As Billy Spiller Sr. stood on the track at Ellison High, he beamed with pride and claimed he was having as much fun now as when he began his tenure with the team 33 years ago.
Thirty-three members of this year’s Central Texas Cruisers AAU track team qualified for the Junior National AAU Championships in Detroit from July 27 to Aug. 3.
To Spiller, it doesn’t feel like he’s been coaching track for more than 30 years nor has he grown accustomed to the fulfillment of helping his athletes reach the ultimate heights, be it college for most and for some the Olympics — like former Ellison and Texas A&M standout Danny McCray, who was selected as an alternate for 1996 Olympic team.
“I’ve seen countless kids win at nationals, but if you even send one who wins, you’re successful,” Spiller said. “But what I’ve found after all these years is that this kind of success is humbling — what I see these kids do each year amazes me.”
Initially, Spiller started the club to help his son Billy Spiller Jr. — who eventually helped lead Killeen High School to the 1991 Class 5A football championship — keep training after moving to Killeen.
Now he is coaching the next generation of his clan. Tre’Jon Spiller is 10 years old and competes in the long jump, high jump and 200-meter dash. He is also the son of Spiller Sr. and has a pretty good idea as to why his dad has such an extensive track record with the Cruisers.
“Well, he pushes us real hard but not in a bad way — he really helps us a lot,” Tre’Jon Spiller said. “I want to get better, so he shows me how and helps me train. He’s a great coach and an awesome dad.
“I’ve been running track all my life and I feel like I can win the 200 because it’s what I’m best at.”
But as Spiller Sr. has known for years, a coach can’t help an athlete succeed by himself. The athlete must want to win and push themselves to work hard.
“I can only guide them and push them to push themselves,” he said. “They’ve got to put in the work. These kids do.”
On a team dominated by females — 23 girls to 10 males — it’s no surprise that Harker Heights senior Kennetra Hill has stepped into the role of team leader with style, a smile and a blue-collar mentality. The 17-year-old sprinter competes in the 400 relay, the 100 and the 200 and chooses to lead by example.
“I want to be like a sister to all of them. I want to help them improve and also be there when they need somebody to talk to,” she said. “I want to show them that all you can do is go out and do the best that you can.”
At 17, Hill is the eldest member of the team, while its youngest member, Deaubry Hood, is part of a group that might be putting up the most eye-opening times of all. The 8-year-old runs the 400, 100 and is a member of the 400 relay team that finished first at regionals with a time of 1 minute — good for second in the nation for that age bracket.
“I want to win (a national title) and I think I can win because I’m fast — even faster than Robert Griffin,” he said with a smile.
Amira Lamberts is competing in four events (400, 800, triple jump and long jump) and has every intention of taking first prize in each category. The 13-year-old Eastern Hills Middle School student is packed with confidence.
“I don’t think too much about the (event) until I get there,” she said. “This is only my second year of track (first in AAU) so I don’t try to overthink what I need to do. When I get there, I’ll know the score I need to beat and go for it.”
Chyna Otis is definitely the strong, silent type as evidenced by her first statement: “Please don’t make me answer too many questions.”
Her request was granted but not before the shot put, discus and javelin contender expressed her confidence in her ability to win at nationals.
“I’ve been there before and I took third,” she said. “I know who my competition is and what it takes to win.”
Shoemaker student Jasmine Rhodes is on the 400 relay, runs the 200 and competes in the high jump.
“I have medaled in high jump at every event I’ve entered, so I feel pretty good about my chances,” said the 16-year-old Rhodes. “This is my second year going to nationals, so I can help the younger, first-year kids with their nerves.”