MOUNT ZION -- On a brisk Tuesday, Kelly Fox is flitting around each corner of Mount Zion's new fieldhouse.
More than a dozen teams and hundreds of girls making sure everything is timed up right. For track and field, there are few things more important than timing.
And for Fox and Bill Harbeck, the Mount Zion track coaches, that was amplified this spring as the pair hosted several indoor track meets at Mount Zion’s new fieldhouse. It’s a facility in size that matches what several colleges have.
“You're in awe. You see these other teams walking in and their jaw would drop looking at this thing,” Harbeck said. “The facility, there can't be a better facility anywhere.”
It’s attracted plenty of attention.
And it’s given Harbeck, who has coached track for more than 30 years, a first in his career: “I've never put on an indoor meet in my life.”
Beyond the meets, it’s given Mount Zion’s sports programs a chance to breathe. A year ago, every program was sharing a narrow hallway – both track teams, cheerleading, and the junior high teams. Distance runners twisted through hallways trying to simulate the 1,600 meter run. Sprinters tried to imagine how to hand off the baton while avoiding a collision.
“Especially when junior highs in there, and the boys track team in the hallways, we run into each other and cross paths,” sophomore Ciara Thompson said. “We always had to be watching.”
“It's definitely different,” senior Peyton Brooksher added. “We dress in locker rooms, which is a lot nicer.”
Harbeck’s happier there’s more focus in practice.
“In the boys side, when you're in a crowded area, it can lead to a little more horseplay,” he said. “Now, there's not very much at all. There's a little more space, they're not getting into each other's way as much.”
Besides the benefits of being able to practice every day no matter the weather outside, it's also given Mount Zion the luxury of competing at home.
Indoor meets are few and far between. There are other high schools in the area that can host one, like Mahomet-Seymour, but it’s a rarity. Usually it’s schools like Clinton or Charleston who use nearby college facilities to run events.
But with the scarcity of meets and coaches itching to compete, those events can draw massive amounts of athletes. Coaches are left having to choose who gets to compete and who stays home.
“Eastern Illinois, there's a meet where kids from all over the state come,” Harbeck said. “It's a madhouse there. It's so many people. In some of the events, you can only run one athlete in an event. A team coming there can't bring all their athletes. Maybe they can only bring a third of their team, let's say, because of the limited space. That's what most (meets) have.”
Having meets at Mount Zion has allowed for more inclusion. Harbeck said he’s been able to put multiple competitors in each event, allowing athletes to compete in their second or third best event.
“I feel way more prepared than a year ago before going to a meet,” Thompson said.
Of course, most new things usually draw a crowd and the fieldhouse is no different. While there’s a track, it was designed to give baseball and softball a bigger place to house batting cages. Those fall in the middle of the track where the field events practice.
But the upside is much larger than the downside – not having a place at all – and athletes like pole vaulter Josie Held have worked out a system to share the space. She practices at Mount Zion on Wednesdays and Fridays while traveling to Champaign on Thursdays and Sundays.
“Unfortunately, it's new so everyone wants to be in here. But that's OK,” Held said. “My coach is in Champaign so I still drive over there, but I love having (the fieldhouse). It's amazing.”
And running meets comes plenty of work. Harbeck said it's at least an extra half hour before and after of setting up and tearing down the equipment. That includes moving bleachers, moving hurdles and sweeping up the sand from the long jump pit.
It's on a much smaller scale for practice, but for meets, Harbeck said he uses all the volunteer help he can get.
"We had the 12th reserved for a big meet. But after the first three or four (meets), I was kind of glad we didn't have that meet because it's a lot more work and it's kind of nice to have a Saturday off," Harbeck said.
"It's a beautiful facility ... but it's a lot of work."
The hope is that it brings out more athletes and gives them every opportunity to succeed. Several members of the girls team said they've noticed a few more girls at practice.
"Yeah, even like seniors, they've been excited to do track for the first time this year," Brooksher said. "I think this has definitely helped bringing them out."
"I think everybody's like, it's so cool," Held added, "I want to be a part of that."