Photo by Robert Noles/Opelika Observer
By Morgan Bryce
The dominance of Opelika High School’s track and field program continued earlier this month, as the boys won their fifth-straight state track and field title, and the girls finished runner-up to Homewood of Birmingham.
Guided by coach Jimmy Johnson, an Opelika native and OHS alum who played football and ran track for the Bulldogs in the mid-90s, the program has taken major strides under his leadership.
“When I first got here (in 2010), it was really down. The girls team was a whole lot better than the boys … we’d go to track meets and the boys would not place and the girls would maybe come in fourth or fifth place,” Johnson said. “There was talent here … like Jakayla Hand and Emma Garner, but for some reason, it wasn’t a team. When I came in, I knew that I needed to bring everybody together to make a team.”
After a four-year rebuilding process, Johnson said the 2014 state tournament was a breakthrough moment for his program.
“We came runner-up to Hoover in 2014, and only lost by a point. The one point we lost by was almost a technicality … and after that, I was just like, ‘wow, they gotta cheat us to beat us. They got to cheat us in order to beat us. We’re here,’” Johnson said.
That loss set the stage for Opelika’s emergence as one of the state’s top track and field programs, both indoor and outdoor. The boys have won the previous three outdoor state track and field titles, and last two indoor titles, an achievement that Johnson said still astonishes him.
“It’s really surreal. It’s hard to get that first title … and to dominate like the boys have done over the last couple of years, and bring home five trophies, it still doesn’t feel real,” Johnson said.
A self-described ‘players’ coach, Johnson attributes his success to both the hard work of his athletes and coaching staff, as well as his laid-back style.
“We go to a track meet, and my kids are singing, dancing, rapping and just acting a fool, and I’m right there in the mix with them. I love for them to have fun,” Johnson said.
OHS senior Ben Garner, a Samford University track commit, said he believes Johnson’s approach to leading the team has been a key component of their recent success.
“What I’ve enjoyed most about competing under (Johnson) is how he knows when to have fun and when to get serious about competing. He’ll come hangout with us on the bus or when we’re eating and crack jokes … but when we get to a meet, his entire mindset changes to game time,” Garner said. “He tells us exactly what is expected of us and that we are here to do one thing, and that’s to win.”
Continuing the program’s success will be difficult without the likes of departing seniors Ben Garner, Will Boler and Antanavious Butler, but Johnson is optimistic for the future of his program, with short-distance runner Brantan Barnett, triple jump champion C.J. Jordan and long jumpers Jaylen Stinson and Omar Holloway all returning next season.
“We are losing a lot, but we have a good group coming back. No matter what our numbers are, the talent of the kids we have, what events we’re participating in … our expectation is always to win,” Johnson said.
In addition to coaching track and field, Johnson coaches the football team’s defensive line and teaches visual arts classes at the school. He is married to his wife Tavika Johnson, and has two children, NyLah and Jaiden.