By Jeff Keeling
MacKenzie Sweigart sprints full bore along a strip of asphalt at a corner of the Sulphur Springs School parking lot, launches herself into the air and lands in a makeshift long jump pit a few feet from a portable classroom trailer. Nearby, in a section of parking lot marked out by a long strip of duct tape, Seth Banchetto holds forth a relay baton as Charlie Cole bursts into motion to take a handoff.
Elsewhere on this temperate, sunny June day, team members jump into a high jump pit reclaimed from another county school after it blew away in a tornado. They sprint through a field with mini parachutes providing wind resistance, and hurl a discus and shotput from a circle painted on asphalt. There is no track here at the small community school three-and-a-half winding, country miles from Daniel Boone High School. Like the long jump pit, all facilities are makeshift.
Yet year after year, the Gamecocks field strong teams at the annual Washington County meet. Sulphur Springs runners have gone on to high levels of success at Daniel Boone High School and beyond. Alumni James Garst, who finished third at the 2014 TSSAA cross country meet and now runs for East Tennessee State University, was the 2015 Southern Conference freshman of the year in cross country.
And on May 21, when the Tennessee Middle School Athletic Association held its first-ever state championship, the boys’ team finished third out of 34 competing schools. Ask people how a small school (420 students in nine grades) with little in the way of facilities or money manages to get so much out of its young athletes in this sport, and you’ll likely hear the same two words: Ms. Lisa.
As assistants provide instruction and athletes swirl around the school grounds, having given up part of a summer’s day to exhibit their workout routines to a stranger, at the center of the vortex is Lisa Armentrout, an eighth-grade math teacher and the school’s longtime track and field coach. While Armentrout and parent/coaches Mark Sweigart and Peggy Leonard give directions, the 19 boys and girls (out of about 45 who competed this year) enthusiastically complete their drills.
“She builds leaders,” says Coach Sweigart, whose daughter MacKenzie competes for the Gamecocks and tied for second at state in the long jump. “She gives the kids a chance to take a leadership role. She lets them make decisions and she encourages them to be the best they can be. I think she makes a very big impact on them that way, and not just in sports.”
One athlete Armentrout is having an impact on today is Cole, a big, home-schooled farm kid who will compete for Boone starting next season. Cole, a highly competitive athlete, was all about higher-profile sports until he finished his seventh grade basketball season in early 2015.
“Ms. Lisa came up to me and asked if I wanted to run track,” Cole says. Track didn’t sound so appealing – until Armentrout pushed the right buttons.
“She said, ‘I can get you faster, and you’ll be able to win.’”
The prospect of getting better at football and basketball, and of winning at a new sport, was enough.
Armentrout – a Sulphur Springs native who still farms her home place and works part time at the Trailblazer Market, the community’s convenience store and general hangout – held up her end of the bargain. Cole got faster, so much so that he finished second at state in the 100 meters, anchored the third-place 4×100 team and was runner up in the shotput for good measure.
“Ms. Lisa’s a great coach,” Cole says. “I just loved her from the start and also Ms. Peggy, her assistant coach. She taught me a lot about running and how to get my speed up. I didn’t have any technique down, or the right stride.”
Now, Cole says he will stick with track and football and forego basketball at Boone, where he’ll be a freshman this fall.
For Armentrout, coaching is as much an avenue to mentoring as it is a chance to compete.
“As a teacher, I have to teach my standards and drill for the test, so they don’t get to see this side of me in the classroom as much, because they know, ‘we gotta do math, we gotta get ready for testing.’
“So when I get out with the coaching part, it’s the fun side. I tell them, I coach for fun.”
She also coaches to help children learn the qualities necessary to be successful adults – and to help less confident students see just what they can achieve.
“I want to win, but I feel like the kids are number one, and I enjoy giving the kid that doesn’t have as much chance in the classroom to be successful, to be successful in another way. So I feel like it builds a great bond between the parents and the kids with me.”
While she tries to avoid burning the young athletes out with a heavy grind of workouts, Armentrout also works to develop some higher level skills early, for instance with her relay teams.
“We really drill the relays so that we hit the handoffs, and we do blind handoffs even in middle school. You have to trust the guy behind you that he’s going to be there and he’s going to get the baton in your hand.
Armentrout says she tries to keep workouts fun so children don’t lose interest. But having run at Boone in the 1970s and coached as an assistant at her alma mater under Carl Winkle in the mid-1980s, she knows her stuff.
“Almost every year I either have a girls team or a boys team that takes home the county championship, and many years I’ve had both boys and girls win the county championship.”
When they do win, and when they lose, Armentrout’s athletes exhibit her brand of sportsmanship, she says.
“I have a rule in my coaching that if anything goes wrong, no one ever gripes at an official, no one ever says anything rude, you do not show any anger toward another athlete, you always congratulate them. I also try to teach through track things I expect out of life by using those as my rules in track, and I stick to those.”
That makes Armentrout an invaluable member of the school and community, Sulphur Springs Principal Cathy Humphries says.
“In the classroom and in track and cross country she comes in contact with parents, and that’s very valuable for building community relationships,” Humphries says. “The extracurricular opportunity gives some kids that haven’t been as successful in the classroom something to build on and gives them some self-esteem. It’s a good resource for us to have her knowing the community so well.”
As her athletes train against the backdrop of a hayfield, Armentrout sums it up this way: “I love people, and I love for people to be happy. I’ve seen a lot of happy kids through track.
“Different ones of them come back and tell me what they’re doing, and how they are, and even after they get out and have their own kids they come by and see me at the little convenience store.
“I feel like the track is what builds that bond more than just being a teacher.”