By Tom Price Jr. & Reggie Ellis

Soaked by a late February rain, the track at Monarch Stadium looked more suitable for fishing than sprinting. There is no doubt that the soiled 440-meter oval that wraps around the football field at Exeter Union High School had seen better days.

It was once the home of a Divisional Championship, it was the home track for one the state's greatest track athletes and it is still a source of pride for those who competed there. Among the thousands who have vaulted, jumped and sprinted on those now outdated grounds is Larry Gonzales.

The name Gonzales is synonymous with track and field at Exeter. Larry was one of three brothers who have left an indelible mark on the school. Larry, perhaps the most noted of the three, won gold in every running event at the league level during his four-year varsity career.

Joe, who is now the distance coach at Fresno State, was on the Exeter team in the '70s and coached them in the '80s. Larry's eldest brother Justo, won two medals at the last Divisional Meet held in Exeter in 1970.

"My brother told me those medals really meant a lot to him," Larry Gonzales said. "There is a lot of sentimental family value with that meet, a lot of family, friends and the city got to see him run."

After three decades of being a visitor at league and divisional meets, the Exeter Union High School District (EUHSD) may be taking the first steps to playing the role of host. With a little help, the district is currently taking bids for an eight- and nine-lane track.

Record Setting Donation

On Jan. 30 the Exeter Community Health Fund (ECHF) donated $312,000 to the construction of an all-weather track at Monarch Stadium.

Formerly the Memorial Hospital Board, the ECHF was formed to handle the remaining business for the hospital after it was sold to Kaweah Delta in August of 1998. After settling its debts, the ECHF's surplus was to be distributed throughout the community. The first donation from the fund was for the installation of a new all-weather track at the high school.

"We felt it was something that was needed," ECHF boardmember Leon Ooley said. "It is something that can be used by the whole community."

ECHF boardmembers include Betsy Peterson, Kelley Gentry, Alex Torres, Leon Ooley, Joan Hagans, Ann Dungan, Terry Miller and Cathy Fuller.

The donation marked the largest single donation that EUHSD has received from an organization or individual.

"I am very proud that a group from the community stepped forward with a donation," EUHSD Boardmember Mike White said. "I can't say how much I appreciate the ECHF for doing this. It is a lasting memorial to them."

Board members Marlene Sario, Bob Todd and Steve Southworth and EUHSD President Ernie Hernandez agreed.

"This will allow us to take up the torch others have passed to us," Hernandez said about the newest addition to the high school's modern facilities. "The folks before us paved the way."

Lane Games

In order for a school to host Divisional and Valley invitationals, they must have a nine lane track to support the number of athletes that would be participating. An eight lane track can support dual meets and smaller invitationals. Currently the Exeter school district is accepting bids for both an eight- and nine-lane track. In making their decision, which is a careful balance between immediate costs and future rewards, they have looked to Greg Flenory who has been involved in the construction of six local tracks. The most recent is the permeable all-weather track at El Diamante High School in Visalia where he is the athletic director. For Flenory, nine lanes is the only answer.

"I have been in this business too long," said Flenory, who played a major role in installing an all-weather track at the Mineral King Bowl in the 1980s. "Why limit yourself to what you can do, if all you want to do is practice and have duals then eight lanes will work."

Aside from the competition aspect Flenory says the financial rewards of having a ninth lane and the capability to host major invitationals cannot be overlooked.

"It becomes a built-in fund-raiser," Flenory said. "Once you get that track it is all open to you."

In just their second year with a nine-lane all-weather track Coalinga High School is already reaping the benefits. Last year they hosted the Sierra-Sequoia Divisional Meet, which is a qualifier for the Valley Meet, and attracted more than 30 schools. In the two years the school has increased the number of home meets during the year from four to nine, which has increased their revenue in many ways.

"That ninth lane is the key," Coalinga athletic director Steve Sprague said. "Because we are at home more, our kids are in class longer, we aren't paying for substitutes to sit in while coaches are traveling and we aren't paying bus drivers to sit in a bus during a meet."

