Benefield: Multi-talented El Molino High School track and field team eyes title
FORESTVILLE - The El Molino Lions are on the brink of their first Sonoma County League boys track and field title since 2004, and they have made their run in a most unusual fashion.
With a small squad, many of whom saw track as just a way to keep in shape for another sport, the 5-0 Lions have evolved into a team that can offer up a competitor in just about every discipline despite what seems like, on paper, to be a lack of experience.
“Last week I had to compete in the high jump, which I haven't done since freshman year, but I beat my record by five inches,” said junior Sire Clark, a football player who made second-team All-Sonoma County League as a defensive end and now owns the fastest 200-meter time in the league at 23.88 seconds.
He's also third in the 400 meters (53.86) and runs both the 4x100-meter and 4x400-meter relays for the Lions.
Such are the tools that coach Ryan Hopkins has to work with: natural athletes who may not have known a hurdle from a high jump pad when they joined but are now tops in the SCL.
Hopkins has long pushed the philosophy that being a multi-sport athlete will make you a better athlete in general. He invited kids to use track to get them better at something else. They came and now that something else happens to be track itself.
“I throw every kid a bone,” he said. “I give them one thing they like and then one or two things they don't like.”
But it's funny, he said, how success can turn a kid's mind around about a particular event. It seems almost comical for a first-year track guy like junior Jack Fricker to immediately excel at disciplines that can take years to nail.
Fricker has grabbed points for the Lions in a crazily wide array of events. He's got the second-best triple jump in the league (41 feet, 9 inches), second in long jump (20 feet), second in the 110-meter hurdles (16.61), second in the 300-meter hurdles (44.08) and second in the pole vault (10 feet, six inches).
His 110-meter hurdles, pole vault and long jump bests rank among the top in the Empire this season. His triple jump is an inch shy of Redwood Empire leader Brendan O'Neill of Petaluma High.
Pretty good for a guy who says he's “not a big fan of running in general.”
“He can do it all,” Hopkins said. “I call him my Swiss army knife.”
Clark and Fricker, who was a first team All-SCL pick in football, are joined by quarterback Avery Ransome and running back/safety Carmelo Salas on the track and field team.
Ransome is second in the league in both the 100 meters (11.64) and discus (135 feet, 2 inches) and third in the shot put (40 feet, 4 inches).
Salas is third in the discus (132 feet), fifth in the 100 meters (12.14) and fourth in the 200-meters (24.44).
All three are members of the school's top-ranked 4x100-meter relay team.
“We have very versatile athletes,” said senior Brian Schulz, by far the Lions' most decorated runner. Schulz's name is sprinkled throughout the Redwood Empire record books, but he has been fighting back from an early-season injury.
Even with their most high-profile runner sidelined for part of the season, the Lions have roared.
“You have to push yourself to give your team a better opportunity,” Salas said.
Salas said he nearly chuckles when talking with athletes from other teams who specialize in just one event.
“They'll say ‘Yeah, this is my only event,' and we're like, ‘What?'” he said. “I've got to check out of one event to go run over and do another event. That's the fun part - being the underdog and coming out on top in something I don't specialize in.”
Hopkins tries to make that part of the draw of track.
“When you are a bigger school you can have events for specific athletes,” Hopkins said. “You'll have just sprinters or just your field event guys or just your throwers, or just your relay team guys. But I need the ability to score points at all different levels.”
El Molino has the second-lowest enrollment in the SCL at 600, behind Healdsburg by 11 students, according to the most recent state statistics. Petaluma and Sonoma Valley have 1,335 and 1,344 students, respectively, while Analy has 1,200, Piner has 1,294 and Elsie Allen has 1,093.
“We are a small school,” Hopkins said. “We have to be able to do lots of different things.”
“This is the biggest team I've been able to scrape together,” he said, adding that he typically has 20 to 22 guys at his disposal each meet. Which means he asks a lot of each one.
“I wanted kids to try out things at all different times,” he said.
And Hopkins, who was an assistant coach way back when the Lions last won a league championship, said his team has what it takes to wrap it up today against Piner High School, which is 4-1.
He sounds confident, like a guy who knows the caliber of athlete he has at his disposal - even if sometimes he doesn't know where he'll put them.
“We stack up well,” he said.
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 and at kerry.benefield @pressdemocrat.com and on Twitter @benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”