Coach Matt Harlfinger keeping FHS runners on track

Avatar photo

Dan Finnerty

At the January 2024 Macon County Commissioners meeting, Commissioner John Shearl noted, “The track team in Franklin is outstanding. How they got there, I don’t know because they don’t have a track to run on.”

Shearl’s comments were part of a meeting discussing the future of track repair and new installations at two different Franklin area schools, one of which is Franklin High School (FHS). As Shearl observed, FHS does not currently have and has not had a track on which the school’s track teams can either practice or compete. Additionally, the school cannot host track meets, which means every competition is “on the road.”

Have the obstacles deterred FHS Track Coach Matt Harlfinger? Not at all. In 2023, the Panthers were men’s state champions in North Carolina in both indoor and outdoor track, with the women coming in second and third, respectively. 

Harlfinger, along with assistant coaches, continues to overcome challenges associated with not having a home track while at the same time looking forward to the sport facilities that will be part of the new FHS high school campus. He shared thoughts on what the track program has accomplished as well as his background.

FRANKLIN HIGH School track coach Matt Harlfinger knows from his own experiences what his more than 60 students need to succeed. 

A coach in the making

Harlfinger’s coaching story began in Fayetteville, Ga., in 2004, with the Southside Pioneers Track Club. 

“I was entering my sophomore year of college and helped coach my local track club,” he recalled. 

About a 100 athletes participated in the program and Harlfinger coached over half of them at times. After graduating from Western Carolina University (WCU) in 2007 with a degree in Exercise Science, and before taking a job at Velocity Sports and Performance in Peachtree City, Ga., he returned to WCU to pursue a master’s degree in physical education. Upon graduation in 2009, he took a position coaching track and field at WCU. In 2016, Harlfinger transitioned to a career as a personal trainer before taking on the FHS head coach position in 2021. That adds up to just about two decades that he has been coaching at some level.

While track does not normally generate the attention that team sports do, it is uniquely individual and with that comes more personal responsibility. Track is based heavily, and in some instances, exclusively, on numbers. A coach cannot, for instance, start a certain pole vaulter because he is a favorite. The proof is in the performance and the performance is a result of the preparation.

Looking at the larger picture, Harlfinger relayed, “I really appreciate the opportunity to work with young people to help them grow into adults. My main goal is to help open more doors for higher education by tapping into my network of collegiate colleagues to help kids in Macon County.”

Coaching from experience

On a personal level, Harlfinger started running track in the eighth grade but really did not see much success until his senior year of high school. He eventually graduated with five school records at a 5A school in Atlanta, Ga., but still went unrecruited. 

“I basically had to beg to have an opportunity to be on the WCU track team. As a freshman, I was able to score points within our conference and I earned a little bit of scholarship money,” he remembered. 

With steady improvement, Harlfinger eventually broke the Southern Conference and WCU Record in the Heptathlon during his senior year. As a student athlete, he was able to contribute to four Southern Conference Team Championships, and as a coach contributed to another 15 titles. He later participated in the World Championships at Helsinki (Finland). Competing in the Tetra-Decathlon, Harlfinger broke the existing American record, finishing third overall.

Originally from Boston, Mass., Harlfinger grew up in Atlanta and ended up in Cullowhee in 2003. 

“When my time at WCU came to a close, Cheryl Contino Conner called me and told me I wasn’t allowed to leave [the area] until her daughter, who was one of the top jumpers in the state, graduated high school,” he said. Conner then helped Harlfinger secure a job at Southwestern Community College, where he taught health and wellness. He also began working as a personal trainer around the same time. Ultimately, it all worked out as Conner’s daughter went on to be a state champion high jumper, which elevated Harlfinger’s reputation as a track coach. 

Staying in the area was also secured by him meeting his wife,  Adrienne, in Franklin. 

“I couldn’t be happier with how my life unfolded with Cheryl pulling some strings,” he said.

MATT HARLFINGER with his wife, Adrienne, and their two children, Gatlin (5) and Claire (2).

Team effort

In his role as track coach, Harlfinger benefits from a solid group of assistants. While he is officially boys’ head coach and Melissa Ward holds the same position for girls, he said, “We have a really smart division of labor amongst a really qualified group of coaches. Coach Robbie Tompa is our sprints and relays coach, Lesleigh Tabor and Ryan Danehy are spearheading the ‘throwing’ events this year, and the two of them have been doing an amazing job.” 

