Former SouthLake star content in new role at Davidson Day
by Chris Hunt
Near the front entrance of Davidson Day School, there’s a large message board. Parents can easily see it from their cars at the drop-off and pick-up lines, and students walk past it everyday on their way into school.
Davidson Day’s handpicked visual messages on that board change from time to time, but this spring, one of the three pictures features two Patriot track sprinters in action. The message to the student body and parents is quite clear: The school is heavily committed to building the track and field program.
In only its second season, just 30 athletes make up both the boys and girls squads, which are small by most high school standards. Seventh- or eighth-graders have supplemented more than 10 of the names on the roster. They’ll need to work hard to fill 32 events in the 2011 N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 1A-2A championships at the UNC Charlotte, May 20-21.
Still, the program has plenty of momentum behind it when you consider Davidson Day athletics director Tim Weir took over coaching duties this year. With Weir at the helm, the Patriots have found early success, led by a lickety-split boys relay team that has already qualified for the 4x100-meter and 4x200 events at the state competition with times that would have beaten last year’s state champions.
The anchor on that relay team is also one of the sprinters in the picture on Davidson Day’s message board: Zak Johnston, the only senior on the boys track team. Those who closely followed Lake Norman-area sports the past couple of years might recognize Johnston as a former starter for SouthLake Christian Academy’s football and basketball teams.
Johnston transferred to Davidson Day after excelling at running back and kick returner for SouthLake. After a request from The Herald Weekly, Johnston and his family declined to discuss why he wound up switching schools heading into his senior year.
At Davidson Day, however, he couldn’t play football last fall because the Patriots only had a junior varsity team. The Patriots don’t play their first varsity football season until next fall, well after Johnston graduates. Last winter, Johnston didn’t make Davidson Day’s loaded boys basketball team.
So, even though Johnston hadn’t run track since middle school because it wasn’t offered at Southlake, he reinvented himself as a sprinter on the Patriots’ 2011 team. This spring, Johnston has performed better than expected for someone four years removed from the sport, placing among the top five in several 100- and 200-meter events. Not many high school students could make the transition to a third sport late in their senior season, but Johnston is a rare athlete, blessed with speed and strength.
“I wish I was blessed with Zak’s physical attributes,” laughed Weir. “I knew from gym class that he was a good athlete, and (Davidson Day football coach Chad Grier) told me he was a legit football player before he came out for the track team.”
But just because Johnston was a burner on the football field didn’t mean he was ready to blow by his competition on the track from Day 1. Johnston would be the first to admit that there’s a difference between football and track shape, and there’s still plenty of work to do, even midway through the season.
“Track practice was hard at first because I had to get into track shape,” said Johnston. “I was sure out of breath and needed to stretch more. Compared to football, when we took a couple of breaks, track is non-stop running, especially during practice.”
But all the huffing and puffing has been worth it to Johnston. He’s embraced track as a second chance. He’s become the leader of the young Patriots roster, helping build a program he’ll only be able to enjoy for a few more months.
Johnston is quiet by nature but has become a vocal leader in his senior season. When he isn’t cheering on his teammates during a meet, Johnston is organizing the underclassmen during practices or getting them focused for competition. Weir took notice and named Johnston this year’s spring captain, even though many of his teammates – while younger in age – still had one more year of high school track experience than he did.
“If we grow this program, it’s going to be through the younger kids who need leadership,” said Weir. “Zak has stepped up and showed our kids encouragement, teaching them the drills. He’s done a nice job growing into his role.”
A long year
It had been quite some time since Johnston felt the thrill of competition, let alone remembered the taste of victory. As a junior, he led the Eagles’ football team in rushing and started at point guard on the basketball team. Johnston played that year after quickly overcoming a dreadful double-compound fracture, suffered in the first football game of his sophomore season. Johnston recovered from the injury quicker than most. Only the slight “achy-ness” in his leg on a cold day reminds Johnston of the play when he was horse-collared to the ground at the expense of the two bones in his lower right leg.
So when things didn’t look as if they were going to work out for Johnston athletically at Davidson Day, track was a welcome surprise for an athlete used to staying busy year-round. He hadn’t competed in organized competition for more than a year.
It’s easy to see why it meant a lot to Johnston when he won his first race for Davidson Day at a meet held at Victory Christian. Until that day, Johnston had always finished second to his teammate Jordan Brown, by far the fastest runner on the team. But that day at Victory Christian, Johnston broke the tape first.
“Zak is not an outwardly excited kid, but you could tell that he was so excited to be competing again,” said Weir. “When he first started, Zak ran stiff, but you could see he would be a burner once we loosened him up. Over the season, he’s loosened his form and he’s more comfortable with his upper body. He isn’t all herky-jerky, like he once was.”
Now, the kid who dreamt of playing college football is hoping to get a chance at the next level in track and field. Weir has told college recruiters that Zak doesn’t have eye-opening times yet, but with a lot of work, he has the athletic ability to contribute for a Division I track program in his junior or senior season of college.
“At first, I missed football,” said Johnston, “but that passed, and now I’m focused on track.”
All Johnston is hoping for is a chance.