Financial challenges can't slow Western Branch track team from racing to the top

It has been another stellar year for the Western Branch High School track team.

CHESAPEAKE, Va (WVEC) -- It has been another stellar year for the Western Branch High School track team. Not only are both the girls' and boys' teams VHSL state champs, but the team earned more top six places than any other school in the country at the 2017 New Balance Nationals Outdoor this past weekend in Greensboro, N.C.

The girls' Shuttle Hurdle Relay Team, consisting of Jada Terrell, Shadajah Ballard, Adriana Shockley and Jashella Jenkins, broke the national record with a time of 55:06.

The previous record, 55:36, was also set by Western Branch in 2015. The boys took first place in the 800 sprint medley, setting a new state record of 1:29:14. The quartet included Kavante Dawson, Garry Williams, Jahkwan Blackley and Micaiah Harris. 

The accomplishments come in the face of challenges. With 23 state titles, the team is arguably the most decorated high school athletic program in Hampton Roads. And they do it all without a track on which they can practice.

Some parents are calling for the school system's support of the team and its Head Coach Claude Toukene to keep pace of the team's accomplishments. Lou Pollard's daughter Betsy just joined the team this school year. The family moved to Western Branch in order for Betsy to run on the nationally ranked team.

"We don't have transportation we need to get kids to various meets. We don't have financial support as far as registration fees and the cost to stay in hotels and compete against these nationally ranked teams," says Pollard.

The track on the campus of Western Branch on Bruin Place in Chesapeake sits empty. It's old and asphalt, making it ripe for creating injuries.

It has grass craning out of its many cracks, forcing the team to practice at other schools. Two days before they left for Nationals, they were 18 miles away at Kings Fork High School in Suffolk, in order to use a modern rubber track. Parents and team members note the inconvenience. 

"It's unfortunate that we're here to represent Western Branch but we're in Suffolk, or Tallwood or Churchland," says parent, Nate Nichols.

Toukene says the team has to do the best it can with what it has. Parents applaud his efforts as being a huge part of the team's success. A two-time Olympian, Toukene is originally from Cameroon, Africa. He graduated from Norfolk State in 2001. He's coached Western Branch track through all of its 23 state titles. 

Over the years, Toukene has become a father figure to many team members. At the end of the school year banquet, member Jahkwan Blackley spoke about that special connection. Blackley was one of 15 students signing on to attend college on a full track scholarship.

When he was younger, he was kicked out of an alternative school. Joining the team, he says, turned his life around. He's now heading to the University of Texas-San Antonio. 

"I never met a father figure until I met Coach Touks. I would probably be dead, locked up. I know I wouldn't be here."

Toukene says his secret to success is to not focus on winning. "If you focus on making them better people, they become better athletes. We teach them discipline. We teach them to be driven."

He would love more funds in order to improve the teams's infrastructure but for now, he says the team will keep doing the best, being the best. 

According to Chesapeake City Schools' spokesperson, Kellie Goral, Western Branch receives funds on par with other high schools and says the track teams are funded by the individual school.

In a statement, she says, "The Western Branch Track Program is funded as well as, if not better than, any track program in the city or neighboring division by the athletic department of the school."

Goral adds that the track, as are many other tracks at our schools are in need of repair. The Western Branch track has been in the Capital Improvement Plan for at least the past four years, but other projects have taken priority. Goral says those projects include HVAC or roof replacement and repairs.

© 2017 WVEC-TV


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