Consistency is hard to come by in track and field. With a talent pool that rotates in-and-out of high school on a four-year basis, maintaining excellence for a prolonged period of time can best be tracked to the coaching staff, rather than a singular standout group of athletes. Across New York state, there are particular programs who find themselves on a significant streak, a testament to a training plan put into action year-over-year. In this series, we'll examine some of the best single-discipline streaks, past or present, that have ruled the Empire State.
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It was 2008 when Malcolm Burks finally took over at Newburgh Free Academy as the head coach of the Goldbacks. The appointment of the role was a long time coming. A graduate of the program back in 1979, Burks returned to Newburgh after a stint in the military. While enlisted, he was stationed at West Point, which allowed him to periodically return to help guide Newburgh as a volunteer. In 1999, he joined as a full-time assistant, working with the programs' throwers. That role transitioned in 2001, when he first took over the teams' sprinting contingent. Things took off from there.
In the last 20 years, Burks has helped mold the team into a state and national power. Prior to 2001, Newburgh had only laid claim to one state title, a long jump champion from back in 1978. Since Burks introduction, Newburgh has captured five Federation state titles in the 4x400m, with five more appearances in the silver medal position. In addition, they've been ever present in the short sprint relays, running state records in both the indoor and outdoor 4x200m
However, it is in that 4x400m relay that Newburgh has created an unprecedented level of consistency year-over-year. Outdoors, the Goldbacks have only finished a single season slower than 3:21.00. Indoors, the program's 20-year average for the event is under that margin, too. That indoor average also includes a NY No. 4 all-time mark in the event. Outdoors, the boys' team carries three of the five fastest relay marks ever run at that distance for a team from New York state.How do they do it?
"We apply the Kenyan approach to our relays," Burks said. "We have that group training mentality. You're only as fast as your slowest leg. There needs to be a hunger to get on that relay."
It's an approach more routinely found on the cross country team rather than within one of the routinely strongest sprint squads in the Northeast. But the results are unmistakable, most recently demonstrated at the 2021 Ocean Breeze Elite Invite. Running alone in the 4x400m Invitational, Burks entered two relays, with his fastest legs spread evenly across both teams.
Run almost as if it were an intra-squad time trial, Newburgh managed to clock 3:22.69 for first place, with their second squad coming across the line in 3:23.18. Both marks were ahead of the NY No. 2 team for the indoor season. The race provided some answers for the outdoor season as to how they could improve on their state Leading 3:19.39 indoor mark set earlier in the season.
"We're not afraid to put the younger guys in the relay over those with seniority," Burks said. "Not only is it about the individual athletes best, it's also about their potential. Who better to have a breakout race than a freshmen keeping pace with the seniors."
That mentality has allowed Newburgh to stay relevant in the event throughout the years, despite major graduations. Four-hundred-meter state record holder Elzie Coleman ('04) is surely the name most recognizable, but Randy Patterson ('10) can also found on both the indoor and outdoor 400m All-Time lists. More recently, its been over the 400m Hurdlers where Newburgh has found individual titles, as Ryler Gould ('19) and Robert Walker ('17) have jumped up on to all-time lists in that event.
Those accomplishments have led to both college scholarships for his athletes, and individual accolades for himself and his staff. In 2017, Burks was named the New York Track Coach of the Year by the US Track and Field and Cross Country Association (USTFCCCA). However, it's those college scholarships that hold the most importance to him, as they allow athletes from Newburgh to attend universities they may not otherwise have had access to.
"Our team has carried a 100% high school graduation rate since I've taken over, with a 98.5-percent college acceptance rate," Burks said. "But track and field sets you up for more than just college. After those four years, you're going to graduate and head into the professional world. Concepts like preparation through hard work, being on time, being held accountable for your team, these are all aspects that our athletes will encounter in the real world. They're all valuable by-products of the training we do here at Newburgh. It's all about setting you up for life, college and beyond."