By BOB PUTNAM
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2001
Sharneka Brown had one of the most frightening encounters of her prep career when she reported for track this season.
Arriving for the first day of practice, Brown looked around Spartan Stadium. There was no Clarissa Smith or Tamara Williams or Ashley Scott to run with anymore. They were among the eight athletes who graduated from last year's team.
During her first three years at Lakewood, Brown had always looked up to the seniors. She had run with most of them since she was 6 years old on various club teams.
Now, Brown is alone. She is the only senior on a Lakewood team that is, well, Spartan.
Lakewood has just 10 athletes on the team right now.
"Oh, it's definitely different this season," Brown said. "Most of the girls who were on last year's team I knew my whole life. I know we have new members, but I feel like I'm out there by myself sometimes."
Spartans coach Eileen Givens said she expected a low turnout, but she didn't expect this. Besides losing eight seniors, Givens also lost shot-putter Erica Seibolt to an arm injury and is unsure whether Ashley Sumbree, a standout last season, will return once basketball season is over.
"This is the lowest turnout I've ever had," she said. "It's going to be a long year."
That means Lakewood's streak of eight consecutive district titles and seven conference championships in the past eight seasons is in jeopardy.
But forgive other county coaches if they are skeptical of the Spartans' demise. After all, Lakewood was supposed to be a forgotten team last season with the loss of Rose Richmond, who graduated and now is running for Indiana University.
Despite her departure, the Spartans won conference, district and regional titles and finished sixth at the Class 3A state meet.
And with even more talent gone this season, Lakewood still has some left.
It starts with Brown, who will max out in five events and has the added pressure of being the veteran leader for the team.
"I know it will be harder this season," Brown said. "I have to be a positive figure out there and everything that was instilled in me by the older members who are now gone, I have to teach to others."
Two sophomores who will be counted on heavily are Nadia Covington and Shaquita Gibbs. Covington qualified for state in three events last season, including the winning 4x400-meter relay team. Gibbs missed most of last season with a hip injury.
"There is some talent here and we have some freshman who could be strong," Givens said. "It's just a matter of putting it all together."