These were the unexpected benefits of the track that add to the already lucrative endeavor of hosting large meets. At last year's Divisional Meet Sprague was overjoyed by the success.

"It really is cha-ching," Sprague said. "We sold out of everything, literally everything."

Debate Surfaces

The other question that board members are presented with is the choice between permeable and non permeable surfaces. According to Flenory both surfaces have a life of seven to 10 years before resurfacing is required and both represent the upper echelon of track surfaces. The main differences are in how the two surfaces endure rain.

The permeable surfaces allow rain water to filter through the top rubberized layer and the mat below down to the asphalt where the water runs off.

Non permeable surfaces are completely sealed and water remains on the surface. The track is often slanted so the water runs off and what is remaining has to be removed with a squeegee.

"[El Diamante] went with the permeable and it is the best track I have ever dealt with," Flenory said. "As soon as the rain stops the water is off the track and you can start racing."

Track Meet

A special meeting to discuss the possibilities of both an eight- and nine-lane track was held by the Exeter Union High School District at noon on Feb. 24 at the district office, located at 134 S. E St. Board President Ernie Hernandez and board members Mike White, Marlene Sario and Bob Todd were present for the meeting. Board member Steve Southworth was absent.

Hernandez asked if Exeter needed a ninth lane and if Exeter's stadium was wide enough to accommodate a ninth lane.

Gonzales said there would be six inches to spare on the visitor side of the track for a 42-inch wide track. Marroquin said that a nine-lane track does not have to be 42 inches wide. He said Coalinga installed a 39-inch wide track - which would alleviate the space considerations on the west and south sides. Marroquin said the minimum requirement for a nine-lane track was only 32.8 inches.

"Making it narrower does not limit us [to certain events]," Marroquin said.

Dennis Dismuke, a long time Exeter track supporter, said other dimensions could be tweaked as well. The track team currently competes on a 440 meter track at Exeter Stadium. Only 400 meters is required for competition, which Dismuke said could shave four to five inches off the curves and create clearance from the gate on the south side.

"If it will fit it will be a squeeze," White said.

"It will fit," Dismuke said.

"What if a nine lane costs $450,000? Is it worth it?" White asked.

"Where are you getting that number?" Dismuke replied.

"It's just an arbitrary number for argument's sake. I don't know it if will cost that," White said.

"Well Exeter has the biggest reserve [fund] compared to expenses of any school in the state," Dismuke said. "Why don't we tap into that?"

"We are using that reserve to cover our debt to Farmersville. We still owe Farmersville a lot of money," White said.

In a later interview, Business Manager Jihad Hemaidan said that EUHSD's reserve fund stood at $975,000. However, he explained that the school district is required by law to maintain 3 percent of total revenues in the reserve and that EUHSD still owed Farmersville Unified School District $205,000 ($217,506 with interest payments according to FUSD) to be paid over the next two years. He said the money is part of a settlement when Farmersville began constructing its own high school in 1993. At the time of the split, students who lived in Farmersville represented 33 percent of the student population at EUHS. As part of the agreement Farmersville was to be paid 33 percent of EUHSD's reserve fund in 1993. The district also has other long-term debt and the uncertainty of the state's pending 2004-2005 budget to contend with.

White said the board would "look at all its options" to pay for both an eight- and nine-lane track including possibly tapping into the reserve fund. Boardmember Steve Southworth said he would consider taking "a little" from the reserves.

"As long as we can be fiscally responsible and can get the last lane I am all for it," Southworth said.

Sario said she would oppose any action to take money from the reserve because of the uncertainty of the state's 2004-2005 budget.

They all agreed a lot will depend on the bid. Sario said the district should draw up a base bid for an eight-lane track with an addendum for a ninth lane. The base bid with the addendum was approved by the board.

"We have to be flexible," Hernandez said. "This track is an investment in the future of this high school. But we will weigh all the issues because that reserve is there for a purpose."

