It has become hard to keep track of all the athletic programs in Livingston Parish that are growing at an accelerated rate.
While Live Oak’s football team, Denham Springs High boys’ soccer team, Holden and Albany girls’ basketball crews and Walker boys’ basketball and the Doyle and Holden softball state champs have turned heads, some rapid improvements have flown under the radar a bit.
One of those is the Live Oak cross country team. Under coach Bobbi Jo Guerin, the Eagles’ boys and girls teams have grown exponentially the last four years.
When Guerin took over in 2012, Live Oak was middling at best, finishing at or around 35th in the state. By 2016, the Eagles had moved all the way to the mid-teens, and this past season the girls placed 7th at the state meet the boys were 12th. In 2015 Live Oak won their first ever Parish Championship in both boys and girls, the first title for the school in both divisions. The Eagle boys and girls followed defended their championships in 2016 and 2017, extending their collective parish-wide reign to three years in a row.
The turnaround was sharp, but the Eagles had yet to reach a satisfactory stopping point in their construction of the program.
In February, Guerin left to pursue an opportunity outside of sports. Her assistant coach and Live Oak alumnus Travis Johnson was tabbed as her replacement.
“I’m so excited to have a young, energetic head coach in that position with a great love for Live Oak and what we have going on,” Eagles’ athletic director Brett Beard said.
“He’s a great fit and exactly what we needed to take this program to the next level.”
A 2010 graduate, Johnson played multiple sports while at Live Oak. In 2012 he returned to the school as a volunteer assistant to the cross-country program before lending a hand with the distance portion of track & field program in addition to assisting the soccer team. This year he was hired by the school full-time after his graduation from Southeastern Louisiana and retained all of his assistant coaching positions.
“Our kids are lucky to have him,” Live Oak track & field head coach Brent Baker said. “He loves distance running. You can’t say enough good things about him. He’s built that program here. We didn’t have a whole lot of kids who were interested in running distance. He went out and got kids who are now interested and made them love it as much as he does. He’s pretty much built our distance program into something that is probably one of the better distance programs in the area if not the state of Louisiana. He’s done an awesome.”
Johnson said he takes a great amount of pride in the building of the program and his promotion to the role. That mostly comes from the fact that when he ran for the school there was a high rate of coaching turnover.
“When I ran from 2006-08, we had a new coach every year,” Johnson said. “And even when I graduated, they had a new coach every season. You have to have a love for the sport and a love for running. One coach got pregnant and started a family, one person left to go to another school or went into another job. It’s not like they didn’t care about the team or the sport, but life kept getting in the way basically. But now for five years we’ve had two people that really cared and have pushed it.”
The results of the first signs of coaching consistency and the push for the cross-country team have yielded results and Johnson does not intend to divert from the course set under Guerin. The fact that Johnson served as an assistant for the program should help bridge that gap and make the transition mostly seamless while adding a pinch of his personality.
“We always talked about having a love for running and loving your teammates, running for each other” Johnson said. “All of that is going to stay in place. We don’t want to change who we are. We’re still going to be a band of brothers and sisters. I just want to instill the hard work and dedication aspects, all the things (Guerin) was doing. My own personal flair is ‘grind it out.’ You can’t show up in November and expect to win a state championship. You put your work in June, July, August and September. Everything she was doing was the right stuff. You can tell because we went from 35th to 7th (place) in four years.”
“We’re to the point where we don’t want to finish in the top 15. We want to be in the top five.”
“I think it is going to be a smooth transition,” Baker added. “He and coach Bobbi Jo the past few years have worked hand in hand. Travis has taken the reigns of that and taken over. He’s the one that creates their workouts and pushes those guys to set their paces. There won’t be much difficulty in transition at all, I think it’s going to be very easy for him. All those kids love him.”
Working in Johnson’s favor is the fact that he isn’t exactly inheriting a bare cupboard, something he deserves a fair amount of credit for. The cross country team is no longer athletes from other winter or spring sports looking to stay in shape or pass the time in the offseason. Now an actual running culture exists within the team.
“I’m excited for it” Johnson said. “We only lost two senior boys to graduation. One was a scorer, so we get basically the whole team back for the boys. For the girls, every year we come and say ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do,’ and every year they surprise us. They just keep getting better and better. But we did lose four of the fastest girls in school history, so we have big shoes to fill there. But we’re excited for the challenge.”