Call it the biggest unofficial visit in Wichita State athletics history.
Between 6,000 and 7,000 athletes visit Cessna Stadium beginning Tuesday for the USATF National Junior Olympic Track and Field Championships. Shocker track coaches don't want to miss the opportunity to make a good impression on athletes from across the nation.
"I'm very much hoping that five years from now I'm recruiting some young person who, today, is 13 years old," WSU track and field coach Steve Rainbolt said. "And I say, 'This is Coach Rainbolt from Wichita State' and he says, 'I was there at Wichita State. I came out to the Junior Olympics five years ago and I really enjoyed myself there.'
"And now he has a frame of reference. Whereas in the past, we might have called from Wichita State University, and they don't have a clue."
This week isn't the time for Rainbolt and his coaches to slap a hard sell on the athletes. Most of the youngsters running, throwing and jumping around Cessna Stadium are years from being of recruiting age. It won't be possible for coaches to watch all events, and in many cases that's not the point.
This meet is a chance to build relationships with club coaches and their athletes that might pay off later. WSU is done recruiting the class of 2011. The coaches are thinking and planning for athletes from the classes of 2012 and 2013, so they will focus on athletes in the upper age divisions.
Maybe this week starts a connection with an athlete from New Jersey or Ohio who finds WSU a good fit. Or maybe a club coach from Texas or Missouri sees WSU in a new light and encourages his athletes to check out the program.
"One of the reasons we got this meet was to help our recruiting," assistant coach John Wise said. "It's not really looking for a specific kid, it's more to trying to make a lot of contacts and be out here talking and meeting people and trying to stay hydrated. I'll be offering them the friendly confines of the team room, where it's air-conditioned."
WSU coaches — and other college coaches at the meet — can talk to an athlete after competition is finished. They can show athletes around campus, an advantage other college coaches lack.
"We want to make sure we put on a good event," Rainbolt said. "So those kids have a good experience here, and are receptive to a phone call."
Over the weekend, crews put the finishing touches on decorations intended to help Rainbolt imprint Shocker track on young minds. A display listing WSU's conference titles and pictures of five former athletes covers the front of the weight room at the north end of the stadium. A picture of pole vaulter Ryan Barkdull, a two-time NCAA All-American, and a list of his accomplishments will greet visitors at the north end of Cessna Stadium's west stands.
"We want (athletes) to be keenly aware that Wichita State University has a good track program," Rainbolt said.
The displays are permanent, and part of Rainbolt's determination to elevate track and field's status. When he dreams his eight-laned, polyurethane-covered dreams, he sees WSU and Wichita growing into a community where track and field matters more. His program's success is part of that plan. So is attracting major meets such as the USATF Junior Olympics. He aspires to make Wichita into a Midwestern version of places such as Eugene, Ore., where meets attract large crowds. It's a big dream, but one Rainbolt loves to discuss.
"We would like for Wichita State track and field — and Wichita, Kan. —to be a track and field community of significance," he said.
WSU coaches do have other responsibilities for the meet. Rainbolt is the meet director, which puts him in charge of troubleshooting track and field issues. USATF is in charge, and Rainbolt is there to assist those officials. Last week, WSU coaches helped prepare the warmup area on the northeast side of the stadium. They will make sure the long-jump pits are raked, and make sure the people raking the pits in the Kansas heat don't pass out. Putting hurdles at the right height and the right spots will be a constant challenge.
"I guess I'm the director of help," he said.