BRIDGEPORT — Hurdlers running the 300 meters loped and leaped their way around the turn, passing long jumpers aiming for their personal best, the red-and-white smokestack looking small off in the distance down by the harbor.
Real, full track meets in Bridgeport have been absent from recent memory until this spring, when Harding will play host three times to Central and Bassick along with an FCIAC guest each time. Wednesday was the second of the three.
“I’ve been dying for this to happen. I’ve always wanted us to have a track meet, and it was always ‘no, no, no,’” Harding coach LaDonna Santiago said.
“When they said we were going to host, I was very excited. It’s our first time, so I’m working out the kinks as far getting people to put out the hurdles, take the hurdles down, uncover the long jump pit, make sure the field is all set. It’s just very exciting.”
Harding opened John J. Lewis Field for football in 2018 along with the new school building on Bond Street.
A track surrounding the field at the old Hedges Stadium across the street at the old Harding was subpar. The facility at Kennedy Stadium wasn’t much better but hosted a few meets in recent years among the city schools.
“Those were just district meets,” Bassick athletic director Pat O’Rourke explained. Incorrect markings left the track unsuitable for a full meet.
“We couldn’t do it at Kennedy for over 20 years. It’s been absolutely because of the markings,” Central girls coach Mike Nembhard said. “The new track has allowed our own meets.
“It gives us an advantage to stay at home.”
Schedules on the CIAC website go back to 2006, and there’s no sign of any other Bridgeport meets. O’Rourke didn’t remember any real meets in Bridgeport in his 20-year career. Harding assistant Artay Corbett said a New Canaan coach told him he didn’t remember coming to a meet in Bridgeport in 25 years.
“It means a lot, because there’s a lot of schools in the state who’ve hosted track meets and invited us when we couldn’t use the track,” Corbett said. “Now that we have the opportunity to host track meets, it’s a good feeling.”
Harding senior Shaquar Beckett was glad to have the facility and a meet at home. He’d run track in middle school, but this was his first year competing in high school.
“There weren’t as many people” in middle school, he said, adding, deadpan, “as many fast people.”
Now he’s competing in the sprints and the 4×100 relay along with the high jump and long jump. Some days of jumping are harder than others. He joked that the high jump was rigged that day because equipment covered some dirty graffiti.
That was disturbing enough, but Santiago was also concerned about how much use the facility gets.
“You’ve seen the divots in Central’s track. I don’t want that to happen to our track,” she said. “People come out here, they have their dogs out here. Somebody already violated us and put something nasty on the track over there.”
It’s a striking facility, and Nembhard said the track is great.
“It kind of levels the playing field a little bit,” he said. “It gives us a little clout.
“The track is so smooth and fast. It’s like walking on air,” he added, then laughed. “It makes me want to run again.”
New Canaan joined the city schools to open the season on April 19. After Darien on Wednesday, Wilton comes up on Monday to wrap up the regular season.
“The teams that have come here have been really, really nice. It’s just nice to see them come to Bridgeport and say ‘this is really, really nice,’” Santiago said.
As if on cue, a couple of Darien athletes came up to thank Santiago for Harding’s hospitality. And then Harding sophomore Alijah Walker, in her first year throwing, arrived to tell Santiago she’d won the discus and set her personal record.
“You want your kids to go on to states,” Santiago said, “but when they’re that happy, you can’t do nothing but be as happy.”