ALBANY -- It's mid afternoon and the sun is shining down on Hugh Mills Stadium, and as Johnny Seabrooks shades his eyes and looks out to the track there's that unmistakable look, the kind that only comes between old friends.
"When I came to Albany in 1978 we didn't even have a track,'' said Seabrooks, who has spent his life coaching and mentoring, both at Monroe High and Dougherty High, and has now been Dougherty County's Director of Athletics since 2002. "We ran track meets at Dougherty High on a dirt track.''
Albany without a track? That's impossible to even imagine now -- especially now -- because today Albany and Hugh Mills will play host to the GHSA girls state track meet for the 25th year in row.
Hugh Mills and the state track meet, a quarter of a century old today.
Hard to think of one without the other.
But it wasn't always that way.
"The girls state meet used to be in Atlanta,'' Seabrooks said. "But we put this track in and it was the only all-weather track in Southwest Georgia, and some good people went up to Atlanta to see how they ran the meet there, people like Bob Fowler, Lewis C. Smith, Roy Crenshaw, Winfred Benson and others."
Seabrooks then added: "We had some pioneers. They were all with the Dougherty County School System and they're the ones who came back and decided Albany can do it.''
Now it's difficult to imagine anyone doing it any better. Albany has become synonymous with track and Hugh Mills has been the sport's best friend, hosting several big meets, including the GISA boys and girls state meet last weekend and the GHSA region meets during the course of the last two weeks for schools in Southwest Georgia.
Those "pioneers'' knew what they were doing. They laid the foundation for what has become more than a tradition, but a staple in Georgia high school sports.
Ten years ago they upgraded the track surface to a Mondo track, the best in the business.
"We put in the top of the line track, and we're proud of that,'' Seabrooks said.
And no one appreciates it more than the coaches and athletes who
show up here every year for the girls state meet.
"There are so many memories, (from the meet over the years)," Seabrooks said. "One I'll never forget is the year we had a lot of rain, and we still had young ladies setting state records that year. Those are the memories I have, and just watching the young ladies perform above and beyond every year.''
But it's not the track that makes the meet. It's the people.
"The reason this has been a success over the years is our volunteers. I couldn't have imagined 25 years ago we would have the kind of volunteers we have had for the (state meet)," Seabrooks said. "We've had a group of 10 to 12 people who have been with us for 25 years. And I am always running into people in Albany at church and other places who come up to me wanting to volunteer.
"It takes a lot of dedicated volunteers who are committed and have a passion to do this, and there is no pay involved. We get a lot of compliments that we do a good job, and that's a testament to the workers who take pride in doing it. They pride themselves in being professionals and doing it the right way. That's what makes this track meet. People have no idea how many hours it takes.''
The meet also has a tremendous economic impact on the city of Albany and surrounding areas. According to Lisa Riddle, who is the director of the Albany Convention and Visitors Bureau, the state meet generates $400,000 for Southwest Georgia's local businesses each year of the three-day event.
Meaning in 25 years, the 800 girls athletes -- plus coaches, family and friends -- who make the trip to Albany at the end of every track season have brought in a whopping $10 million.
"I've already had people calling me looking for hotel rooms because they're all sold out,'' Seabrooks said. "I send them to Dawson or Tifton. It definitely has an economic impact.''
The state girls meet has added a new flavor over the past decade as Monroe's girls track & field team has emerged as a state power. The Lady Tornadoes will try to defend their Class AAA state title this weekend, and with athletes such as Lakiesha Jackson, Mimieux Land, Maikea Davis, Davone Anduze, Jade Perry, Ashley Johnson, Destinee Collins and Analesha McFarland leading the way, Monroe will be favored to win again.
Westover, which finished runner-up to Monroe at last week's region meet, will be led by distance runner Ericka Taylor, pole vaulter Alysia Pitts and field-specialist Clennysha Jones.
In Class AA, another area school to watch out for is Early County, which will be led by senior Nett Reed, who could end her career by winning another state title in the long jump and triple jump. She also leads both relay teams.
Bainbridge, led by Nancy Session, could have its best finish in the Class AAAA meet after winning the Region 1-AAAA title last week.
The three-day meet begins today and ends Saturday for all five classes in Georgia.
"At the end of the day on Saturday it's always nice when coaches come up to you and say you did a great job,'' Seabrooks said. "It's what we're all about in Dougherty County. We're the city of champions, and we take a lot of pride in that. We get the chance to show the rest of Georgia that we are the city of champions.''