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Sunday May 6, 2012Homegrown Talent Fuels Track Program as Gators Seek to Make Strong Postseason Run

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Sanya Richards is the kind of track athlete that can put a college program on the map and in the hunt for a national title.

When Richards was coming out of Fort Lauderdale's St. Thomas Aquinas High a decade ago, everyone wanted her. Only Texas got her, and in 2005 Richards helped the Longhorns win the NCAA Outdoor national title.

Ebony Eutsey, the 2009 Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year at Miami Southridge High, and Lanie Whittaker, another highly touted prep standout at Miami's Booker T. Washington High, were prime targets for college recruiters in much the same way Richards was in 2002.

The Gators pursued Richards but struck out in their quest to keep the Olympic gold medalist at home in the Sunshine State. However, they hit a home run with Eutsey and Whittaker, both now members of the No. 3-ranked women's team in the country heading into this week's SEC Championships.

When Gators coach Mike Holloway became the first coach in school history to take over both the men's and women's programs in 2007, one of his primary goals was to build a pair of homegrown rosters.

"What are you going to do to keep the Florida kids in Florida?" was a common question when Holloway, already the men's coach, interviewed to take over the women's program five years ago.

Florida always had its share of talented in-state athletes, but schools like Texas, LSU and Texas A&M seemed to always swoop in from time to time and snatch a game-changer like Richards.

"I accept challenges,'' Holloway said at a recent practice. "For us to be successful, we had to start beating out those teams, because those are the teams that are perennial national powers."

Holloway's deep roots in Florida and the program's renewed focus on locking up the state's elite-level talent have produced the kind of results he envisioned.

Florida has won three consecutive NCAA Men's Indoor national titles and is currently ranked No. 1 in the latest Outdoor national poll. The women are near the top of the poll too thanks to a deep and talented roster primarily made up of Floridians.

Based on season-opening rosters, 70 of the 98 athletes on UF's track-and-field rosters call Florida home.

Freshman sprinter Hugh Graham Jr. had options to go elsewhere coming out of Miami Northwestern High. But once he visited campus and met future teammates like Jeff Demps and Tony McQuay – a pair of Olympic hopefuls and fellow Floridians – Graham was headed to Gainesville.

"At the beginning of the recruiting process I was pretty much open to everyone,'' Graham said. "I told myself that I was going to give everybody a chance, that I would consider going out-of-state. But when it all came down to it and I really considered my decision, Florida wants me and it's just as good as any school. It was a no-brainer.

"It's always great to be on a team with powerhouse athletes. I knew coming here that we would compete for national titles and conference titles, and I really wanted to be a part of that."

A senior from Winter Garden, Demps has garnered much of the attention for Florida's national success the past three seasons – he is on the cover of the current Track and Field News magazine. But Florida's homegrown influence ranges from elite sprinters to hammer throwers and distance runners.

They all have their own reasons for choosing Florida. Distance runner Callie Cooper grew up in St. Augustine and started attending Florida football games with her parents when she was 4.

After her older sister earned a scholarship to run at Barry (Ga.) College, Cooper figured her future was at a smaller school, too. Then she started to improve in high school and visited Florida.

"I wasn't a top-in-the-nation kind of recruit,'' Cooper said. "When it came down to it, I've always been a Gator. It just seemed like the logical choice as far as location, the quality of school, and especially the coaching staff when I came here to visit.

"Coming here on a recruiting trip is definitely like a star-struck experience as far as how they treat you."

Junior thrower David Triassi didn't move to Florida from Rochester, N.Y., until junior high and played football at Bartram Trail High in St. Johns. At one point he thought his future was at an Ivy League school.

However, after meeting Florida's coaching staff at the Florida Relays during his prep career, the Gators became an option – a place where he could still compete in track and get an exceptional education.

"For me, coming here, it just came down to first of all the school,'' Triassi said. "The University of Florida was my Florida plan."

Four years later Triassi tells potential in-state recruits that they can't go wrong by staying home.

"We get treated well,'' Triassi said. "We have great facilities; we work out in the football weight room, which is one of the best in the country. How they treat the athletes here is great. We get everything we need to succeed. In talking to other athletes from other schools, they don't get close to what we have. It's a great program."

Fellow thrower Fidela James agrees with Triassi on both counts – Florida offers the best of both worlds. She considered Miami and UCF among her in-state schools, and Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia Tech out-of-state.

James stayed close to her Jacksonville home for academics – she has already earned an undergraduate degree in English and is currently working on a Master's in educational technology – and to fulfill her potential in field events.

"I wanted to be a really good hammer thrower and shot putter,'' she said. "Some pro throwers will come here in the spring and train with us. I think our reputation is out there. It was an easy decision."

None of Florida's plan to build from within the state's borders is by accident.

Holloway moved to Florida from Ohio 35 years ago and built a reputation as an up-and-coming coach on the North Florida prep scene for several years prior to joining Florida's staff as an assistant in the mid-1990s. He took over the men's program 10 years ago and five years later the women's program.

There is no secret to his success at keeping the state's best athletes home. It starts with forming relationships early and then developing them when they arrive on campus.

"When we talked about being a competitive program, I think you start with your roots, which is the Florida kids,'' Holloway said. "It puts a little more sense of pride and passion in what we do around here when you have athletes that run together when they were in high school, have known each other since they were in middle school and elementary school.

"That was part of my charge when I took the job – I wanted to keep the best kids in Florida at the University of Florida. We talk about that all the time.''

Once success followed, so did the stream of elite-level athletes joining the program.

Graham looks up to the program's long list of decorated homegrown sprinters such as Demps, McQuay, Calvin Smith and John Capel.

If not for their footprints on the program, maybe Graham would have left home. But at the finish line of his prep career, that was never an issue.

"I want to step up every year because I want to be one of those big names one day,'' he said.

 

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