Character lures former coach back to De Soto
It wasn't easy, Neosho County Community College track coach Darin Schmitz readily admitted.
One year into his first head coaching stint, the former Eudora and De Soto assistant track coach picked up the phone to find a top recruit offering his services.
Tempting, he said, but it was just wrong.
"His first words to me were, 'What's up, dog? You'd be dumb not to get me on your team. I'd be the franchise player for you,'" Schmitz said. "I wasn't interested."
It isn't about times, Schmitz stressed as he prepared to welcome a new crop of freshman to his fledgling program. Nearly two decades of competing, watching and coaching track, and that's the lesson he's learned: times, distances, lengths and records don't always make the best athletes.
"Yeah, he had great times, but that attitude is not going to be good for the program," Schmitz said. "You can get the kid that runs an amazing time, and he probably will always run pretty good times, but what will he do for your program?"
And it's the program Schmitz cares about now. A collegiate standout at Kansas, he took to coaching when his eligibility was up. First an assistant at Kansas University and then Lawrence High School, he later spent three years tutoring the throwers at De Soto, and another year as an assistant in Eudora.
He was hired last summer to resurrect Neosho's dilapidated track and cross country program. Returning only six athletes from the unimpressive 2003-2004 season, Schmitz turned to something he knew: Eudora and De Soto.
"I called up my old throwers and said, 'Hey, want to come down? I'll give you a scholarship,'" he said.
But there was more to inviting the familiar faces from Eudora and De Soto than a quick way to fill a roster.
Having already worked with the students, Schmitz felt he knew what he was getting. He sifted through his former athletes looking not for times and distances, but for character.
Describing the rebuilding process at Neosho, "character" was a word Schmitz turned to often.
"When you get a kid that has that politeness, and when you talk to them, they look you in the eye, that goes a long, long way," Schmitz said.
It's what he's found in his former schools.
Take Eudora's Brandan Helm, for instance. Helm graduated in May, but had long ago fallen for Schmitz's recruiting speech. A league champion and state medalist in the shot put, Helm couldn't wait to sign, and he came with the commitment and character Schmitz wants.
Helm threw with Schmitz over one summer in the Kansas Thunder, a club track program Schmitz helped start.
"I would drive by the throwing ring in the morning at Eudora over the summers and he'd be out there. Then I'd drive back through, and he'd be out there," Schmitz said. "If I asked him to jump, he'd say 'How high?'
"That's the kind of kid he is. He will work to become better. How can you go wrong, especially on a kid with that many tools?"
It's a common theme among Schmitz's stable of former Wildcats and Cardinals. Adam Wilcox and Donnie Gardner, both recent De Soto graduates, will join the cross country team this month.
Schmitz labeled Wilcox "one of my favorite kids. Just a crackup."
He first encountered Gardner as De Soto's throwing coach, but that didn't exactly work.
"He wasn't an extraordinary great thrower, but he worked so hard for me. I went to (De Soto head coach) Chris McAfee and said, 'We have got to find a place for this kid,'" Schmitz said.
Eventually he did, on the distance running squad.
Bryan Schiller, a 2004 Eudora graduate, will also join the team this year. Combined with Ryan Frame, Denise Robertson, Scott Karnitz and TJ Topf, there will be eight area athletes competing at the junior college, a nearly two-hour drive to the south.
It's been a successful formula too. In his first season, Schmitz's mens track team placed 18th in the nation, while the women finished 27th in the indoor season. So successful in fact, that Schmitz already has his eye on a new crop of Cardinals and Wildcats, even before their senior year has started.
"Right now, from Eudora and De Soto I know who I'm looking at for next year," he said. "Being able to find out the character of a kid is easier when he or she comes from Eudora or De Soto."
Of course Schmitz recruits athletes from other parts of the state, too. His goal is to get the program on the map and to the top of the junior college track circuit, one good recruit at a time.
So far, it's been a perfect plan.
"When I came down here, basically we were last place in every category. We hadn't had anybody qualify for nationals and I had six people coming back," he said. "It's been great being able to see this program starting to flourish last year. Where is it going to be next year and the year after that?"