GOLDEN DECADE: Clippers’ track and field resurgence was worth the wait

By Mike Whaley / mwhaley@seacoastonline.com

Editor’s Note: This is the first in an ongoing series on significant local sporting moments and events from the past decade.

PORTSMOUTH — To put the Portsmouth High School track and field program into its proper perspective, one need only look at the trajectory of veteran coach Stan Lyford, who has been mentoring Clipper athletes since 1974.

Lyford, a retired math teacher, said, “I had colossal (girls) teams for the first five or six years. I thought they would always be there; we would always be good. Then they went away.”

Under Lyford, the Clipper girls won a Class L outdoor title in 1977, and a pair of Class L indoor titles in 1979 and 1980.

It took 40 years for a Lyford-coached girls team to win another outdoor title (Division II in 2017), and then 40 years to capture an indoor crown (2020 in D-II).

The boys also went through similar lean times after winning their last outdoor crown in 1985. In 2015, guided by Mike Lyford, the Clippers won both the D-II indoor and outdoor titles, and have added three more championships since.

The girls have four total titles since 2017, including three straight D-II outdoor crowns (2017-19). After going 30 years without a team track title, the Clippers have won nine combined titles over the past six years, and at least one per year since 2015.

Both Lyfords are convinced, had the COVID-19 pandemic not canceled the spring season, that the Clippers could well have added two more D-II titles in 2020.

Portsmouth track has certainly been letting the good times roll.

There have been several factors that have led to the Clippers’ resurgence.

One is that Mike Lyford or “Young Lyf” (pronounced Life) returned from teaching and coaching in Arlington, Virginia, to teach and coach at Portsmouth in 2007.

He actually took over for his dad in the math department when Stan retired that year, inheriting the same room his dad had taught in since the 1970s.

At the time, Young Lyf was the JV coach for both track teams, while Stan, or “Old Lyf,” was the head coach.

“It occurred to me that maybe we should split it up,” said Mike Lyford, a 1994 PHS grad who ran cross country and was a middle distance runner for the Clipper track teams. “Each team should have its own identity. It wasn’t an issue of being his assistant coach. We work well together. I had a feeling maybe a split would make a difference.”

So right around 2010 they did it, with Mike coaching the boys and Stan the girls.

Stan Lyford recalls when he was coaching in 1990, he went from coaching the girls to coaching both genders as the decision was made to consolidate the two teams together. “Coaching was almost non-existent,” Stan said. “When we got to the point we could separate it, we did. That’s one of our successes.”

For years, Portsmouth was an undersized school competing in Class L when it should have been in Class I. In 2006-07, the Clippers were finally dropped to Class I/Division II.

“That’s made a lot of difference in terms of our program’s success,” said Mike Lyford.

“We used to get hammered in Class L all the time,” Stan Lyford said. “Kids just didn’t come out for sports. It was abysmal. I think I went like four, five, six years without even winning a meet. … When we went to Division II things started picking up and kids started having more fun. We could sell the program better. My son came back from Virginia. That helped quite a bit to have some fresh blood.”

Mike Lyford noticed the change when he returned in 2007, a big difference from when he left in 2002. “In terms of PHS and the attitude of the student body and school spirit,” he said, “it was the proper placement.”

The Division II landscape attracted more athletes. Stan Lyford said at its low ebb, the girls indoor team had 6 to 10 athletes, while the boys had 20 to 30. Now the two have 150 or so between them.

When Stan Lyford had his strong outdoor girls teams in the 1970s, he had as many as 50 girls, but that dropped to 20 to 25. Now both programs have over 160 athletes between them.

“Track is a numbers game,” Stan Lyford said. “The more people you have, the better you are, pretty much. If you have 20 kids, you’re not in very good shape.”

Next year, Portsmouth returns to Division I, a move Stan Lyford does not feel good about — in the long run. “We’ll do OK for a while, but I’m afraid the same thing will happen again,” he said. “We’re going to be the small school. Things are going to go down hill. That’s depressing.”

