Editor's Note: Having won both boys' and girls' Regional titles in track last week, both the Bishop Snyder girls and boys squads figure prominently in the chase for the 1A team title this weekend. The annual Danny Brown Invitational held each February, has become one of the premier early season meets in North Florida, and is named in honor of the man discussed in this article.
To fully appreciate the origins of a program and the names and faces that have shaped it, it helps to know the history, particularly when one man cast such a long shadow over the program.
Dan "Danny" Brown was a bit of a legend in the Jacksonville running and track and field community, particularly within the Catholic school system. A product of Assumption Middle School and Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, Florida, Danny graduated high school in 1968 and headed to Notre Dame, walking on to the football team to play for the legendary Ara Parseghian.
Danny returned to Jacksonville in 1972, where he taught English literature at Bishop Kenny and initially coached football before making his name as the cross-country and track and field coach. Danny built the track and field squad with charisma and gusto, helping start a track and field powerhouse that continues to this day. After 12 years at Bishop Kenny, Danny traveled west to attend law school in Washington state. Danny also continued to coach at Lewis and Clark High School.
After a 20 year absence, Danny returned to his roots in Jacksonville in 2004 and set his sights on Bishop Snyder High School, the newest High School in the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine. The school was brand new, and Danny's initial contribution was enrolling 2 of his sons. Both older sons Ian and Adam became teachers and coaches at the school as well. Like many new schools, Bishop Snyder was struggling to develop their young sports programs, and Danny made it his mission to get involved. Danny envisioned a facility where all the events were contained within the track, and made sure to plan accordingly. So early did he get involved that he was in on the planning stages of the school, making sure the lights for the football field were back far enough to ensure room for an eight lane track with soft turns and room for all field events within the track.
In 2008, now as head track coach, Danny began an ambitious fund-raising campaign to design and build a state-of-the-art track facility at Bishop Snyder. Out with the asphalt, in with the rubberized track surface. The pole vault runway and pit was moved from obscurity to front-and-center on the 50 yard line (as they have it in Eugene, Oregon).
Fund raising was daunting. Danny worked the phones like a politician, calling every current and former athlete that he ever coached. Legend has it, whatever amount was promised as a pledge, Danny doubled that amount when he sent out the pledge envelope, and everyone paid! Danny and his sons also threw their sweat equity into the project, literally raking, digging, cutting sod and adding their physical imprint on the project.
Just as the track facility was coming to fruition, and all was coming together, tragedy struck the family in a terrible boating accident in early 2009. Danny's sister was killed and Danny and several of his family members were severely injured. Enter Nathan Stanley, who was asked by the Athletic Director to coach track for one season while the family recovered and to have one coach on campus, since Danny and Ian worked elsewhere. It was during this season that Danny passed on the love of track and field to Nathan, and at the end of the season Danny decided to step down as the head coach. Nathan was set to take over the boys soccer team, but immediately knew Track and Field was more of a calling due to his time with Danny. He applied for the job with only the one season of experience, but with the understanding Danny would stay on to help him learn.
Although Danny appeared to be recovering fairly well, he suffered a fatal heart attack that August and was gone at the age of 59. Although plans had already been set for Danny to hand off the program to Stanley, now Stanley's mentor figure was gone. Nate's athletic background was largely in crew (where he competed at Jacksonville University) and soccer and he was relying heavily on Danny to guide him for at least a year.
Nate picked up his head (as Danny would have wanted it) and pressed on, determined to continue to develop the program with the vision and enthusiasm with which Danny had done. Ian stayed on for two more seasons helping to establish a solid foundation for the throws.
Now entering his 10th year as head track coach, Bishop Snyder is starting to show results of that championship team Danny had always envisioned.
Last spring (in 2017) the boys team won theIr first ever Regional Championship, with the girls team finishing 2nd. And last week in Tallahassee, the boys won their 2nd straight Regional championship, with the girls scoring a fairly large upset victory over Providence to win their first ever Regional crown. Hopes are high going into this weekend's state meet.
Both the boys and girls teams project to be "in the mix" (within the Top 5) depending on which "Virtual Meet" sort you choose to employ. As typical in a big championship meet, it will all come down to game time, with big performances needed in the right places.
Snyder is fortunate to have two standout multiple-event athletes; Jalen Chance on the boys' squad and Semaj McGhee on the girls'. Jalen goes into the State meet seeded #6 in Long Jump, #6 in the 200 meters and #3 in Triple Jump. He also runs on the 4 x 400 squad, which has a good chance to medal as well. Semaj McGhee won the Triple Jump at Regionals (breaking the 1A State record with a leap of 40 feet), she also won the long jump and the high jump and placed 4th in the Discus. She has a very good chance of winning 3-4 medals at State, possibly 1 or 2 of them gold.
Michael Slonecker is in position to medal in both the discus and shot put, the boys' 4 x 800 team enters the meet seeded #2 in the state based on Regional results. Other competitors in the mix include Keith Cook in the Pole Vault, Tre Williams in the 110 meter hurdles, Aldren Biala in the 800 and Jack Randall in the 3200.
Alana Lecointe is seeded 3rd in the shot put and will also compete in discus. Gianna Forte won both the 1600 and 3200 meters at Regionals and has a good chance to medal in both. Abigail Galette in among the favorites to medal in discus. Others with great chances of medaling include Ashley Moore in the 100 and 300 hurdles and Cynthia Kellum in the Pole Vault.
One of Snyder's advantages is a well-rounded and diverse coaching squad. Stanley has put together an impressive staff, including Greg "King" Bing (a Bishop Kenny graduate) with throws, John Williams with sprints, three Snyder alumni; Alecia Caraciolo coaching hurdles and jumps, Alan Brown coaching throws, and Shawn Danese coaching pole vault. Three distance coaches include veteran distance coach Steve O'Brien, distance coach Richard Fannin (who ran against Danny Brown's Bishop Kenny teams when he was at Bolles) and firs-year distance coach Michelle Gully.
To provide perspective on his teams this year and their chances at the State meet, Nate summed it up nicely.
"On game day, the work has been done. it's all about getting the best out of your kids on that day - rising to the occasion. All of the weeks and months of early mornings and tough practices culminate at just the right time. If all goes perfectly and a few bounces go your way you can be in position to bring home a team title. That's what it's all about"
Just the way Danny Brown would have loved it.