SIKESTON -- Blessed with a rich, proud tradition, the Sikeston High School track and field program is perennially one of Southeast Missouri's best.
The program now gets a major boost with a complete renovation and facelift of the current track facilities at Sikeston Public Schools Stadium.
"We're really, really excited about the new facility, not only for our track team, but for the entire community," said Jerry Dement, Sikeston's head track and football coach.
Open to the public, the track at Public Schools Stadium is also a favorite spot for those who wish to stay in shape with walking and running exercise.
"This is going to be a wonderful facility, an eight-lane red polyurethane tartan track, one of the best surfaces you can get," Dement said. "It's a state-
of-the-art facility that will be as nice as any place in this part of the country." Despite the successes of the Sikeston track program, the athletes have had to endure rather archaic, by modern standards, training conditions.
Dement, who has been involved with the Sikeston track program, off and on, for 17 years, said, "I see nothing but positives coming from the new track facility. We've got a good group of kids coming through from the eighth grade on up and they're going to get a facility to train on that is similar to the ones they'll compete on. It's a long time coming. Sikeston teams have been training on asphalt since '91. We've had good track teams for years and we've been training on cinders (pre-'91) and asphalt.
"You can't train in spikes on asphalt very often and, if you run on it too much, it'll really beat your legs down. This facility will allow us to train faster and train more often and I think that will really help our kids. I think it will do nothing but improve the success of our team."
Perhaps future Bulldog track and field athletes might join the ranks of some of Sikeston's greatest, among them 1964 Olympic silver medalist shotputter George Woods, still the school record holder by more than seven feet with a toss of 60 feet-11 inches in 1961.
Long jumper and sprinter Marshaun West left the Sikeston program in '96 bound for the University of Notre Dame.
There he became a track All-American and was named the Outstanding Performer at the 1999 Big East meet. West, a 2000 Notre Dame graduate, holds the Fighting Irish long jump record at 25-8.
Most recently, high jumper Andrew Lambert, a 2002 SHS grad, just concluded a stellar career at Southeast Missouri State University as the 2005 Ohio Valley Conference high jump champion and posted a runner-up finish in '06.
"I appreciate our kids who have worked hard the last couple of years to help make this happen," said Dement. "People kind of feel like you've earned a reward when you've had success."
Sikeston recently had a string of four straight district titles snapped in 2005. The Bulldogs finished second in '05 and '06 to Potosi, which garners most of its points from a strong distance-running contingent, events in which the Bulldogs seldom point. The improved track surface may entice a new era of Bulldog distance runners.
Added Dement, "I also want to pay tribute to the Sikeston teams of the past that have had success and the work ethic to be successful on a facility that wasn't quite as good as those of a lot of people they competed against.
"We owe them a lot of credit for keeping our program going. It's been strong for about the last 25 years or so. Those kids really worked hard and put a lot of time and effort into it and that success has enabled us to make this (facility) appealing to people."
Dement sees other benefits derived from the upgraded facility.
"I think it will lend an air of excitement," he said. "We've always had good numbers (turnouts) here, but we're hoping the facility will help increase the numbers and get even more kids interested."
Other sports feed off track and field also.
As head football coach, Dement spoke of the connection between football and track and field.
"I think it's a natural progression from football into track, which also involves speed and strength," he said, "but track can prepare a kid for any sport.
"We encourage any athlete to participate in track. It will make them better, whether they're a soccer player, a basketball player or a volleyball player. All of those skills are covered by track and field. It's a sport that lends itself to developing other sports."
In addition to the resurfaced 400-meter track, there will be four jump runways -- two for boys, two for girls -- two pole vault runways and an upgrading of the throwing areas.
Said Dement, "That will alleviate crowding during meets and we can run the events quicker and more efficiently. The jumpers and vaulters can approach pits from two directions, depending on the most favorable wind conditions."
Aesthetically, the track area will be enclosed with a wrought iron fence, surrounded by sidewalks.
All of this plus other campus improvements and additions would not have been possible without the cooperation of Sikeston voters who passed a multi-
million dollar bond issue in April, 2006.
"We're really proud that the taxpayers voted to pass our bond issue to allow us to do this," said Dement. "It's another example of the community of Sikeston being proud of its school system and wanting good facilities. I'm very pleased that they feel that way.
"Our community has always done a good job of supporting our school system. That was evident by the 80 percent majority vote on the bond. That is almost unheard of.
"The school system and the town want good athletic teams and really good athletic facilities. We're known for that and this track will just be a capper for that."
The target date for completion is mid-August.
Local contractors are busy with construction and the prep work for the track, which will be resurfaced by an Iowa company.
"We're going to have to suffer this summer," said Dement, "but there's a price for progress and this will be worth the wait.
"I think the community will be really proud of this facility. We've taken a lot of time and effort to design it to be very user-friendly."