As someone close to Oregon track and field, it saddens me to see a decline in what was the premier small-school program in all of northern Illinois. However, it was a joy to see coach Jim Spratt inducted into the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Besides taking part in a coaching clinic hosted by the association last Saturday, my main purpose for being there was to see Coach Spratt honored.
Occasionally, HOFs are nothing more than a longevity award. Not so with the ITCCCA Hall of Fame. It has to be earned and Spratt has done it with seven straight sectional titles leading up to a state championship in 2009. A couple fourth place team finishes and 57 individual state medalists padded his resume.
The numbers of athletes that qualified downstate are too numerous to count. Hawk track and field truly was one of the elite in the entire state, especially in the early 2000s when a steady stream of athleticism poured through the program.
It’s been said you can tell a lot about an individual when things aren’t going so well. Part of the criteria for ITCCCA enshrinement is character.
Though Oregon is not getting the same high-caliber athletes as it once did, Spratt’s enthusiasm for coaching has not wavered. No matter what a kid’s skill level is, he gives them the same attention as he would a Jordan Thomas, the most decorated runner of Spratt’s tenure.
As a pole vault coach, I’ve known Jim since he took over for Art Carlson in 2003. The man has been extremely accommodating in providing anything we needed and always did so with a smile.
He also made the sport fun for the kids and they felt comfortable around him too, as demonstrated by a story he told me about Mike Guzman, Andy Tremble and Jason Appel. Those three had him laughing so hard that he literally had spaghetti coming out of his nose at the annual team meal at Avanti’s on the way back from the 2003 state meet.
“That always sticks out because it was my first year and we had just missed out by one place of a team trophy and they called me over to sit with them at their booth,” Spratt said. “I was feeling down and those three guys were so hilarious, I couldn’t help but feel better.”
Spratt’s was best known as a sprint and relay coach, as evidenced by the Hawks placing in all four relays downstate on the 2003 team. In the next 10 years, he coached 17 more relays to state medals.
There were also disappointments, such as in 2004 when highly-touted Oregon went into the state meet with the No. 1 seeds in the 1,600 and 3,200 relays, the second seed in the 400 relay and third seed in the 800 relay.
A terrible day in the preliminaries led to the 400 and 800 relay missing the finals and the 1,600 and 3,200 settling for third places. Like a missed final shot in a basketball super-sectional or dropped touchdown pass in the football playoffs, track carries the same emotional burden of coming up short of glory.
Dropped batons, botched exchanges, falls over a hurdle, scratching on a long jump or missing opening height on a pole vault can drive a track coach nuts, as Spratt can attest to. Still, he never lost his cool or blamed his athletes.
He had a rare gift for accepting what befell him and not losing the faith. Ultimately, he was rewarded with that much-coveted 2009 state title.
Jim’s been retired from teaching for a couple years and remains willing to head up the boys track program. Being a track coach doesn’t have the same pressure as football or basketball does, but it is tough trying to figure out how to coach 18 different events. Hopefully, he’ll stick with it and maybe see a rebirth in its stature.
For me, it was honor to sit at banquet table with coach Spratt, Doug Engle, Joe Mortimer and Art Carlson, who came from North Carolina. All are hall of famers, unique to have that many from such a small school.
There are no other schools in Ogle County that even have one coach in the hall of fame.
In fact, only large suburban schools Oak Park, Palatine, Conant and Glenbard West have more. That’s a significant statement on the track and field heritage in Oregon.
Maybe instead of bemoaning the current status of Hawk track and field, I should be grateful for such a strong tradition of excellence.
Andy Colbert is a longtime Ogle County resident with years of experience covering sports and more for multiple area publications.