By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
One of the hardest questions any high school coach will ever ask themselves is, “when do I hang ’em up?” For Egg Harbor Township boys track coach Ryan Smith, the time is now. His kids’ sports are just too important and he doesn’t want to keep missing their games.
Smith stepped down as head coach of the Eagles earlier this month, but it wasn’t an easy decision. Following in legendary coach George Wilkinson’s footsteps, Smith built EHT into a South Jersey powerhouse and annual contender for county, sectional and state championships. He leaves a legacy over a dozen years that won’t be easy for any coach to replicate.
“I saw myself being caught between two things, and my family won out. I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years. You know how volunteers go with youth sports — there aren’t many of them. So, I found myself being involved in everything with my kids’ sports. I like keep things simple, and I was missing games here and there, and I didn’t want to keep doing that. Bennett is 6 years old now and Clay is going to turn 8. At ages 8 and 6 they are kind of fully immersed in youth sports now, so I need to be there.”
Smith’s list of accomplishments is long and distinguished. In 2013, just his second year as head coach of the program, his indoor track team won the Group 4 state championship. The Eagles also were outdoor sectional champions in 2013, 2017, 2019, and 2022, and the indoor team won sectionals six times between 2012 and 2019. EHT also captured seven straight county championships and six straight Cape-Atlantic League American Conference titles. In addition, the Eagles have a dual meet win streak of 51 straight victories. More importantly, the program has seen more than 200 athletes graduate, with 40 going on to compete as track and field athletes at the college level.
All that from a guy who didn’t know a darn thing about track when he started coaching it as one of Wilkinson’s assistants in 2008.
“I came back from the University of West Virginia when I was about 20 years old, transferred to Rowan and started coaching right away, as a 20-year-old. I started with freshman football (at EHT) as a volunteer in 2004. After about three years of that, Tony (DeRosa) brought me up to varsity. Then, a few years after that I got a full-time job teaching at EHT and was a full-time varsity assistant football coach,” Smith said. “In the offseason, I would train the running backs and wide receivers. We’d lift weights then go out to the field and just start running sprints, and that’s when George Wilkinson — a longtime football and track coach — said to me, ‘I think you’d be good at this. If you can train a wide receiver or a running back, you can coach track.’ That’s kind of how this whole thing started off. I didn’t know anything about track. I played baseball and football in high school.
“I was just trying to learn speed stuff for my football players, then I started going to track and field clinics, studying books and stuff like that. It kind of all came together.”
It seems Smith was born to coach — and to do it at Egg Harbor Township High School. He’s been hanging around the building since before he even hit puberty.
“I moved to High School Drive when I was about 10 years old. I have an older brother and my parents were like, ‘you know what? I think we’re going to be at the high school a lot.’ So we moved right next to it. When I got to middle school, not all sports are right after school, so during football season, before practice at 6 p.m., I didn’t have anything to do after school. So, what did I do? I rode my bike down to the high school and George Wilkinson was the offensive line coach, and I would just sit there and watch practice. I watched all the drills, and I guess that’s kind of how it started,” he said. “When Tony DeRosa came on as the coach my freshman year in 1998, Wilkinson kind of stayed on, gave a couple halftime speeches and things like that. So, we’ve always been really close. Then one day he saw me walking down to the football field with some of my players and he said, ‘I need you out here with me.’ That’s how it all started. He was my coach in high school, then I ended up being his assistant. I’m a big believer in learning things and I would just watch this guy. He was an absolute legend. We would go to track meets and he would sit in the bleachers and everybody would come by and talk to him like he was the king. Everyone was just visiting him all day.”
Smith said he tried to take things he learned from DeRosa, Wilkinson and every other coach he worked with along the way to build the best staff, approach and philosophy he could. One thing he’s always tried to remember is that he is coaching high school kids, and they want to have fun with sports after a long day of classes.
“I’ve been a leader my whole life. I was the first junior captain in EHT football history, so I’ve always been comfortable in that role. My wife tells me that’s a control issue, but I just see it as leadership. The thing I don’t like is when kids don’t like sports. They play sports because they are fun, but sometimes the kids are so uptight that they are not having fun,” Smith explained. “I felt that way a little bit at the end of my high school baseball career, but I found a sport in track where you can work your butt off a lot of the time, but other times it’s really relaxed and fun. I like to run a tight ship as far as the work that needs to be put in to win a championship, but at the same time practice had to be the best part of a kid’s day.”
But in Smith’s Eagles track program, it’s anything but all play and no work. His athletes get after it when the work needs to be done because they take a lot of pride in calling themselves champions.
“That’s where my football background helped. My staff and my assistants put so much toward a South Jersey Group 4 championship and a state championship. That’s what our goals were every year,” he said. “Everybody wants to be a champion, and the message we sent out every year was, ‘if you guys all do a bunch of stuff your way as an individual, it will all come together and we’ll be champions, and that’s the coolest feeling in the world.’ That’s what we hung our hat on. Of course, things can go sideways with individuals, and I’ve had my ups and downs where you have kids who might not come to practice enough and you just have to say, ‘OK, man, you just can’t be a part of this.’ But those same people I’ve had to kick off the team still say hi and catch up with me. That’s just the way it’s been.”
Coaching at a huge school like Egg Harbor Township — one of the largest in South Jersey’s seven counties — has its challenges, but also plenty of rewards. EHT is one of the most diverse schools in the state in terms of race and ethnicity. It’s one big melting pot.
“The students themselves are the best. We have all different personalities, all different ethnic backgrounds, different socioeconomic status — we have everything here. To be able to build a relationship with different types of people is really cool. It’s something unique to our school. We are one of the biggest schools in South Jersey, and a lot of people might see that as a negative, but I see it as a positive,” Smith said. “The more people we have, the more we can find. You always have really good kids on a team who can win at sectionals or states and become a champion, but every point counts. We’ve been in competitions where we’ve only won by five points and there is a kid who maybe got cut from the baseball team, came out and threw the javelin and got us two points and that helped. That’s been the coolest thing. A lot of times in team sports you don’t see those individual performances. The best thing about track is kids get the individual and team aspects in one sport.”
Smith has an infectious personality and a positive outlook that seemingly has no boundaries, and that kind of presence surely will be missed by athletes in the program. Now, younger athletes — the teammates of his two young sons — get to enjoy all that energy and experience.
And, the 2002 EHT High graduate hasn’t completely closed the door on one day donning his whistle and bucket hat again.
“I’ve been overwhelmed with the response to this. I wasn’t planning on anything. I didn’t even want it known that I wasn’t going to be the head coach next year. But our new athletic director, Mr. (Kevin) Rutledge, kind of encouraged me to put something out there so there were no misconceptions,” Smith said. “But I’ve been telling everybody, we get out of school next year at 1:55 p.m. and my kids don’t get off the bus until 4 p.m., so I’m like, ‘listen, I think I’m available until 4 p.m. every day.’ People think my career is over at the high school level, but my sons will be in high school in less than 10 years, so I might be back. Once you’re a coach, you’re always a coach. I’ll be at events, just not when my sons have games. I can’t be missing their games. That’s been the hardest thing.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
Ryan Smith’s track coaching career at EHT defined by success
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN