MOUNT AYR — Four straight Pride of Iowa Conference team titles. Fifteen conference titles since 1989. And one Class 1A state team title.
The Mount Ayr boys track team has built itself into a dynasty.
Since head coach Brad Elliott and assistant coach Kurt Wallace took control of the program in 2009, the Raiders have continually improved, culminating in this year’s state championship — the first in school history.
How have Elliott and Wallace transformed the Mount Ayr program into the dynasty it has become?
The first step is recruiting athletes.
“Track is a numbers game if you’re going to be successful as a team,” Mount Ayr athletic director Delwyn Showalter said. “He (Elliott) does a great job of getting the average kids to come out and then making them believe that they can perform way over their capabilities.”
Elliott, who described himself as part scientist, part psychologist and part salesman, has certainly mastered his sales pitch.
One of Elliott’s biggest sales pitches is that participating in track will make athletes better in whatever their primary sport is.
“Getting kids to buy into your track program, more as a combine sport,” he said. “Track success is, I would consider, secondary. The main thing is that competitive success that they feel like they can improve on their own bests. The first victory is the one against yourself, and that’s committing.”
But achieving that first victory isn’t necessarily the end goal. Setting a new personal best is a big achievement, but as athletes continue to improve, there are loftier goals to shoot for.
Instead of recognizing just the school record holder in each event, Mount Ayr has a Top 10 Performance List that Elliott believes has been key in generating the level of success his program has seen.
“I think the biggest thing ... is compiling a top 10 of your school’s best performances as the key way to get young people involved,” Elliott said. “It obviously helps to have upperclassmen to use as examples, but when you can kind of dangle a top 10 time out in front of someone as opposed to a school record, when they see they’re close to the top 10, that’s the first step. Get on the top 10.
“Then, time will tell whether or not you’re able to go after a record and put your name at the top of that list.”
Elliott said with the Top 10 Performance List dating back to the early 60s, athletes can see uncles, fathers, grandfathers and brothers on the list, helping to motivate them to etch their own name onto the list.
“It really gets the kids fired up when they’re in the same company as those people,” he said. “It’s a shot in the arm when you crack into that top 10. It is a competitive top 10. We make it a really big deal when someone cracks the top 10.”
Showalter said Elliott’s ability to motivate his athletes to perform at the level they are is something that impresses him.
“I look at some of the kids that are performing well for us and to look at where they were a year or two years ago is amazing,” he said. “The kids do work tremendously hard. Some of it is for him. They think so highly of him. They don’t want to disappoint him.”
But Elliott is quick to note that his athletes also do not want to let each other down.
“You’ve learned, if track is a 200 percent sport, it’s 100 percent physical and 100 percent mental,” Elliott said. “To do what we have been able to do with our kids, there’s a certain sense of accountability. They feel the want to and desire to pull through for their teammates.”
Part of it, Elliott said, is that his athletes hate losing. The level of desire his athletes has shown is a big part of his program’s success.
“We’ve been harping state title on these kids for years,” Elliott said. “You want to come out for track and by all means, throw a lofty goal out there and see if the kids buy into it. I think we were able to cultivate an environment — kids, coaches and community — that made them want it. That’s the key.”
Another key to Mount Ayr’s success has been creating the atmosphere of a big-time program — whether it be in preparing for a meet or in race-day operations.
Big meets are treated just as they should be — they’re a big deal.
“I’m always making highlight movies,” Elliott said. “We’ll have a motivational session before big meets. Conference, districts, any one of those meets. It’s a playoff football game atmosphere.”
While his athletes are still having fun, Elliott said his team treats competition day as a business trip.
Elliott credits strength and conditioning coach Derek Lambert for helping to not only the work he’s done with the athletes in the weight room, but also what he’s done to help the athletes with recovery and nutrition.
At the state meet, the Mount Ayr coaching staff strictly laid out plans for warmups, recovery, nutrition and sleeping patterns.
Elliott said he knows it sounds extreme, but by doing that, it eliminated chances for error.
In previous seasons, Elliott said he could sense a hint of doubt as far as what was possible.
He credits former Raider athlete and current University of Northern Iowa high jumper Braydee Poore for opening eyes within the program.
“Just seeing the amount of success he had and what he worked for, seeing that winning the Drake Relays was a possibility, winning a state championship as a sophomore,” Elliott said. “All the things Braydee was able to do really broke down the barriers I think some of these kids assumed previously. Leading up to this year’s state meet, we’d only had one state title in a running event since 1970.”
The Raiders had also never won a state championship in a relay event.
And yet, at last month’s Co-ed State Track Meet, the Raiders won six running events, including three relay titles on their way to winning the school’s first boys team title.
Seeing the success that someone like Poore had has created a strong work ethic among Elliott’s athletes.
Mount Ayr specialized in the middle distances, which Elliott noted involves a great deal of work ethic.
“The distances we focus on are very work-oriented — 800, mile, 400 — that range,” he said. “You have to be a hard worker to be successful at those. So many coaches will come up to you and for a school our size, ask how you get kids to want to run it (800).
“We’ve just emphasized it and we’ve made it cool to run 800s again. It’s so easy for kids to get wrapped up in wanting to be a sprinter. The true salt is in the kids that develop the aerobic capacity, mental drive and the work ethic from 400 to a mile. That depth alone is what won us a state title.”
It’s that philosophy that Elliott, Wallace and volunteer assistant coaches Daniel Showalter and Sam Pitt have made their athletes buy in to.
And that’s how Elliott and his coaching staff have built their dynasty.