Photo credit: Robert L Chapman

By Torsheta Jackson

Track was not really his sport.

Clinton High head track coach Johnathan Perkins was in his first year as an assistant coach at Raymond High when he attended his first track meet. He joined a good friend who was the track coach at the South State meet. It’s a memory that sticks with him to this day. 

“I was sitting under the tent just watching the track meet and was just in awe of all the athletes and everything that was going on,” said Perkins. “Some folks call it chaos but to me it just looked like music was happening across the track.”

Perkins’s chance to become part of that music came the very next year. The girls coach stepped down as the track coach in 2005. Perkins took the job. 

“And the rest is history,” he said.

There was one problem. Perkins was a football coach. In fact, the former Hinds Community College running back hadn’t even run track since he was in the ninth grade. He borrowed workouts from a former college teammate who ran track. Another football coach gave him a USA Track and Field book. He went and purchased a track and field success book from the bookstore. At meets, he would talk to other experienced coaches gleaning tips here and there. 

“A lot of my experience came from knowing what not to do and then figuring out what to do,” he said.

Perkins spent seven years leading the Rangers. He also became the head football coach in 2009. That year, he won his first ever state championship with the Raymond boys.  

At the beginning of the 2012 school year, he accepted a position as an assistant football coach at Clinton High School. With that came an assistant track position. His first year both the boys and the girls finished as the state runners-up. The next year, the Lady Arrows won the school’s first state championship in track and field. That season, the head coach announced that it would be his last year. He wanted to hand the reins to Perkins.

“I looked at him and I told him that I understood his decision but that I came to Clinton to be an assistant coach. I’d just been a head track coach for seven years. I just wanted to relax.”

Perkins’ name was submitted anyway. He accepted the interview and named the head coach for the girls program. At the end of the summer, the person who had accepted the position as the head boys coach informed the school that he would not be returning, leaving Perkins as the leader of the Arrows entire track and field program. 

“I don’t think a lot of people know that I am over both,” Perkins laughs. 

That is likely because the girls program has eclipsed every other current track program in the state. The Lady Arrows have won eight consecutive state championships. In fact, there have only been two times that the girls have not won since Perkins took the program over – his first year when they placed second and “the COVID year.” They also hold a total of four state records including the girls’ pole vault.  

“We didn’t finish (the 2020) season out,” he said. “Honestly, the last championship that we won should have been number nine.”

His boys program is not fledgling. The Arrows have finished on the podium every year that Perkins has been at the helm. They won their first state championship in 2017 and hold five more second place state meet finishes. The boys team has actually won more district titles (15) than their female teammates (12). The Arrows also hold the boys state 4X800 meter record.

‘It’s crazy,” Perkins laughs. “This is all in a span of 20 years.”

Robert Pittman, the team’s pole vaulters coach, believes that the legacy of those athletes is a major factor into the program’s continued success. 

“Our original three or four championships lit a spark,” Pittman said. “Other girls in the school saw it and wanted to be a part of it. Students keep coming to us wanting to compete and wanting to keep that streak going. Sometimes it feels like the athletes are coming to us because of what other girls in the past have started.”

Eighth grader Aiden Knox is one of those. He is currently one of the fastest eighth graders in the nation and broke the 8th-grade state record in the 100 meter dash with a winning time of 11.13 seconds at the Clinton season opener this year. 

“There is a little bit of pressure because the coaches set high expectations for us, but Clinton has a track record of success and great coaches who do a great job of preparing us week in and week out,” Knox said.

The program has produced some of the state’s most unforgettable track athletes.  Justice Sims, Monica Mosley and Demi Washington were once household names for track and field fans who flocked to meets for years to get a glimpse of them. In 2013, the trio along with teammate Harper Newell broke both the 4X100 and the 4X200 state records. They were two of the longest held records in the state. Mosley, a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year, also broke the state record in the 300 meter hurdles in 2015. Mosley and Sims both went on to run track at Mississippi State University. Washington, also a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year, ran track for the University of Alabama. Jayda Eckford and Olivia Womack, two other program standouts, have earned NCAA All-American honors at Ole Miss. Kris Moore, one of the best 400 meter runners to come through the state, is now at the University of Iowa.

“I’ve never been a coach who said these are girls so I’m going to coach them a certain way,” he said. “I don’t coach boys or girls. I coach athletes.”

One of his keys to success has been developing a thriving feeder program. All of his junior high athletes complete the same regimen that his high school teams do. The program retains an average of 6-7 athletes from each class of the junior high program through to graduation. Perkins also runs Clinton Elite, one of the most prestigious summer track programs in the state. The program begins runners at the age of nine with the fundamentals of track and field.

“Most junior high athletes are getting into their own and learning how to do it,” said Perkins. “Some of them are faster and stronger than high school girls. You get them while they are in junior high and by the time they get to high school they already know what you want.”

Photo credit: Robert L Chapman

The Clinton program encompasses 7th-12th grades. All six coaches on staff coach every athlete in all grade levels of their specialty area. Each coach brings their own experience and training to the program. The youngest coach on staff is a former Clinton High sprinter. She was also a sprinter in college and helps Perkins in that area. The jumps coach was a college basketball player and serves as the school’s ninth grade boys basketball coach. The distance coach ran distance in high school and junior college. Pittman was a college decathlete and pole vaulter.

“I’ve tried to put coaches in places that they are going to be successful in,” Perkins said. “We all take our specialties seriously. We all come together to make sure that we have the same goal on what we want to accomplish. They know what the expectations are and they transfer those expectations to themselves and down to the kids.”

The experience and focus on their individual specialties are a major part of the team’s overall success. 

“Our goal in each event is to always make it to the state championship,” said Pittman who is in his seventh year with the program. “We always want to be team minded. If we can get individuals to the state championship, then they can get points and we have a chance at winning the championship. We look and see what other athletes are doing across the state and determine what it is going to take to make it to the state championship.”

The Arrows have no plans on slowing down. The Sumner Hill Lady Arrows won their Little 6 Conference Championship and the Clinton Junior High Lady Arrows finished runners-up this season. 

Lady Arrows freshman Kaitlyn Jones hurdler has already beaten Mosley’s freshman 300 meter hurdle record. The team also boasts a slew of female sprinters who are set to challenge many of the school’s existing track records. Perkins’s son Nathan, a 7th grader, finished third in the nation last summer in the discus. Knox is already gaining valuable experience as the team marches toward the state championship. He moved up to become the first leg of Clinton’s high school sprint relays at the end of the middle school season.

“I have learned to match their intensity because they are depending on me to do my part to help us succeed,” said Knox. “I can’t let my age and grade be a factor when I step on the track.”

The Lady Arrows and Arrows won their 12th and 15th District Championships, respectively in early April. They also claimed both regional titles. Clinton goes for the Class 6A state championship Friday at Pearl.

Eighteen years after that first track meet, Perkins has made himself into one of the most successful coaches in Mississippi. His philosophy is simple.

“You have to mold yourself into what type of coach you want to be and make sure you have the tools and insight of what you are trying to get your athletes to do to be successful,” he said. “That has always been my goal in coaching. I wanted to make sure that I was able to coach the right techniques for the kids to be successful in whatever events they were going to do.”

Track is now definitely his sport.