But for now, Portsmouth is obviously in very good shape. Part of that is due to Mike Lyford, a self-proclaimed “shameless recruiter.”

“I teach math in the high school,” he said. “My typical line is — ‘Listen if you ever want to join us, just walk through the door anytime.’ I’ll say that to any athlete all the time.”

Abbe Laurence is one such recruit who once was into lacrosse big time before refocusing on basketball. She is currently at the University of Maine as a freshman on a basketball scholarship. Laurence missed the final 21 games this past season with an injury, but is looking into a medical redshirt.

While she was reshuffling her college focus from lacrosse to basketball, she found a way to include track and field in her schedule; it was a sport she always wanted to try.

Laurence played two years of varsity lacrosse at Portsmouth while also playing basketball. But she soured on lacrosse after her sophomore year. She texted her high school basketball coach, Tim Hopley, to let him know she wanted to redirect her college sports interest to basketball.

Because she was late in the recruiting process, she had to play spring AAU basketball and that meant she couldn’t put the time into lacrosse. She told coach Mary Squire she was giving lacrosse up, and decided to join the track team.

“They were more lenient with the schedule,” she said. “It was not as strict as lacrosse. I’ll show up when I can. Obviously, I want to focus on basketball.”

Laurence did the shot put, sprinted some and did a relay. She found herself falling in love with the track program.

“I hated missing track practices,” she said. “I absolutely loved it. I told my parents, I told the Lyfords, I wished I did it all four years. If I could do track in college, I would love to. It’s so much fun.”

Laurence ended up helping the Clippers win the Division II outdoor titles in 2018 and 2019. In both years she was second in the shot put.

“(The Lyfords) pick kids like diamonds in the rough,” Laurence said. “I had no idea I was going to be good in the shot put. That’s the biggest thing, they snoop around and get these kids.”

Sarah Morin, who recently graduated from PHS, was one of those diamonds in the rough. She spent 10 years doing gymnastics, but on the eve of entering high school, she decided to change course. “(Gymnastics) was too much,” she said. “Too much stress and my body kept getting hurt.”

Morin got to high school. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She was considering tennis and lacrosse.

However, in the fall of her freshman year she did cross country. It wasn’t her favorite, but she loved everyone who was there and she loved the coaches. Indoor and then outdoor track seemed like a natural progression.

“Track definitely changed my life,” said Morin, who’s set to join the women’s track and field team at UNH. “It was nice to have a group of people around you. Everyone was so dedicated. It made you driven. It was your decision to work hard. I made a lot of connections, especially with the coaches.”

Morin also excelled, setting school records in the pole vault, 300-meter hurdles, open 400 and as part of the indoor and outdoor 4×400 relay team. She was also a member of four Clipper championship teams.

Morin remembers as a freshman when the Clippers won the D-II outdoor title in North Conway, the first girls’ championship in 40 years: “It was so exciting. I was a little freshman who had just tripped over a hurdle. I was just so excited.”

As a sophomore she ran a leg of the 4×400 relay that needed to beat Milford in the final event of the day to hold on to win the state title. The Clippers took second, less than a second ahead of Milford in third to win the crown with 71 points to 68 for the Spartans.

“It came down to that last event,” Morin said. “It was crazy.”

The boys experienced a similar finish during the 2016 D-II indoor championships. Going into the final event, the 4×400 relay, Portsmouth trailed Oyster River by two points. It needed to finish ahead of the Bobcats to force at least a tie. It was a near photo finish with the Clippers winning by less than half a second in 3:39.02, while Merrimack Valley edged OR by 5/100ths of a second (3:39.42 to 3:39.47) for second place in the race to give Portsmouth the championship with 54 points to 52 for the Bobcats.

Chris Mood intended to do track and field when he enrolled at PHS, but he did not envision the pole vault.

