Mount Pleasant Track Club turns in best season ever when coach needed it most

The toughest day of Tami Dennis’ life led her to the Park West track.

Dennis’ father, Bruce, passed away on a Monday in early May. The head coach of the Mount Pleasant Track Club still showed up to practice that evening. Bruce was a longtime coach with a career than spanned more than two decades across multiple sports. He coached his daughter all of her life. He wouldn’t have wanted her to miss practice.

So Dennis never did. She showed up to coach day after day this summer, masking any vulnerability with her devotion to her team. She found some sense of solace among her athletes. Their steady progress sustained her throughout the season. Their success cured her heartbreak.

Imagine then how Dennis felt last weekend, two months after Bruce was laid to rest, as her athletes crossed the finish line of their best season ever. The Mount Pleasant Track Club produced a program record 16 All-Americans at the USA Track and Field Junior Olympic National Championships in Sacramento, California.

The summer wasn’t dedicated to her father. Dennis would never place that sort of responsibility on her young athletes. But the team operates very much as a family and when their leader needed them most they exceeded all expectations.

“We were a pretty new team, a lot of new faces. I just didn’t know who we were going to be this summer,” Dennis said. “But they just kept stepping it up, every step of the way. They kept surprising. They were on a mission all summer.”

Mount Pleasant dominated the state championship meet at the end of June, then two weeks later ran away with the regional championship by nearly 200 points, competing against the top junior athletes in Florida and Georgia.

“When we won regionals, I thought, ‘Wow, OK, this team is really good,’” Dennis said. “That was a really big deal and I think it gave a lot of our athletes confidence heading into nationals.”

Mount Pleasant qualified 56 athletes for nationals. Forty-six of them made the cross-country trip to compete, an overwhelming number for a team of its size.

Athletes had to finish eighth or better in the finals of their respective events at nationals to earn All-American distinction. Dennis set a modest team goal of eight, knowing subconsciously she expected more to reach the podium. Mount Pleasant earned seven by the fifth day of the weeklong meet and doubled Dennis’ goal by the end.

“Unbelievable,” Dennis said. “We set our goals and the kids just smashed them.”

Mount Pleasant enjoyed its best success in the javelin event with seven athletes reaching the podium with top-eight finishes. Troy Cocco placed third in the 13-14 division with a personal best of 49.39 meters, while his younger sister, Elle (a national champion last year in the 7-8 division) also hit a personal record at 27.48 to earn third in 9-10. The oldest Cocco, Ethan, capped the family’s run with a sixth-place finish in 17-18.

Caleb Walker earned second place in the 15-16 year-old javelin division. Luke Pauldine took fourth in 17-18 with a new personal record of 56.54 meters. Chloe Berda placed eighth in the girls 17-18. Alex Corley finished eighth with a personal best of 31.38 in 9-10 javelin, while also earning seventh in shot put.

“The Coccos showed that they are a dominant force in javelin nationally,” Dennis said. “All of our javelin athletes just did amazing.”

Max Livesey placed second in the 15-16 high jump, while T.J. Clary earned fifth in the 11-12 division. Miles Tonelis landed third in the 8-and-under shot put with a new personal best of 6.82 meters, and Hannah Togami leaped to fifth in the 13-14 pole vault.

Julia Galbally was new to the team this season. The unassuming sprinter finished tied for the eighth and final qualifying spot at 12.6 seconds in the 100-meter semifinals. She was eventually determined the winner by .005 seconds and advanced to take sixth place in the finals.

“That was such a pleasant surprise,” Dennis said. “After she got through to the finals I told her, ‘The pressure is off. You’re already an All-American. Just go run with glee and have fun. Oh and don’t forget to give that little lean at the end again.’”

Savannah Hislop placed seventh in the 8-and-under 1,500 with a personal best of 5:56.47. Her older brother, Gabe, is a four-time All-American in cross country but had never medaled in track and field. It’s well known that Hislop has a personal goal to finish his MPTC career as the team’s most decorated athlete, a distinction currently held by eight-time All-American Zane Jackson, now a senior at Cane Bay High School. Hislop inched closer to Jackson’s mark with a fifth-place finish in the 9-10 1,500 and sixth-place run in the 800. Jackson checked on Hislop throughout the week via text message, relaying messages of encouragement for his young challenger.

“Gabe really looks up to Zane and Zane’s his biggest cheerleader,” Dennis said. “It’s the coolest thing.”

Former MPTC javelin national champion Liam Christensen, now a junior at Stanford, surprised his former team at the meet. He spent three days there, helping coach and encourage his former team. Just his presence was added motivation for the young athletes who aspire to one day maybe reach his level of international notoriety.

The camaraderie of the Mount Pleasant athletes, both current and former, is part of what makes the team successful on and off the track. Teammates instinctually support each other, often not realizing the impact they have. The same goes for those coaching them. The young athletes may never truly understand the role they play in their elders’ lives.

Dennis didn’t tell anybody what happened when she showed up at practice the day her father passed away. She was greeted at the gate by Savannah, who ran up to her and wrapped both arms around her legs with a tight squeeze.

“I love you, Coach Tami,” the 10-year-old told Dennis that night.

“Oh sweet Savannah,” Dennis managed while trying to hold herself together. “You don’t know how much I needed that.”

Dennis might’ve not known how much she needed her entire team until she lost that which was most important to her and they helped fill the void.

“This team really is something so incredibly special,” she said. “It really is, for so many reasons that don’t have anything to do with a race or podium.”