Every sport needs basic equipment and facilities to function correctly.
Imagine soccer minus a ball? It'd be kind of difficult to shag baseballs without a glove. Or become a competitive swimmer with no pool.
The odds are nearly impossible to build a successful athletic program without the bare essentials.
For the vast majority of track and field coaches in the tri-county (Autauga, Elmore and Montgomery, Ala.) area, the season often starts and finishes two or three steps behind everyone else. And all signs point toward one glaring missing component -- a track facility.
MORE: USA TODAY HSS Montgomery
"When you go into it, you already know that you're a step behind," said Greg May, who has coached track and field for close to 20 years. "You're behind because the kids can't practice with (track spikes) on. You're behind because you can't use (starting blocks). ... Running around in the parking lot or around the football field isn't a track."
It's an unimaginable, but harsh, reality check area track programs deal with.
Of the Alabama High School Athletic Association and Alabama Independent School Association schools participating in the tri-county area, only Montgomery Academy and G.W. Carver have quality track facilities to hold sanctioned events.
Not only does the lack of a quality training facility almost cripple the team's ability to compete at the highest level, it also forces local coaches to tap into their limited budgets to get creative in locating an area that provides proper training.
"When we have to practice, most of the time we have to find a big grass field or travel to a track in Montgomery," Prattville coach Derrick Motley said. "It's hard because we can't raise money to buy equipment, because we barely have money to have a season.
"I had to cancel meets because we didn't have the funds for transportation. ...I don't think it registers to them, at the school, that we need help."
Prattville's facility, an outdated, poorly conditioned asphalt track, is reflective of most of the high school tracks in the tri-county area. According to Motley, the facility hasn't been upgraded since the doors opened at the current location in 1977.
"I don't want to pick on Prattville, but they can do a lot better than what they're doing," said May, a Prattville resident who was recently hired as head coach for football and track and field at Class 1A J.F. Shields in southwestern Alabama. "Prattville has plenty of room to put a legal track in."
Lack of respect
May's involvement with the sport dates to 1994, when he served as the youth track and field coordinator for Birmingham. During the summer months, he could be found logging some of the state's top athletes to tracks throughout the Southeast.
His years around the sport makes May a credible coach. However, the 48-year-old isn't convinced that administrators and athletic directors are putting their all into searching for qualified staffers who truly have a passion for track and field.
"You get a teacher who has a bus license, and you give them a supplement," May laughed when describing the hiring process. "Whoever can stand the heat and wants to go out there to be with the kids."
The training facilities are in such horrific shape that athletes have to endure more than their fair share of various injuries.
"I had six kids out this year because of injuries from running on that track," said Motley, who estimates around $375,000 would be needed to upgraded Prattville's facility. "I had three kids with stress fractures. It happens every year, I am nursing them to the best of my ability to try and keep them healthy.
"The intense training on the concrete makes it hard for them to stay healthy throughout the season."
From painful shin splints to fractured bones, no one is exempt from finding their way onto the trainer's table over the course of the season.
"The respect for the sport is gone, or not what it used to be, because if it was, then people would take better care of the facilities," said Alabama State track coach Ritchie Beene, who has captured multiple indoor/outdoor SWAC track titles since being named coach in 2007. "Plus, people would donate more to make sure the sport is up to speed."
The facilities may be the biggest concern, but it's not the only one.
There's also the inner battle for athletes during the spring. With the popularity for prep football, track and field coaches continuously journey through the campaign minus the school's more talented athletes due to spring workouts and prospect camps.
"There are several factors as to why track and field isn't as big in this area," Beene said. "One, this is a football state and this is a football (area). This state eats, sleeps and breathes football. Just look at basketball. It's not even properly supported that much in this state.
"It just trickles down to all the other sports, especially for a sport like track and field. ... A lot of football coaches are not requiring their players to go out there and run track, they more or less do their own conditioning. Back in the day, if you wanted to play football or basketball you had to run track. They're not making kids do that nowadays."
But that doesn't appear to be an issue for some neighboring states. Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana and Florida not only operate thriving track and field programs at the high school level, but the premier talent comes from gridiron backgrounds.
Former Prattville football star Justin Thomas, a highly recruited prospect who now plays at Georgia Tech, captured the 6A state crown in the 100-meter dash last spring. However, the accomplishment failed to spike interest for Motley's program entering the 2013 season.
"We thought by (Thomas) winning state it would bring more attention and focus to the program, but it didn't," Motley said. "I don't remember so much as getting a 'good job' or anything being announced at school. It was pretty much like whatever."
The momentum football has gained in recent years might be irreversible.
"It doesn't matter how good or bad the football program is, that's where all the money goes," said Motley, who had 18 student-athletes qualify for the 6A state meet. "The smaller sports like track are basically left to fend for themselves."
Sick of traveling
Outside of MA's annual invitational, most tri-county schools are forced to bleed their budgets dry seeking regional and state qualifying meets. Pelham, Selma, Auburn, Smiths Station and Opelika have benefited financially due to the lack of local meets throughout the season.
It wasn't too long ago that local teams didn't need to venture outside the area often to compete. Resurfaced in the mid 1990s, Robert E. Lee's facility once carried the torch as the go-to location in central Alabama with its premier facility that now sports holes in the track and is in bad need of resurfacing.
"Lee had the elite track," May recalls. "I don't know what happened over there, but when (Spence) McCracken left (in the mid-1990s), the one big legal track we had in Montgomery went downhill. Right now, it's not even close to being a track. It's barely worth practicing on now. It has completely went to pieces."
The local fate of the sport, at the public school level, falls on the shoulders of Carver now. Since opening in 2010, Carver's track facilities were not 100 percent operational until this athletic season due to key missing items (long jump pits, shot put/discs area).
"We had a couple of issues, but once I brought it to their attention everything got done," Carver principal Gary Hall said. "We can have a sanctioned meet out there now, everything has been corrected."
Montgomery Public Schools communications officer Mona Davis confirmed Park Crossing, the city's newest high school, will have a track facility. Elmore County doesn't have anything on the books for track expansion at this time, while Autauga's best shot could rest with 1A Billingsley, which recently purchased land toward the future site of its new football field.
The city of Montgomery and ASU are looking to get in on the action, too.
Following the completion of a new housing complex on Hall Street, tenants can be relocated from Paterson Court, a housing project across from ASU's campus, to allow the demolition of those units on the north side of University Drive for the construction of new field facilities to complement the track at old Hornet Stadium.
"I personally think we need a track complex to bring people in. Where it should be depends on what you want to do with it," said Ken Blankenship, executive director of Central Alabama Sports Commission. "We need it. We could get a lot of track events. Track and field is important. I always look at it as what can be used both for the community and for (hosting) a sporting event."