On the Fast Track

Superintendent Renee Whitson said the deadline for incoming bids (Requests for Proposals) is 10 a.m. today, March 3 - unless no bids come in and the deadline must be extended. She said after a bid was accepted, it would be another nine to 10 days before construction would begin. The track is listed as a 60 day project - the completion date is listed at May 14, barring inclement weather and unforeseen delays - which would put it less than a month before the high school's June 3 graduation.

Dismuke questioned the need to be done by graduation. "We should take our time and do it right," he said. He asked why graduation had been set as the date.

White said in his conversations with Leon Ooley, a member of the ECHF which donated the $312,000, they thought graduation would be a good time to dedicate the project.

"Dedicating a track would take away from graduation," Todd said. "That is a time for the kids, not for a track."

"We didn't want to hold graduation during construction," White said. "And athletically, it fits this time of year [between soccer and football]."

Ooley said it was merely a suggestion, a nice backdrop adding to the ambiance of graduation.

"It wouldn't take up that much time," Ooley said. "Just a couple minutes. An addition to graduation."

White said graduation would be appropriate so the entire community could see and take pride in the latest addition to Exeter's upgraded facilities.

"That is the one time of the year we have a packed house," White said.

"The graduation factor was only brought up to avoid having construction going on during graduation," Whitson said. "We can move any athletic activities to Dobson Field, but there is no alternative site for graduation."

Marroquin suggested beginning the project after graduation in June. The board and track supporters at the meeting didn't consider this a viable alternative because football begins practicing on Aug. 1, just 55 days after graduation.

Walk the Walk

At the Feb. 24 meeting, the board also discussed the track's use as a walking track for the community. Ooley said the school district would be responsible for any money over the amount not covered by the ECHF's extremely generous donation.

"I think nine lanes would be great," he said. "But I think we should get the most for our dollar."

Irma Keihn, president of the Exeter Community Service Guild, said the guild has already donated $5,000 to be used for a walking trail at Dobson Field. The walking trail is scheduled to be built simultaneously with the first phase of the Dobson Field remodeling project - which is scheduled to begin sometime in the next couple of months. Keihn said the guild would probably not take the $5,000 away from the trail to donate to the school district for the track. However, she did say the guild is open to the school district approaching its board to request a donation that would offset the cost of the ninth lane. Their next meeting will be March 10.

Ted Macaulay, who sits on the Exeter Health and Wellness Foundation board, said the foundation is currently raising money to help build the Dobson Field walking trail. He said the foundation has already promised that the money it has raised will be used for the trail, but said there is about $5,000 that the foundation would consider donating for the ninth lane.

"It depends on when it will be open," Macaulay said.

School boardmembers said the track will be open to the community anytime there are no school activities planned. Separate lights are being installed for the track which will be more energy efficient than stadium lights and on a timer to shut themselves off sometime at night, possibly 10 p.m. or earlier, every day of the year.

"Our goal is to have a track the entire community can use," Sario said.

Another EUHSD Board meeting was held yesterday, March 2 to further discuss the options of an eight- or nine-lane track. That meeting will be covered in next week's The Exeter Sun.

Championships are Forever

Gonzales said more than 70 students who ran track last year didn't walk or run on the dirt that serves as their home track because of renovations to the football facilities. He asked, "What was one more year?"

"Kids would rather work [at Dobson Field] and have a nine-lane track in the future," Gonzales said.

Finally, Gonzales said that he asked his brother Joe Gonzales, assistant track coach at Fresno State, if he had kept any of his old medals. The track legend reached into his pocket and a handful of Joe's medals emerged. The quarter-sized bronze, silver and gold medals danced across the table in front of the EUHSD board members.

"He is 34 years old, and of all his medals the only ones he could find were those from the Division Championships in 1970, which were held right here at Exeter Stadium," Gonzales said. "These mean more to him than any other medals. It leaves a lasting impression to hold championship meets in our own town."

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