By Jill Keppeler email@example.com
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — It was her turn to do the long jump, and Jillian Sperrazza was ready.
Sperrazza dashed down the runway at Kenmore's Crosby Field on Monday, ponytail bobbing in the breeze, eyes on the sand pit at the end. As she reached the foul line, she leapt and landed about a foot away, smiling before she turned and trotted back to the line of children waiting their turn, leaving tiny footprints trailing in the sand behind her.
At only 3 1/2 years old, Jillian is already a veteran of the Town of Tonawanda summer track program, which is open to children from age 3 (and occasionally slightly younger) up through 15 years old. For two hours each weekday for about six weeks each summer, they gather at Crosby Field to learn the ropes of track & field, culminating in the annual town track meet today.
The meet features such events as the 50-meter dash and softball throw for the youngest competitors up to a full slate of events including runs from 100 to 1,500 meters, high jump, long jump, triple jump and shot put for the oldest. Those who qualify in each event will move on to the Town of Tonawanda Invitational Track Meet on July 31.
Recreation coordinator Gary Crawford said that the program's numbers have been strong, with upward of 200 children taking part each year — both newcomers and those who started at Jillian's age and have returned each summer for years.
"We have had some success stories," Crawford said. "A few of the kids, I've seen their names in the paper for Ken East or Ken West track and cross country. That's the rewarding part, seeing them progress through those programs.
"The idea is kind of getting them hooked on the sport and keeping them coming back."
Jeff Gemmer, the summer track & field coordinator and a longtime coach and physical education teacher at Canisius High School, said that the program was started about 30 years ago by Larry Veronica, a Bennett High School coach. Gemmer, a graduate of Kenmore East High School, has been involved himself for about 25 years.
While the program started with older children, those about 6 or 7 years old, it expanded to include younger brothers and sisters who accompanied their siblings to the track.
"It was experimental at first ... and now they're the most enthusiastic ones there," he said. "They'll run and jump forever. Running and jumping, they're natural. It's just structured play.
"It's pretty unique that we have 3-year-olds running 400 meters. If they have to walk, they walk."
Many of the program instructors came up through the program as children, including sisters Jenna and Lexi Panepinto, who shared Tonawanda News Co-Player of the Year honors for girls track in 2011 and now play soccer at Colgate University.
Jenna Panepinto and her sister started running when they were about 5, and continued all the way up until their years at Kenmore West.
"It gives (the kids) an understanding of what it's all about," she said, watching a group of 6-to-7-year-old girls approach on the track. "Obviously it's for fun, but it gives them a good basis, just to know all the types of events they have. It definitely helps, especially for the future.
"And it's awesome, seeing a lot of them coming back and seeing how well they progress."
And progress they do. Susan Sperrazza of the Town of Tonawanda, mother of 3-year-old Jillian and Gianna, 5, said both girls have grown in focus and ability during their summer mornings at Crosby Field.
"They like it. They look forward to it every day," she said. "(Jillian has) learned to stay in her lane, to listen to directions ... to take directions from someone other than me. (Gianna) has learned she likes running. I hear about it all the time. It's a great program."
This marks the third year in the program for Gianna, who said she's learned "how to run really fast."
"I kinda like running," she said with a smile. "And I learned how to do the long jump."
At any given time, one group of younger children might be practicing at the long-jump area, while older students try out the high jump with Ken West track coach Marty Madore, whom Gemmer said has been instrumental in bringing the event to the program.
On Tuesday afternoon, a group of boys somewhere in the middle range took a break from running sprints, sitting in the grass and watching their peers take a turn.
"We do this every year," said Freeman Benders, 8, who followed his older brother into the program. "I've been doing this since I was 3 years old. It's really fun. Once you get into it, you don't want to stop doing it every year."
The three — Benders, Cole Marcotte, 9, and Emmett Marino, 9 — said they've learned how to pace themselves in longer races and "go all out" in the shorter ones, as well as other details about track and field.
"If you thought a shot-put ball isn't heavy ... you thought wrong," Marcotte said.
All three of them said that they'll probably take part in track programs once they enter high school. Gemmer referred to the town program as something of a "feeder program" for local high school track teams, but it's also more than that.
"It's a reason for kids to get up in the summer, get up and do something besides playing video games or turning on the TV. Get 'em up, get 'em outside," he said.
"I enjoy it. I really do. Even if I retire from full time, I'll keep doing this as long as I can. As long as I'm physically able to do it, I'll be doing it."