man, of course, but admits he didn’t lean on them as much as he should have.
“I tried to do too much, but I’ve become a lot better at delegating responsibility,” Jones said. “I am pulled in so many ways.”
Don Mollenhauer, who coaches Lafayette’s pole vaulters and helps with relay teams, needs a second wind just to list Jones’ responsibilities. In addition to coaching, Jones handles all of the organizational things such as discipline, transportation, paperwork, uniforms and recruiting.
“Coach Jones decides who’s competing in which events, then relies on his assistants to do what they are good at: teaching technique,” Mollenhauer said. “I learned about the value of being an assistant from (VHSL Hall of Fame track coach) Charlie Nuttycombe.
“He was my assistant at Menchville and he was great. For me, it’s been a pleasure being on Mel’s staff.”
Mollenhauer is among several on Jones’ staff who are area track legends themselves. He guided Menchville to multiple Group AAA track titles in the 1990s and says the Lafayette staff is as good as the many that made Peninsula District track the envy of the state 25-to-30 years ago.
His most noteworthy pole-vaulting pupil at Lafayette is Kathryn Tomczak. She is the odds-on favorite to win her fourth state-meet gold medal in the pole vault this weekend.
“It’s really good to have so many coaches who are smart and talented,” said Tomczak, who will pole-vault at the Air Force Academy next year. “You get a lot of different (coaching) styles and they all work out in the end.”
Distance coach Drew Mearns was a sub-4:01 miler as a runner, then virtually invented the job of track and field agent as a young lawyer in the early 1980s. Working for Mark McCormack’s famed International Management Group, the clients he recruited included marathon legends Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar, distance-running star Mary Decker and two-time Olympic 1,500-meter gold medalist Sebastian Coe.
Working with Mearns coaching the Lafayette distance runners is John Piggott, among the most successful and well-known road racers in Peninsula history. Like aides Kenny Edwards (sprints, hurdles, high jump) and Sarah Howard (all events save the longest distances), Piggott ran for Jones at Lafayette.
“It’s great to have someone like John, who the kids know is a legend but can go out and show them how to do it,” Jones said of Piggott, who completed his 100th marathon in the One City Marathon in Newport News in March. “We like having coaches like John and Kenny and Sarah who all have come up through the program.”
The latest Lafayette fixture to join the staff is longtime school security head Floyd Sturdifen, who coaches the throwers. While Jones has the final say on everything, he said his talented staff keeps him on track.
“Every coach needs a coach,” he said. “They’ll let me know if I’m out of touch or too far one way or the other.”
Tomczak, sprint stars Megan Jones and Audrey Hurley, middle-distance standouts Adriana Hooks and Brooke Crookston, and jumper and relay star Alexus Wells have all benefited. Ditto for a group of boys standouts, led by distance runner Konrad Steck and hurdler Micah Canaday.
Dual state titles might be a tall order, but it’s one the well-coached Rams will shoot for.
“That would really be something special, because I don’t think many schools have done it in the same year,” Jones said. “It’s like I tell the kids, ‘If you don’t dream, you’re probably working for someone who did.’ ”
O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.