Multiple state champ Dakotah Keys returns to coach track

Scott Swanson

Dakotah Keys knows what he’s getting into as he takes the helm of the Sweet Home High School track and field program this season.

He’s been there. He’s run in Husky Field since he was a junior high student – he is one of a very few athletes of that age to complete an entire decathlon and he did so with a score that would have made him competitive at a small college.

He is Sweet Home’s record-holder in eight of the 15 track and field individual events commonly contested in high school, plus the decathlon, and he’s in the top seven or higher in five others.

He comes back to Sweet Home after five years at the University of Oregon, where he placed third twice nationally, against the best competition available in college, in the decathlon – a series of 10 events incorporating all aspects of track and field: sprinting, jumping, hurdling, throwing and distance running.

Since graduating from college two years ago, Keys has embarked on a career as an Oregon State Police trooper and he and his wife Justine, a former top swimmer for Sweet Home, have a baby daughter.

Keys’ reputation as a successful athlete has preceded him.

“This was not a hard sell for the kids,” said former Head Coach Billy Snow, who’s still an assistant, along with several others of Keys’ former coaches when he won eight individual state high school titles over three years in leading the Huskies to three straight team titles in 2008 to 2010.

“There were a lot of good athletes when I was here,” Keys said, recalling Sweet Home’s glory days.

Now he’s aiming to bring the Huskies back. He knows it will be a process.

This year’s team has less than 60 athletes. The 2010 team’s roster listed 58 boys – and 37 girls.

“We had a ton of kids,” Keys recalled. “I think (the challenge) is just getting the kids excited, getting the younger kids, in junior high and the Boys & Girls Club excited about track.”

He said he plans to do that through variety and achievable goals, “keeping them interested.”

“When they come out here and all they do is run hard and they don’t think it’s worth their while, they’re not going to do it,” he said. “For me, that was the biggest thing. I think it’s just bringing in fresh ideas, getting them excited about raining, about doing the small things.”

Keys said when he trained for the decathlon in college, he focused a lot on technique “because you can’t go all-out on every event all the time” without risking injury.

“It’s about track and it’s about running, but if you do that all day, every day, they leave here every day feeling a little more broken down, a little more broken down, then injuries happen. And confidence is lost. It’s not about that. It’s about building confidence.”

That’s his strategy with the Huskies.

“We’re breaking it down to the small things and that gives the kids something they can accomplish every day. If you say, ‘We’re working on this small thing today,’ if they accomplish that, they leave feeling successful.

“That’s what it’s all about:getting them excited to come back out and say, ‘Man, I learned so much last time and I did good at it, so let’s do it again.”

Keys said he’s happy to be working with some of his old coaches, including Snow, now assisting him in the program. Sweet Home’s coaching staff is one of the most veteran in the state.

“All the coaches I had when I was here are still here,” he said. “They’re honestly some of the best coaches I’ve had in my life, so it’s fun to be part of the system where they’re still there.

“They know the kids really well. I have some new ideas and they implement them really well with the kids because they’ve been here so long. It makes for an easy transition. It makes it really easy to come back.”

Having a former student return as head coach is “unique,” Snow said, though other former students serve as assistants, such as throws coaches Nathan Whitfield and Krystle Streight.

Snow said he’s delighted Keys has come back, with the things he’s learned with the Ducks.

“He is as solid as they get as a citizen and a person. Then you add on the fact that he’s got all that experience and you couldn’t ask for a better situation. He knows all the event areas. He can look and immediately say, ‘This is what you’re doing.’ He’s got the background in all of it.”

Keys’ mother, Lela Danforth, spent years working with local youths in soccer and track while he was growing up, and had a knack for getting the best out of young athletes.

Keys said one thing he learned from his mother is that there’s never a limit to learning.

“Even coming from a Division I school, there’s so much to learn,” he said. “That’s something I’ll say about all the coaches, my mom included. She took the time. If she didn’t know the answer, if she didn’t know the right thing, she took the time and humbled herself – ‘let’s learn together. I’ll figure it out and I’ll come back and be the best that I can be.’ She had a lot of devotion to the kids.

“All these coaches do. Coach (Ramiro) Santana, he works so many hours at Safeway. He comes out here without any sleep. He’s been up for 20 hours, comes out here with the kids. He does that for soccer and for this.

“These kids, I think they feel like we’re here for them, that we’re devoting our time to them. That’s what’s this is about. If we can continue to do that, this program is going to continue to grow and grow and grow.”

Keys said he got a lot of local support as a top-flight youth athlete who had to travel to find competition and he wants his team to learn the lessons he did.

“When I was going through school, I fund-raised all the time, all summer long, for summer meets. And the community gave a lot. We just need that again. The kids just need to feel like the community supports them and they’re excited about coming out to meets.”

He plans to get high schoolers involved in teaching younger children in the grade schools, and wants to hold competitions for younger athletes.

“I think that’s something they learn here in Sweet Home,” he said of his athletes. “It’s a small community, you have to work hard for what you want. That’s the mentality here. I love that about this town and I’m just trying to instill that even more into the kids that if they work hard, good things are going to happen.”

He said he had a conversation last week with a jumper on his team.

“I was telling her, ‘You have to be confident in yourself. When you walk out of here, you’ve done all the hard work in practice. You walk out on the track and you know you’re going to jump high. You’re going to run fast. You know you’re the best. If you don’t think you’re the best, there’s no reason to be doing it because if you sell yourself short in your mind, your body is not going to do what it’s supposed to do.

“If you think you’re the best and believe you’re the best, then you practice like the best, something’s going to happen. You might not win the race, but you’re going to PR. You’re going to really surprise yourself. These kids are all willing to learn. They’re excited, and that’s what’s fun right now. I’m having a blast. I think the kids are honestly having a blast.

“It feels good to be back here.”