Article by Andy Rhinehart
Matthew Darden joined Polk County’s track team as a means to stay in shape for football.
It turned out to be a life-shaping decision.
With the Wolverine track program Darden found his calling as a sprinter, so much so that he signed a letter-of-intent Monday to continue running in college at Lees-McRae. He’ll head to Banner Elk this fall to run at distances somewhere from 100 to 400 meters.
“It’s a lot of pressure definitely off my shoulders,” Darden said after signing his letter in front of family and friends in the Polk County library. “I had about 200 schools looking at me, but this was the best option for me financially and geographically.”
Darden didn’t join the Polk track program until last season, his junior year, but quickly became one of the top sprinters in the area. Darden won both the 100 and 200-meter sprints at last year’s Western Highlands Conference meet and helped lead Polk County’s 4×400-meter relay team to a third-place finish at February’s state 2A indoor meet.
All because former Polk County head football coach Bruce Ollis had an idea.
“Coach Ollis first suggested I run track,” Darden said. “He said it would be great for conditioning and for me to get faster. So I came out and said, ‘Hey, I’m pretty good at this.’
“I hadn’t really thought about track before that, but I turned out to be good at it and it turned into something else.”
“He finally listened to me and came out for track,” said Polk County head track and field coach Alan Peoples. “I think he has the potential to be one of the best runners that (Lees-McRae) has ever had.
“Something that will help him a lot is that he’s got supportive parents. The thing about high school programs is that there are things we just can’t teach him with the amount of people we have and the limited amount of time. He’s been going to a speed clinic (the Parisi Speed School in Fletcher) and that has helped him a lot.”
Darden, who plans to study business administration, is looking forward to the opportunity to work with Lees-McRae assistant coach DeRico Tilley. An All-American sprinter at South Alabama, Tilley is a former member of the United States national track team and competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials.
“They’re in a rebuilding stage, but they just hired a coach (Tilley) who was the sixth fastest in the world back in 2003, which is nothing to sneeze at,” Darden said. “The track was just resurfaced, and the facilities are great. They have a nice weight room, which is big for me because I love being in the weight room.
“They’re able to individualize each person’s workout, which I think will be better for me to get maximum results. One thing I’ve learned is you can be very fast, but you’re nothing if you don’t have technique.”