By Jeffery Armstrong
"It's like one big family."
Everyone associated with the Running Panthers Track Club of Clayton County, from the athletes to the coaches themselves, has said this at one time or another.
The Running Panthers, a non-profit tax exempt organization formed in 1997, is more than just a summer track club where the athletes show up for practices and meets. Panthers head coach Marc Nichols sees himself as the head of a weekly family reunion.
"We are a developmental club. We don't strive to find the best runners and fielders in the county," Nichols said. "We don't have stipulations on membership. We don't care if the children are as fast as Carl Lewis or as slow as molasses, if they want to be Running Panthers, they're welcome to come out."
The Panthers have developed of some of the county's premier high school athletes over the last few years, especially in track and field. Recent county track meet high-point winner Lawrence Jackson of Morrow was a Running Panther at one point as was Riverdale rising senior football player Anthony Edwards, among countless others.
Nichols said the Panthers are one of the few clubs that participate in off-field activities. The coaches hand out academic trophies and prepare "goody bags" for graduating high school seniors in the club.
One rising senior who will get a goody bag soon is 17-year-old sprinter Ondonjay Carter of Lovejoy High. Carter, a third-year member who plans to be the fastest man in the world someday, appreciates what the Panther coaches and parents do for the athletes.
"Not only have they helped us in track, they've helped us in life," said Carter. "The coaches and parents cheer us on no matter where we finish and they've given me tips on colleges to attend, too."
Another Panther who enjoys the coaching and the camaraderie is 16-year-old Sametria LaShay Matthews, affectionately known as "Shay." The rising junior at Riverdale High has been a club member for four years.
"We have good coaches and we're really a family around here," said Matthews, who runs the 100 and 200 meter dashes and the 4x100 and 4x400 relays for the Panthers and Riverdale's track team.
Matthews' relay teammate Brittney McGhee, 15, has been running with Matthews since the age of nine. She said the coaches do a great job.
"They really push you so you can be the best in your event," said McGhee, a rising junior at Mundy's Mill High and a Panther for four years.
Mundy's Mill rising junior Laide Onikoyi, who joined the Panthers this year, also said that the athletes themselves do what it takes to win.
"Everyone's focused out here," she said. "We have strong teams and we all want to win."
Youth from ages 7-18 can become Running Panthers. The registration fee is $196 and that covers fees for the track meets, banquet fees and AAU and USATF cards for the athletes. Optional team clothing can be purchased for the kids at an additional cost.
Panther athletes participate in all the usual track and field events, plus a few others like the javelin throw, the triathlon, pentathlon and the steeplechase. Meets start during the middle of May and end with the AAU Junior Olympics, also known as the "Nationals."
All the Panthers strive to make the Nationals; it's akin to adult track athletes qualifying for the Olympics.
"It feels good to qualify for the Nationals," said Sarah Omotayo, 12. "It lets you know that you've achieved something really big."
Eric Brown, 16, is one of the club's distance runners, participating in the 3,000, 5,000 and 1,500 meter runs and the steeplechase. The rising junior at Jonesboro High enjoys the environment at the club.
"Everybody's supportive around here and it's a lot of fun," said Brown, a second-year member. "The club keeps me in shape and my teammates motivate me."
The Panther coaches do not get paid for their hours spent with the youth, but they work as hard as any salaried coaches. They spend their own money to take the team to the meets, they sometimes get makeshift training devices for the youth and they even spend more of their own funds to take the necessary coaching classes, doing all that while maintaining full-time jobs.
Panthers assistant coach Lawrence Jackson, Sr. said the ultimate payoff is to see the kids advance to a higher level than when they first joined the club.
"We want to build their character and their self-esteem," he said. "We also want to get every kid a medal at all the meets."
The methods Nichols, Jackson and assistant coach George Stephens have used to help the Panthers have been working. Several relay teams and individual runners in various age groups are ranked in the top five in the country and the Panthers qualified 28 of their 32 athletes for the Nationals.
"That's the most we've ever had," said Nichols.
Now the key will be getting the Panthers to the Nationals, which will be from July 22 to Aug. 2 in Detroit. The Panthers are looking for sponsorship to help them make the trip to Michigan.
They will have a car wash on Saturday, July 12 at the Sam's Club in Jonesboro to raise some money.
"The coaches will be washing the cars," said Nichols. "Any donations will be welcome."