Saints on track

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AUBURN — The new science teacher at St. Dominic Regional High School couldn’t stop himself.

It was a natural extension of Keith Weatherbie’s personality for him to offer his services as assistant coach of the school’s cross country team.

Weatherbie was even more true to himself — and his past — when he began asking questions and dreaming about bigger things.

“I asked the kids what they did for sports in the spring,” Weatherbie said. “Quite a few of them said they didn’t do anything. I told them if there was enough interest in a track and field program, I would help start something.”

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That’s a specialty of his. More on that later.

Perhaps last month’s lack of snow and the resulting spring fever helped. Maybe it was the persuasive power of Weatherbie’s words and reputation.

Whatever the case, when St. Dom’s announced the addition of its newest athletic offering intentionally late, after registration for other spring sports was nearly complete, students scribbled their names on the dotted line in droves.

“We wanted to do the sign-ups for all the others, because what we didn’t want to do was pull kids from other sports,” St. Dom’s athletic administrator Lee Hixon said. “As it turned out we only lost two or three kids who moved over.”

And gained three dozen more. When St. Dom’s traveled to Wiscasset High School for the first track and field meet in school history Thursday, Weatherbie was accompanied by 24 girls and 16 boys.

That already puts the Saints above the average team size in the Mountain Valley Conference. St. Dom’s joined the MVC prior to the 2009-10 season.

“I think kids were excited that there was something new; that we’re open to expanding our programs here,” said senior Ali Desjardin.

‘HE’S A LEGEND’

Belying his experience, Weatherbie, 65, fits the profile of all things new in this scholastic year.

After a two-year retirement, the Monmouth resident felt the tug and returned to the classroom at St. Dom’s.

That followed a lifetime spent in Cape Elizabeth, where Weatherbie graduated from the community high school in 1963 before enjoying a 41-year career there as a teacher, coach and athletic director.

During a 15-year tenure as track and field coach in his hometown, Weatherbie led the Cape boys to a sweep of the 1984 indoor and outdoor state championships. His boys’ and girls’ programs consistently challenged for conference, regional and state titles.

“He’s a legend in Maine track and field,” Hixon said. “He’s coached some unbelievable athletes and worked with some huge names.”

Including one whom Cape Elizabeth eventually shared with the world.

Joan Benoit Samuelson ultimately won the first Olympic women’s marathon in 1984 and founded the Beach to Beacon 10-kilometer road race. Earlier, under Weatherbie’s tutelage, she was a pioneer in Maine high school track.

“The interesting thing about Joan Benoit was that when she started high school, the girls weren’t allowed to run a mile. They could only go a half-mile,” Weatherbie recalled. “Her senior year was the first time they could do the mile, and she lapped the field in a (four-lap) state championship race.”

It didn’t take long for Weatherbie’s reputation to travel throughout the hallways of his new school.

“He’s a great teacher, too. (His background) definitely attracted me, though, because I know he’s going to get me stronger, faster and quicker for basketball,” said Peter Keaney, the leading scorer for St. Dom’s boys’ hoop as a sophomore.

Weatherbie’s knowledge of athletes far exceeds running, jumping and throwing. And his passion for new programs surpasses even his love of track.

He played basketball and baseball at the University of Southern Maine and coached both sports during his tenure at Cape Elizabeth. During his run as the school’s AD from 1987 to 2008, Cape added girls’ lacrosse, girls’ ice hockey, girls’ volleyball, football and Alpine and Nordic skiing for both genders to its roster of varsity programs.

“We were very, very successful,” Weatherbie said. “I coached a lot of outstanding kids there. We built a big track family.”

Upon Weatherbie’s retirement two years ago, Cape named the new track surrounding its artificial turf football stadium after him.

LEARNING ON THE FLY

Desjardin is one of only two seniors on St. Dom’s new team and one of the few athletes to switch her spring sport. Desjardin played tennis for three years.

