- Associated Press - Sunday, March 21, 2021

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - From athletes like Old Mill’s Alexis Franklin, who earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors during her first year at Ohio State University in 2013, or Broadneck’s Matt Centrowitz, who went from excelling for the Bruins to winning a gold medal in the 1,500 meters at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janiero, Anne Arundel County residents have been shining brightly on the track for a long time.

Since the MPSSAA started having state championships in the 1970s, Anne Arundel County public schools have combined to win 34 titles in both indoor and outdoor track.

Despite this success, the county had lacked a bona fide youth track program, something Eric Allen discovered when he moved his family from Pennsylvania to Maryland and searched for a program for his children, who had taken an interest in running.

Allen, a football player at Savannah State University who now resides in Odenton, was only able to find one program after searching: The Fort Meade Highsteppers, who limited their participants to families in the military and Department of Defense employees.

Allen took his kids to Prince George’s County for two years, participating with a group called Full Speed Athletics. The training made a huge difference on the football field for the Allen children. Soon after, others joined the Allens on the track.

In 2010, Pastors Jimmy and Irene Rollins of i5 Church in Glen Burnie and Odenton came to Allen with a crazy idea: why not start a program here in Anne Arundel County?

“I told them y’all are kind of crazy because that’s a lot of work,” Allen said. “But we ended up doing it. I believed that there was a demand for track and field or an interest that just wasn’t tapped. It helped that we were a part of a church and you can be part of an audience and stand up on a Sunday and say we have a track team.”

For the church, it was a unique opportunity to provide the community with a service it was missing.

“It’s kind of unconventional and it’s not a normal thing to have a track program as a part of the church,” said Kevyn Dodson, Chief Operating Officer of i5 Church. “We thought there was a need and an opportunity to fill a gap that wasn’t filled in Anne Arundel County. It was not something that we had ever had there as a program and we just wanted to go and do it.”

Allen dove in head first, training and taking classes to earn his level 1 and 2 certifications while his wife and co-founder, Antoniette Allen, began handling all the administrative and behind the scenes tasks. The program, then known as Living Waters Athletics to correspond with the church, launched with 15 athletes during indoor season and grew to 40 by the time it moved outdoors for the first time.

They attended their first national event in their inaugural season when they went to the AAU Championships in New Orleans and came back with seven titles and 15 athletes with medals.

In the second year, the program got a boost when Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Famer Tanardo Sharps found the program similarly as Allen did, as a father looking for a quality track program who stumbled upon i5 ELITE via Google search.

Sharps, who had success as a track athlete at Meade, was a star football player who later played at Temple. He says he has learned a lot from Allen since joining as a coach.

“I look at coach Eric as a mentor,” Sharps said. “I ran track in high school, I was All-County, All-Met and all that stuff but I didn’t learn track per se, until I got under his tutelage and leadership. He taught me the ins and outs of track to the point that I can go out there and run a practice efficiently and know what I am doing, put workouts together and things like that.”

The program took off and has churned out stellar athletes and compiled some major hardware in its 10 years of existence. Since 2011, i5 athletes have won over 800 medals and 81 titles nationally while setting 14 national records.

Five of those athletes have gone on to set high school national records, including all three of the Allen children (Eric Jr., Ashton and Austin, who all ran for Bullis School in Potomac and now run at the University of Southern California), as well as Ryan Willie, who excelled at North County before transferring to Bullis, and Shaniyah Hall, a Glen Burnie resident who also attended Bullis. Both Willie (University of Florida) and Hall (University of Oregon) are competing in college.

Despite their incredible success, it has never been easy for the program to get access to the space and practice time they need despite the results.

“We worked our way,” Allen said. “It’s a fight every year. My parents are on pins and needles all the time because I’m always telling them we have to wait and see if we are going to get space today or not and if not, here is our plan B. Our accomplishments don’t hold weight or they don’t see that as a plus. We will scratch tooth and nail every week to make sure we get space and that’s with having cooperation in the county. I can’t imagine what I would do if I didn’t have cooperation. I’d probably be running up and down Route 32.”

Thankfully with the church’s full support and the efforts of a staff of nearly 25 volunteers, the i5 ELITE track program is doing whatever it can to help its athletes with academics, with the goal to get as many into college as possible.

“Any athlete that comes to us and says that they want to go to college, we do whatever we need to do to make that happen,” Antoniette Allen said. “Whether it is filling out applications, looking for scholarships, talking to track coaches, SAT prep, anything, whatever they need. Our goal is to get the kids to college.”

They have been successful in that goal with former i5 athletes representing colleges all across the country, including more recent high school graduates like Malea Sharps (Old Mill/UMES), Hunter Steinau, (AACS/High Point University) and Christian McFadden (Arundel/St. Francis University).

While the program will continue to fight for the space it needs to develop its athletes and grow in size and stature, the familial atmosphere will always be the foundation for the success of the program.

“It’s bigger than track, it’s like a family and I don’t just say that to say it,” Sharps said. “That’s what’s kept us there so long, is the family atmosphere that coach Eric and Antoinette have created among us. We spend so much time together throughout the year during the indoor season and outdoor season, it just became one big huge family.”

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