“The scare factor” is what drew him to the event. “It was different from the other events,” he said. “It was unique and I wanted to try it. It seemed cool going up that high.”

Mood recalls as a youngster doing flips on a trampoline, so in a way it seemed like a good fit.

He remembers clearing 8 feet at his first meet as a freshman, and then seeing a senior hit 11 feet. “I was like, ‘Wow,’”he said. “I didn’t know if I was ever going to get to that level. But I knew that was something I wanted to do. I want to get to that point. It’s a lot of hard work.”

Mood eventually got there. Last year as a junior he reached a school-record 14 feet, 1 inch, winning at both the D-II meet and the Meet of Champions. This spring he had a goal of 16 feet before the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A turning point for Mood came at the end of his sophomore season. He was only doing the pole vault, and was seeded first in that event at the D-II meet. “I was really excited to go out and jump,” he said. “It didn’t work out.”

Mood failed to clear the entry height and was soon eliminated from the competition. “It was a feeling of sheer disappointment,” he said. “Even though I messed up and didn’t get the points I needed, we still had the team to cover those areas.”

Portsmouth went on to win the D-II title handily with 89 points, while Windham was a distant second with 68.5.

“But it made me start wanting to try other events, so I wasn’t just a one-time deal,” said Mood, who plans to do the pole vault at UNH.

He picked up the hurdles, and has also done the decathlon.

Mood recalls working on the hurdles during the 2018 cross country season in preparation for the winter track season. “I didn’t have a lot of flat-out speed, but I definitely had agility to be quick and hop over the hurdles while running.”

Andrew Kelly was another convert who joined the team during the winter of his sophomore year to “get in shape for lacrosse.”

He never looked back.

“I joined with some of my lacrosse friends,” he said. “But as they started to trickle off, some of my other friends who got me to join in the first place got me to stick around. Coach Lyford and some of the other specialty coaches were an incredible help to me.”

Kelly, who does the short hurdles, high jump and long jump, added: “I loved the team spirit. It’s a big team. No cuts. Everyone’s welcome to join. You can progress at your own pace. You’re kind of fighting against yourself and the clock in some events.”

Hurdles was a natural fit for Kelly, who was tall and lanky. “I could just jump over the hurdles,” he said. “That was the easy part. The hard part was zoning in on the technique. I’m still working on that.”

He hopes to attend UNH and compete on the track and field team.

There are many, many more success stories, which is why under the Lyfords the Portsmouth High School track and field program has become such an enjoyable, winning experience for so many Clipper athletes.

“The goal for both of us is to set up a fun, positive environment that also has high expectations,” said Mike Lyford. “We’re walking the tightrope.”

The two have identical philosophies. “I learned under him,” said Mike Lyford of his dad. “I was his assistant from 1995 to 2002. When I came back I was more in the head coaching realm.”

For the Lyfords, the goal is fairly simple: “We want everyone to be successful,” Mike Lyford said. “We want everyone to have the coaching that they deserve and need. We don’t want anyone to go through practice and not have anyone pay attention to them. We want everyone from the slowest to the fastest to get something out of it.”

Stan Lyford recalls when future track star Acadia Momm-White came out for the team during the spring of her freshman year. He walked her over to the record board and intimated that some of those records could someday be hers.

The following spring, Momm-White switched to lacrosse.

“Oh boy, I lost Acadia,” opined Old Lyf.

But Momm-White came out for spring track as a junior and stayed with it. “She was a big influence on how we did,” Stan Lyford said. “Her comment was — ‘I like lacrosse, but I love the track family.’ I thought that was a pretty good way of expressing what our track philosophy is.”

Old Lyf pauses a beat. “We’re there to have fun,” he said. “The kids we get are always great. It just continues that way. It builds on itself.”

Thanks to great coaches like the Lyfords.

“My mom keeps saying to me, ‘You have to go see both of the Lyfords,’” said Laurence. “They are truly some of the best people. It shows in the program.”

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