By T. Scott Boatright
For Ruston High School Track and Field head coach Allen Whitaker, winning a Boys Class 5A Outdoor Track and Field state championship was, well, more.
More than a state title. More than a victory for his team and student athletes. More than strength he, his coaching staff and his athletes found in themselves. And more than two years of tremendous hurdles the Bearcat’s track and field teams had to overcome.
Two years ago last month, a devastating tornado ripped through Ruston, taking two lives — the mother and brother of then RHS Track and Field team member Cameron Murphy. No one knew then that it would be the start of numerous and previously unthought of tribulations Whitaker and his Bearcats would face.
“I’ve been riding on Cloud Nine and am very grateful to God for what he’s given us,” Whitaker said of the Bearcats’ 2021 Outdoor state championship. “From the tornado devastating our track team — our family — and to be able to bounce back from that and we win a state Indoor championship last spring. And then COVID hits. Cam Murphy has been so much motivation for that Indoor title. For all of it. Back then we were riding high after the Indoor Championship feeling we were going to take the Outdoor Championship, too, and then it all gets shut down because of COVID.
“So then, suddenly, I had seniors in my office crying, not knowing if their seasons might continue or what was going to happen. Then we find out there was going to be no more season. As a coach all I could was sit back and ask, “Where do I go from here? What’s the lesson in this? We’ve been asked to persevere through so many things it’s like — it was just so much.”
But despite the devastating storm, and despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Whitaker and his athletes refused to give up on the sport — and the dreams — they love.
“So then I had students calling saying they wanted to work out, or that they still wanted to go to college,” Whitaker said. “And they asked me what could they do? You find a motivation in those kids because they want to pull through and persevere, so I just had to tell myself that this was my job. I’m here for these kids. Because of these kids. So they helped to motivate me to get back into the game and try to put them on the right track.”
Which, of course, was track and field.
“Dyllon Nimmers decided he was going to work harder than he ever had in his life,” Whitaker said. “Having things taken away from us, we knew how all precious it all is. So Dyllon gives it everything he has and a little more and becomes the cross country state champion following COVID. We go into the indoor season and the ice storm — still another obstacle — hits. We just took all of that as a challenge as a team. And we go and compete at state for the Indoor Championships earlier this spring but end up falling short. We weren’t champions, we were runner ups.”
But that just added a little more motivating fuel burning inside the hearts of the RHS Track and Field team.
“We left that Indoor State Meet feeling that we were still facing all of these obstacles and wondering what we had to do to just focus and bring everything we need to practice, as coaches, as athletes,” Whitaker said. “We just gave it our all every day after that state Indoor meet. And it all culminated with an Outdoor state championship.
“The kids didn’t want to come up short again. They didn’t want anything taken from them again. They knew they had to work hard and go grab what they wanted.”
Whitaker isn’t the only driving and guiding force behind the Bearcats’ success. Assistants Dustin Cochrane and Kevin Jackson give the Bearcats one of the more formidable prep track coaching trios in the state.
“My staff can be head coaches anywhere in the state,” Whitaker said. “Coach Cocharan as head cross country coach and my distance coach — his resume speaks for itself. He was a winner at Simsboro with Chris Campbell there, then he comes to our program and in only a couple of years turns it into a winning, dominant program. Kevin Jackson won two track and field championships at New Living Word before coming to us. I did my research. I knew I needed some of the best guys in the area to be part of this staff at Ruston High. They brought the championship atmosphere, the championship mindset. Before they came I had coached three state runner-up teams. I add those guys and now we’ve coached two state championship teams. Those guys are great at what they do, what we do.”
But Whitaker also has a special “coach,” a motivating force he credits for continuing to help lead the RHS track and field teams to new heights — Cameron Murphy.
“He’s my motivation for everything,” Whitaker said. “The way he tackles life after everything that was handed to him, I can’t complain. He definitely gives me the motivation and gives his former teammates and our coaches the motivation to just go and attack life. And that’s what we’re doing — attacking life through this program. I want to change lives. I want to make them better.”