Much can change over the course of 100 years. In the past ten decades, we’ve seen two World Wars, inventions which have changed the world – from planes, television and radio all the way to cell phones and automobiles which can run off of electricity – and 16 presidents running our country.
Putting a magnifying glass just over Springfield College, the school has gone through ten different presidents, a name change (within the last century it was the International YMCA College before changing to Springfield College in 1954) and a litany of other changes, all in the past century. One thing has stayed throughout all: track and field.
Entering its 100th season, the Springfield College track and field program is poised to carry on the high level of success it’s continuously seen year after year, with Coach Ken Klatka at the helm for almost half of the program’s tenure.
Springfield’s inaugural season came in 1915, under the direction of head coach Louis Schroeder. Springfield’s record that season? 2-1. As track and field has changed and progressed as a sport, seasons have grown from just three meets to eight, with numerous league and regional championships mixed in between.
With ten decades come and gone, seeing the program still standing is an impressive feat.
“I think everything revolves around running, jumping and throwing,” Klatka said in regards to the longevity of the program. “All sports are involved in that. You’ve got to be a sprinter to play football. Want to be a good base stealer in baseball? You have to work on your speed. Throwing a baseball is like throwing a javelin. I think all of sports revolve around track and field.”
Quite frankly, there’s no one reason which can be attributed to the level of success the program has seen over the past century, but Klatka pinpointed the sport’s uniqueness as a major key.
“Some of these kids come in and don’t know what they’re best at,” Klatka said, touching on track and field’s ability to turn people with zero experience into some of the top athletes in their field. “You never know, and they don’t know. But you can’t make chicken salad out of turkey – they need to have the drive.”
Klatka explained that his best experience as of late has been turning John Dayton, someone who came into the program with zero experience, into an All-American thrower.
“Having him come out, learn the hammer throw, break the school record and become a two time All-American. It’s beyond words.” Klatka remarked.
Things have not always been remarkably fine with the program: hardships years ago had the chance to derail track and field at Springfield.
“Here at this institution, not only has [track and field] sustained and thrived, but sustained and thrived under less-than-ideal conditions for many years.” Springfield College athletic director Craig Poisson explained.
For many years, the Pride were not able to host home track meets in the field house. At one point, the field house was condemned, and Springfield was forced to practice in the hallways or outdoors, and the team even had to travel to other institutions just to get practice time in.
“They condemned the field house, but we had to be competitive,” Klatka said. “So we practiced in Judd Gymnasium.”
Judd Gymnasium was just one of the first stops for the Pride in their journey to find a practice home. The team would practice hurdles on the soft carpets of Alumni Hall. The heated basement of Locklin Hall became an area for practice before renovations began. They’d simulate hill workouts by running up and down the nine flights of stairs in International Hall.
Klatka and his staff would even result to more unconventional outdoor exercises to prepare the athletes.
“We’d go to the parking lot by the football field, and we’d have three guys put a car in neutral,” Klatka explained. “Three guys would push it down the hill, three other guys would push it to the side, and three guys pushed it down the hill. That was our resistance drill.”
Eventually, off-campus venues would become locations for practice. The MassMutual Center, the University of Connecticut, Amherst College and Smith College all became houses for the team on different nights of the week.
“We just tried to be innovative,” Klatka explained. “That’s what Springfield does. If someone deals you lemons, you try to make lemonade.”
Despite the ever-changing conditions, the teams still managed to find impressive success.
“The teams would still sometimes go 10-0, or 8-2, which is remarkable given the circumstances,” Poisson continued. “The program has sustained through some difficult circumstances through the 100 years.”
Through difficult times came prosperous times, however, as the team has consistently found success on both team and individual levels. The men’s program has garnered 83 All-Americans and seven national champions.
“I think it’s the kind of student-athlete that comes to Springfield. I don’t think it’s so much coaching, although we work hard at it,” Klatka explained. “The kids that come here are dedicated, they work hard and they want to improve. They devote themselves 100%.”
Klatka added that as a coach, it’s just as exciting to see an athlete qualify for a league championship as it is to see an athlete earn an All-American award.
“It’s not just about All-Americans,” he said.
For many years, the men dominated the sport here at Springfield. It wasn’t until 1977 that the sport was opened up to women, and dual-gender dominance took over on Alden Street.
“They are wonderful athletes,” Klatka said in regards to the women’s track and field team. “Especially this year, both the men and women are working together, and it’s made a nice atmosphere.”
Even though the men’s program is 62 years the women’s program’s elder, the women have wasted no time in catching up in success; the women have accumulated 81 All-Americans, compared to the men’s 83, and four national champions compared to the men’s seven.
“It’s a fair point to say [the women’s team] caught up pretty quickly,” Poisson said. “I think that’s a tribute to the coaches, the institution and the resources that we have in place.”
Poisson credits the success of the track and field program to both the coaches and the incredible resources the team has available to them. In addition to the state of the art field house, the track and field teams are privy to strength and conditioning trainers, the training aids and the additional interfaces Springfield provides with sports psychology and counseling.
“I think it starts with the teacher-coaches. I think the teacher-coach philosophy is a great fit with Division III, and it gives us a great advantage with recruiting too.” Poisson said. Klatka himself is an associate professor of education at the school.
With the 100 year anniversary now upon us, the school pegged this past weekend (December 4-5) as a celebration of the sport. Friday night, a social was held in Downtown Springfield for alumni to reminisce with each other and meet with the current athletes.
Saturday morning brought the alumni and athletes to a breakfast in the Richard B. Flynn Student Union, followed by a track meet starting at 10 a.m. in the field house.
“All day long, (former athletes) would come down and seek me out and talk,” Klatka said. “I was just beaming the whole day. So many guys I haven’t seen in a long time.”
After the meet, the alums were able to mingle with the current athletes. Saturday concluded with a dinner in Judd Gymnasium, with Poisson, President Mary Beth Cooper and a long list of speakers in attendance in celebration of the sports’ centennial.
“They had pictures all over the place of former athletes competing – male and female – way back from the 1950’s and on,” Klatka explained. “There were pictures of the first few teams we had – 1915, 1916 and 1917. Then we had the dinner; what a delight that was.”
The dinner featured speakers of all generations, where the atmosphere felt more like a reunion than a celebration. At the culmination of the evening, Klatka’s retirement was announced.
“I was embarrassed,” Klatka joked. “Everybody stood up and clapped for me, I wasn’t expecting it.”
For Coach Klatka, and the rest of Springfield’s alumni, it was an opportunity to share stories and rehash on the olden times. For the current athletes, it was a chance to meet some of the best athletes to walk the halls of Springfield College. With the excitement of a 100 year anniversary following the team – and with the knowledge that 2015 is set to be Klatka’s last ride at the helm of the program – the upcoming season is expected to be exciting.