COLUMBIA - Next April, the annual track and field classic at Spring Valley High celebrates its 25th anniversary with a new lead sponsor and a few old friends.
What had been the Taco Bell Classic for the past 20-plus years, is now the Bojangles' Classic. The change comes after the retirement of Fred Kotoske, who sold his Midlands Taco Bell restaurants franchise and moved to Chicago to be closer to his family.
"We're really excited about having Bojangles South Carolina as our new sponsor," said John Jones, Spring Valley High track coach and meet director since its start.
Kotoske and Taco Bell were longtime supporters of the classic and a key part of its growth over the past two decades, though Kotoske would tell you otherwise.
"John Jones is the reason the classic has been so successful," Kotoske recently told scrunners.com. "It was all his dream, his vision."
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Jones, a West Point graduate, arrived at Spring Valley in 1980 and for the first 10 years, track meets were held on the school's red clay track.
"For every practice, I had to hook a drag up, just like you drag a baseball infield, and drag the track smooth," Jones said. "For meets, we had to scratch lines and put the lines down with chalk. It was about a four-hour operation just to get the track ready for a meet."
The meets in those early years of what was the Spring Valley High Invitational attracted primarily schools from South Carolina. That changed after 1990, the year Harry Parone Stadium would get an all-weather track surface.
Also around that time, Jones would meet Kotoske.
"He stopped by my new store at Polo Road and Two Notch (Road) one day and explained what he was trying to do with the track program," Kotoske said. Jones' dream was to expand the meet far beyond South Carolina.
"Anytime we wanted to go to an invitational or a big meet, we had to hit the road, Jones said. "We had been to the Volunteer Classic in Tennessee and I had been to the Florida Relays and I said to myself that it was a shame that people from this area have to travel so far to a big meet."
The first year of the Spring Valley Invitational attracted 13 schools, all from South Carolina. The third year, the meet "made a big jump," Jones said, "mainly because we did the meet the right way. We tried really hard to stay on schedule and we had plenty of good help."
The meet would also begin to attract out-of-state schools, Jones said, "which would attract even more in-state schools that would come to see the out-of-state competition."
The meet's motto from the beginning was to try and make the event "a little better" each year, Jones said. "All the money we make each year goes back into the event." As a result, the meet has been able to update its electronics each year, along with other improvements - big and small.
Kotoske, along with Richland County, played a large role in growing the meet over the years, particularly to the benefit of the athletes and coaches.
"We (intentionally) went way overboard on the awards," Jones said. "Luckily, we had Taco Bell all those years because (Kotoske) paid for that. When a kid wins an event at our meet, he or she walks away knowing they had won a meet."
As for the coaches, Kotoske talks about the days when he, along with his Taco Bell employees, would work well into the early morning hours the day before the meet, preparing food to keep the coaches fed.
Kotoske fed the coaches to the point where some would tell complain to Jones that they had gained weight during the two-day meet.
Jones said in the past 10 years the Richland County Council has allocated funds annually for the meet from tax revenue generated through local accommodations/hospitality taxes.
Kotoske, who now lives in Chicago, said he teamed up with Jones and Spring Valley in part to get more involved in the community he served, but more importantly to grow his franchise, much like Jones would lean on Kotoske and Taco Bell to grow the state's high school track and field program.
"It was a great team effort between John and I," Kotoske said.
Kotoske bought five stores when he first came to Columbia in 1988. He had 15 stores when he sold them earlier this year.
As for the Classic, last year's event attracted athletes from more than 200 schools from South Carolina, the rest of the Southeast and on into the Northeast. It is considered one of the top high school track and field meets nationally and has earned select meet status from the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation for the past 10 years.
The NSAF provides funds to events on their list of select meets.
"That distinction has helped us bring in bigger athletes and really good teams," Jones said.
Last summer, Raven Saunders and Jasmine Camacho-Quinn were among several South Carolina athletes who competed in the Olympic games in Rio - Saunders in the shot put and Camacho-Quinn in the 100-meter hurdles. Saunders currently owns the Bojangles' Classic meet record in the shot and discus throw, while Camacho-Quinn is in the top five all-time in the 100 hurdles.
Last April, Anna Cockrell, a senior at Providence Day Academy in Charlotte, took both the 100- and 400-meter hurdles at Taco Bell. Then, just two months removed from her high school graduation, she competed at the Olympic trials in Oregon.
To help mark the 25th anniversary, Jones said he's working on bringing four of the nation's top high school shot putters: Jordan Geist of Pennsylvania, Adrian Piperi from Texas, Bronson Osborn of California and Dan Guilliani of Maine, to compete at Spring Valley. All have shot put throws topping 70 feet.
"We are so pleased to be partnering with Spring Valley High School to support the 2017 Bojangles' Track & Field Classic," said Joe Polek, Bojangles marketing coordinator for the area. "This is such an exciting event that carries special significance within the local community. We hope that all student-athletes have a tremendous experience this year, in what is the 25th anniversary of this event.
"Being a strong community partner is built into the fabric of our company, so involvement in this premier event is very meaningful to us. These student-athletes who are competing are learning valuable life skills such as sportsmanship and teamwork, and we love that through this partnership, we are able to support local schools and provide great experiences for student-athletes."
Georgia's Reese Hoffa, who still holds the meet shot put record of 63 feet, 7 inches set in 1997, has been invited to serve as honorable meet referee. Jones also hopes to bring back Norman Green, who in 1991 set the current meet record in the men's 100-meter hurdles.
And, as in previous years, Jones is tweaking the meet to make it even more enjoyable for the athletes and the thousands of parents and friends who come out in support.
"We're going from two clerks to five clerks, Jones said. "I don't like for the kids to have to stand in line just to perform in their event." Also, there will be a shade tent in the infield, near the start/finish line, for athletes gathering for their event.
"Every year we're trying to improve for the spectators, the athletes and for the coaches," Jones said.