She said that Weatherbie’s keen eye for track talent made itself evident before the team even gathered for its first practice.

“He’s great. He knows his stuff. You don’t get a track named after you at Cape Elizabeth for no reason,” said Desjardin, who also starred in soccer and ice hockey. “He knows us all. St. Dom’s is a small school, so everybody knows all the kids. He’d walk by me in the hall every day and be like, ‘Yup, you’re running the 800. Yup, you’re doing the 400.’ He could tell just by looking at you.”

Until Thursday, only one St. Dom’s track athlete had ever competed in a high school track meet. Sarah Simpson ran for Edward Little in 2008.

There is no shortage of athletes, however. Keaney, who participated briefly in an Augusta track program as a sixth-grader, and Desjardin may be the most notable names. Alyse Carney, a junior, placed in the top 20 at the Class C cross country championship last fall.

And the beauty of track, as veteran coaches such as Weatherbie are quick to tell you, is that it promotes the participation of many athletes who have yet to find their niche in stick-and-ball games.

The immediate response to a track alternative nixed plans for a girls’ lacrosse program and promptly brought St. Dom’s slowest sports season up to the level of fall and winter.

According to Hixon, seasonal participation is now uniform across the board: Approximately 160 of the 278 students in school play a sport during each segment.

“When I learned we were having a track team, I was pumped, because I like running. It’s something new and different and exciting for the school,” Desjardin said. “We have a lot of enthusiasm. The kids are excited to be here. It’s something new every day.”

koakes@sunjournal.com

AUBURN – There’s only one obvious hurdle in the path of the upstart St. Dominic Regional High School track and field team.

The school is home to fields far as the eye can see. But no track.

“It’s on the wish list,” said St. Dom’s athletic administrator Lee Hixon. “When the original building plan was developed, there was a track. But then I think as numbers were cut, it was one of the first things to go.”

And so for now, the Saints will make do, as the colloquialism for Yankee ingenuity goes.

Nobody knows for sure if the designers of the Gracelawn Road layout had a track background. But their design didn’t hurt.

“This loop right here,” said senior Ali Desjardin, pointing at a section connecting the school’s access road to the parking lot, “is about 400 meters.”

St. Dom’s is relying upon coach Keith Weatherbie’s years of experience and the kindness of neighbors to get through the team’s inaugural season.

The Saints spend about half their practice time on the paved pathways and green grass surrounding the school.

One or two days a week, they make the short trek across the bridge to Bates College. That has allowed several athletes with almost no track experience to try such events as long jump and triple jump for the first time.

Distance competitors fan out toward Lake Auburn on daily 15- and 30-minute endurance runs.

“We haven’t done a lot with high jump or pole vault yet,” Weatherbie said. “We basically have concentrated on sprints and distances.”

St. Dom’s will spend this season on the road for all weekly meets.

That isn’t unusual in the Class C-dominated Mountain Valley Conference. Lisbon and Winthrop each have developed dynasties in the previous two decades despite having only a dirt home track surrounding their football fields.

“We’d love to get to where we can have a track,” Hixon said. “But we have a great partnership with Bates.”

Cape Elizabeth, a public high school in an affluent community, constructed an artificial turf football field bordered by a beautiful track facility during Weatherbie’s tenure as athletic director there.

In 2008, at the close of Weatherbie’s 41-year career as an educator in his hometown, Cape Elizabeth named the track surrounding Hannaford Field in his honor.

Weatherbie is more realistic about the immediate possibilities at a parochial school of fewer than 300 students.

“With the economy right now I think it would be very difficult,“ Weatherbie said. “But I really think a couple years from now we’ll have a pretty good team as some of these kids get older.”

Given the response in the first two months since St. Dom’s unveiled the new program, don’t rule out anything.

“We’ve had a few people call since we announced this to say, ‘Now that you have track and field, we’re moving our kids to St. Dom’s.’ And the kids have just started coming out of the woodwork for this,” Hixon said.

koakes@sunjournal.com

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