Harlfinger said Macon Middle School Track Coach Coleman Tallent helps other coaches out in various ways. He pointed out that having well-qualified coaches on meet days is important because all of the field events start at the same time and he cannot be everywhere simultaneously. Additionally, assistant Jeff Howard helps with the distance program and has been an integral part of its success. Coach Joel Lynch has been able to help this year as well in the pole vault event, which has historically been a big point-scoring opportunity for FHS.

Coaching track at FHS is a multi-faceted undertaking, with around 60 students participating in the program overall. Half are fully interested in participating competitively. Others are more interested in conditioning for another sport. 

“We have another group where their parents told them they had to play a sport or get a job,” said Harlfinger.

Mixing the different interests and objects is an ongoing challenge. Trying to teach basics to some and advanced techniques to more experienced athletes demands skill and patience. Harlfinger added that high school differs from college along this front. 

“At the collegiate level, most everyone who shows up in August gets recruited. They were invited to be part of a track team because of the success they have had as a track athlete. At this [high school] level, we get kids that show up from a multitude of different backgrounds and trying to get everyone on the same page can be a challenge,” he said.

Conversely, a rewarding part of the program is having the opportunity to work with kids from a multitude of backgrounds. Harlfinger shared that his coaching team “leads kids to community service projects, monitors grades, and really pushes them to be better people off the track.”

Regarding the differences between indoor, outdoor, and cross-country track events, Harlfinger admits he has also been partial to the indoor program. “Some of the meets are done in climate-controlled indoor facilities. Those facilities get very loud when you cram 1,000 screaming fans in there. Everything happens in close proximity. Indoor track has fewer participants, so typically the larger your team, the better your chances of finishing high in the standings, which plays to your favor.” Outdoor track is more spread out; the temperatures can be chilly early on in the season and hot and humid by the end.

Observing his current campaign, with the indoor season just completed, and outdoor ramping up before the school year closes out, the coach named some students who are excelling. 

“We have numerous standout athletes this year: Seniors Elijah Cochran, Logan Russo, and Barrett Stork were all candidates for MVP at the 3A State meet. All three are being recruited by Division 1 schools,” explained Harlfinger. The program also employed the numbers one and two indoor pole vaulters in junior Adam Rogers and senior Aaron Jennings. 

On the girls’ side, junior Laura Covarrubias and senior Hope Smith were also in the MVP running at the state level. Hope recently signed with Gardner Webb University to continue her track career. The team also returned the reigning 3A state champion pole vaulter in senior Boston Stringer, who was also being recruited by colleges this year. 

Sophomore Michelle Ortega returned from last year’s state champion 4×200 team and the program also added to that squad junior Justus Bradford, who was a welcome addition both there and in the high jump. Lastly, two-sport star Charley Seagle at one point led the state in shot put this season.

One interesting fact regarding the 2023-2024 indoor season was the ratio of boys to girls, with twice as many girls as boys participating. 

“There were some meets where we were struggling to find boys to put in events, and at the same time struggling to figure out which three girls were going to get to compete and who was going to get left at home,” said Harlfinger.

Another unique challenge faced each year is fundraising. Since FHS is not able to host home competitions, it cannot draw any funds via gate fees. Coaches have to raise funds, and do that with raffles at basketball games, virtual GoFundMe campaigns, bingo games, selling team programs, and through other donations from the community at large. Approximately $10,000 need to be raised each year to offset hotels, entry fees, food, and sundry athlete necessities.

When asked what he looked most forward to in the outdoor spring season, the coach was emphatic about the possibilities. “Coming off of last year’s success, we actually got invited to some really unique meets this year. Specifically, the Golden Corner Invitational in Seneca, S.C.; it will be a six-to-eight team competition and all the teams will have won a state title within the last two years.”

Following that event, the team will head to Harlfinger’s old high school in Atlanta for the “Friday Night Lights” meet. Last year, the event hosted schools from four different states and included five state championship teams competing. 

“On top of that, we have the WNC Kickoff Classic and the Blue Ridge Classic, which are always premier events in Western North Carolina. I am also looking forward to multiple signing days during the outdoor season as we have six to eight athletes that could be signing scholarships.”