Oak Ridge girls gun for record-tying 10th title

Orlando Oak Ridge girls track & field
Coach: Bill Stamper, 30th season
State championships (9)
4A - 1981, '82, '83, '85, '88, 2004
3A - 2006, '07, '08
State runner-ups (5)
4A - 1984, '86, '87, 2005
3A - 2001
Regional championships (17)
District championships (18)
Metro conference championships (15)

Winning state track & field championships has never grown old for Oak Ridge High girls coach Bill Stamper, who enters his 30th season at the helm of the Pioneers on the cusp of a milestone achievement.

Buoyed by returning athletes who contributed 67 individual-event points to last season’s 3A title - and a solid core of relay runners that added 15 more to the cause - the Pioneers open the 2009 season as favorites to win a state record-tying 10th team title.

“We’re aware of it and it’s certainly a goal,” said Stamper, whose Pioneers collected title No. 9 last season - their third in a row - by a whopping 41-point margin over Wharton.

Belle Glades Central, which won 10 girls titles under coach Jay Seider between 1982-96, figures to have company in the FHSAA record books barring an unforeseen calamity of events. The Pioneers are not only that talented, but they take great pride in collecting championship rings; sometimes at the expense of individual achievement.

That’s the Stamper way; something he learned from the man who recommended him for the job three decades ago - Oak Ridge boys coach John Hemmer. Hemmer guided the Pioneers to five team titles before retirement.

“Winning the meet is more important than winning any individual event, at least in my opinion,” said Stamper, who has found a way to sell the greater-good notion to athletes in a sport born on individual achievement.

“With some kids it’s easier than others. I guess it’s how you’ve been raised. We reward team success more. …

“When we do win state titles as a team we get the kids rings. I tell the kids if you win an individual event and we don’t win the team title, we’re not going to buy you rings.”

That philosophy has worked well enough to adorn a lot of fingers since Oak Ridge won its initial team championship team in 1981.

Stamper considers himself something of a “benign dictator” - willing to listen to his athletes’ desires, but ultimately determining what is in the best interest of the program. The most recent example of his successful salesmanship skills came in 2007, when he knew the Pioneers would have their hands full with powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas. As he does every year, Stamper formulated his championship plan in August, which is when he approached senior sprint standout Odeika Bent with the idea of tackling all three sprint events - 100, 200 and 400 - as well as the long jump.

Stamper told Bent that the endeavor would require her to run cross country in order to build strength, but might come with a price.

“It will probably jeopardize your chance to winning any individual events, but it will give us the best chance to win the state title,” Stamper said, recalling the conversation.

At Showalter Field, with a title hanging in the balance, Bent delivered 32 points to the cause with a pair of second-place finishes, a third and - fittingly - a long jump title. It was just enough to hold Aquinas at bay as the Pioneers won the team title by seven points, 86-79.

Careful analysis, planning and training aside, titles are ultimately won by athletes.

“I don’t care how good a coach you think you are, if you don’t have talented athletes, you don’t contend for state titles,” said Stamper, whose record is even more impressive considering the Pioneers’ track is in such disrepair that the school can’t host meets.

A strong core of assistants - Adolph Morris, Paul Brown and Mike Masker - and a supportive school administration help.

“We’ve been blessed,” Stamper said. “I don’t know that you have to have facilities to be successful. It would certainly be nice. You can get by if you have enthusiastic people. The kids pick up on it that the coaches are really into it.”

In pursuit of title No. 10, the Pioneers appear to have more than their share, led by a core of sprinters who should bring home scores of points from the 100 through the 4x400 relay.

Defending state 100 champion Tatianna Fisher (12.12), runner-up Denae Fluellen (12.39) and fifth-place finisher Victoria Watson (12.41) form the nucleus of the returnees. The trio combined for 37 points alone in the 100 and 200 last May; good enough for a top-five team finish.

“They should be [the backbone],” Stamper said. “That should really be a strong group for us.”

The Pioneers managed to win the 4x100 relay without the services of Fisher, whom he said will definitely be slated for relay duty this time around. The addition of 400-meter standout Amber Outing to the relay team should make it one of the best in the nation. With Outing joining the trio for last June’s Golden South meet, the Pioneers brought home the baton in a meet record 46.22. Clearly, St. Thomas Aquinas’ state record (45.80, 2000) is within reach.

Stamper, however, is cautious when it comes to loading up relays. The Pioneers would already hold the record for state championships were it not for baton exchange problems in ‘86 and ‘05.

In actuality, Oak Ridge may have the depth to roll the dice a bit this year. They won their title a year ago without Outing, who qualified fourth in the 400 prelims before being carted off from the state meet by ambulance after falling ill. Her absence also prevented the second-seeded 4x400 team from scoring, though she did manage to help the 4x800 team to a fourth-place finish.

The Pioneers’ depth of talent was so strong that it also withstood off days by seniors Jamia Hutto and Anjoure Teele, thanks in large part to a heaping portion of field event points.

Among the returnees, Martisha Hart’s second-place finish in the 300 hurdles (43.59) accounted for the only other points on the track. The Pioneers collected 11 points in the discus behind Tachira Charles (130-9) and Shayla Smith (117-8), who finished second and sixth, respectively. Juna Esperance tacked on a fourth-place finish in the triple jump (37-3), while Fluellen was third in the long jump (18-8 ¼).

Beyond the point-yielding returnees, Pioneers Shanay Mays (800), Chante Barnett (triple jump) and Osceola transfer Tamara Curtis (200/400) should contend for podium spots.

Despite the obvious strengths, the Pioneers don’t anticipate a walk-over to title No. 10.

“Pensacola Pine Forest, that’s the team right now that we’re saying if we don’t perform like we’re supposed to, they’re a real threat to win the state championship,” said Stamper, who is also wary of perennial threats Miami Washington, Wharton and St. Thomas Aquinas.

A grandfather now, Stamper isn’t sure whether he will coach long enough for Oak Ridge to make a run at the 13 team titles won by Harry Jacobs’ Florida A&M boys. But as long as he’s at the helm of the Pioneers, the focus won’t change.

“Our No. 1 goal is to try and get our seniors into college,” he said. “Athletically, our No. 1 goal is to win a team title.”

He’s had a lot of practice and even more success.