EFFINGHAM—Those who donned an Effingham Junior High track and field uniform in the 1970s through early 80s—or Effingham Central School as it was known then—were collectively and affectionately known as Pickett’s Army.
Hundreds of junior high students itched to join the coveted collective of runners and field event athletes under former coach Steve Pickett. After a career spanning across two decades and two eras, Pickett is being recognized by the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association as a Distinguished Middle School Coach.
“That was shocking,” Pickett said of learning he was awarded the honor. “I was babysitting my two granddaughters in Arlington, Virginia,..and I think I was on the computer or reading when I saw it and thought ‘what in the heck is this?’”
Pickett learned of the honor through an email from ITCCCA’s Steve Currins. This is just the second time the honor has been awarded as the recognition was created this year.
Pickett said he received six nominations from some of his former students and athletes and friends. Those who nominated Pickett include Effingham High School Principal Kurt Roberts, Effingham High School Athletic Director Dave Woltman, EHS teacher Joe Fatheree, Cowden-Herrick/Beecher City Athletic Director and family friend Carolyn Wendte and friend Andy Pullam.
Pickett’s 22 years of coaching began in 1970 when his tenure as the head boys coach at Effingham Central School. He served in that position until 1983, and during that time, he was the head girls track coach for a year in 1976.
Pickett said he left the world of coaching in 1983 when his infant son, Alexander, fell ill with a rare disease. He and his wife, Marlene, focused their time trying to save their son, but their little boy passed away some time later.
Pickett said in his paperwork submission to the ITCCCA that following his son’s death, he chose to focus on his family, pushing coaching and the sport he loved to the back burner.
“After that, I just walked away from the sport, turning my focus, attention and energy inward doing family things with my wife and two boys,” Pickett said.
Track and field would find its way back into Pickett’s life, however. Pickett said one phone call changed his trajectory in 2007.
“Years after the boys left home, I received a phone call from Effingham Unit 40 Activities Director David Woltman asking me if I wanted to return to coaching the seventh grade Effingham Junior High School boys track team,” Pickett said. “My wife was very supportive of me, stating that ‘you should take the job because you always loved track,’ so I accepted the position.”
The second time around as head of the track and field program saw Pickett add another nine years to his already impressive career as a coach.
Pickett’s first 13 years of coaching were dotted with numerous successes by both individuals and teams. Records were set, and many of them still stand today. Twenty-nine of the current 42 junior high boy’s records were set in Pickett’s two tenures, and two girls records remain from his time coaching.
Teams Pickett coached won a combined 79 championships including Illinois Elementary School Association, conference and invitational championships for both boys and girls teams. Junior high athletes also won 507 events in multi-team meets across the IESA districts and sectionals and conference and invitational meets.
To add to that already impressive list, Pickett’s male athletes brought 24 state medals home with 107 boys advancing to state over two decades. The girls won eight state medals with 12 girls competing in 11 events throughout Pickett’s career.
Like many a great coach, Pickett does not credit himself for all the successes. He said those achievements are because of the hard work of many athletes.
“You have outstanding athletes that come out for the program. They’re the ones that do all the work,” Pickett said. “What I like to really see is them succeed in something, to try something and succeed in it.”
In addition to cementing his coaching in the junior high record books, Pickett was apart of another portion of the school’s history. The first female track athlete, Dana Woltman, joined the boys team in 1975. The following year, Pickett coached the first girls track team without pay, with one of the girls teams bringing home a second place state trophy.
With his teams’ many successes on the track, gobs of students were eager to join what would become known as Pickett’s Army. Pickett said he recruited large numbers of students for the junior high track team: 189 athletes in 1976, 225 students in 1979 and 209 students in 1982.
Pickett said one of his starting runners in the middle of his career once commented on the massive number of athletes on the team, stating “Look, it’s Pickett’s Army.” The nickname stuck throughout Pickett’s career.
Pickett also coached outside of junior high athletics. In 1978, he coached the Effingham Central Special Olympics team, directed and coached Effingham Jaycees Sports Jamboree and helped establish and coach the Effingham Flyers Amateur Athletics Union Track Club in 1976.
Pickett also ran a track and field summer camp for his junior high athletes and helped with the Fellowship for Christian Athletes junior high. He taught language arts for a number of years at the junior high as well.
From the days of athletes jogging on a cinder track to his retirement in 2016, Pickett said he enjoyed every bit of his career. When Pickett started as the coach, his only experience with track was running for two years for Danville High School in his hometown of Danville.
In his decades-long career, one thing had not changed, and that was Pickett’s drive to make his athletes feel like they are part of something big.
“That’s what I was trying to do was make them feel good about themselves and give them something to be a part of. I think that’s really something,” Pickett said.
Pickett will be honored at a hall-of-fame and awards social on Jan. 10 in Lombard at the Westin Hotel. There, Pickett will also give a seminar on how to survive junior high track coaching using some of his tips and tricks from his own career.