2016 Prep Coach of the Spring Season
Steven Gonzalez doesn’t want to hear anything about Palatka being a baseball town or a football town or a basketball town.
“It’s a track town now,” he said. “We have proven it over the last four years. The last two years, people can argue with me all they want, but at the end of the day, let’s compare with any sport. Track has done the most.”
The last two years, the track team has more than made its case, winning back-to-back district and regional championships with the boys team taking fifth at the state 2A meet in 2015, then third this year and the girls’ team finishing eighth at the 2016 2A state meet. Oh, and there’s the gold medal count the last two years.
Six total, three by Eron Carter, two in the discus, one in the shot put, and three more won by Ka’Tia Seymour on the girls’ side, the first three state gold medals in PHS girls track history – one in the 100, another in the 200, and the third as part of the 4x100 relay team with Tazarryia Poole, Kari Rasher and Jaelyn Hendrieth.
Number of district championships won by other PHS sports the last two years? Two, the baseball team this spring and the girls basketball team in the 2014-15 season.
It’s what they call “bragging when you can back it up.” Gonzalez’s boys and girls track teams have more than done that the last two years and his boys track team has become one of the elite teams in its classification the last four years.
And now Gonzalez can brag about something else – his second straight Daily News Coach of the Spring honor and third in the last four years.
By winning a third time, the 34-year-old Gonzalez joins Crescent City boys basketball coach Al Carter as the only mentors of one sport to win a Daily News coach of the season three or more times, Carter winning five times, including the last three winters. The only other three-time winner is another Crescent City legendary coach, Holly Pickens, who won twice in the fall with volleyball (2006 and ‘11) and in the winter with girls basketball (2006-07 season).
Gonzalez has made the boys program come a long way since taking over in 2012. A district champion himself in high school at Jacksonville Ed White in the 400-meter dash, Gonzalez took over a program that was left dangling by strings. And that first year, a lot of boys quit the team (and in the case of Daily News Boys Track Performer of the Year Leroy Owens, who came back and eventually took seventh in the state 2A long jump) because of his demands, especially making up for lost time since Gonzalez got the job mere weeks before the season started after coach Kyle Rice resigned.
“After a few years have gone by, our program has gotten respect again,” Gonzalez said. “At a meet, the Creekside coach, Eric Frank, pulled me to the side and told me, ‘Back then, we hated Palatka. We didn’t like them because they never came prepared or organized to a meet. Kids were not wearing the same uniforms. You’ve done a hell of a job with them.’ That’s the respect we’ve been getting now.”
After a fifth-place finish at last year’s state 2A meet, a ton was expected of the Panther boys this spring. They went to meets and dominated. They even went to two meets in the Orlando area against bigger schools and won one meet and took second in another.
“As long as they knew what they had to do and you believe in them, then they start believing in themselves also,” Gonzalez said. “The meets we went to and the competition we faced, that allowed us to do what we did at the end of the season.”
Repeating as district and region champions in overpowering fashion proved a point. The state meet was a little trickier. American Heritage of Plantation was on top of its game at the IMG Academy in Bradenton and ran away. But Gonzalez said he still feels points were left on the track that would have made up for the four-point deficit between his team and second-place Cocoa.
Gonzalez has planning days for his kids during the offseason, starting with plyometrics one day, lifting another day and track-like activities on another.
“From the preseason conditioning, you see the difference from the year before,” Gonzalez said. “Kids say, ‘Coach, you were lying.’ It’s helped that they have bought into what we’re doing.”
And that includes the girls’ team, which grew in numbers this year and added two talented young ladies to the sprint team in freshman Poole and Seymour, a transfer from Orange Park Oakleaf. They made a major impact when the PHS girls had their best day ever in the district meet, finishing second with 101 points and taking third in the Region 2-2A meet at sweltering hot Lake Minneola.
Gonzalez, who gave credit to Kevin Stevens of the county’s parks and recreation department for allowing them to use the ARC pool during the season, is enthused about the future.
“When we left from IMG after state, only one kid did not go home with a medal (Peyton Snyder, who qualified in the 800),” he started. “Next year, I’ve got kids who have two years experience in going to the state meet. Peyton will be back in the 800, Steven Simmons (who won medals in the 100, 200, 4x100 and 4x400 events) is going to continue to grow and get better. We’ll have some hurdlers next year, something we lacked. And though we lose both Eron and Paul (Mast, who took seventh in the discus), we’ve got a lot of kids back as throwers. We will be a little bit better next year. That’s how I feel.”
Though he admits he’d like to see more fans at home track meets, he sees that growing in time.
“For now, it is what it is,” he said. “We’ve got to do this for us.”