By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer
Section III cross country programs have enjoyed extraordinary success in recent years. In Class A last season, both Fayetteville-Manlius and Auburn had nationally ranked girls' teams, while Cicero-North Syracuse and Liverpool ranked in the State Top-20. On the boys' side, Cicero- North Syracuse won the State and Federation Championships, Fayetteville- Manlius was nationally ranked, and Auburn ranked in the State top-20. In Class B, Skaneateles and South Jefferson girls ranked in the State Top- 20. In Class C, the Canastota girls and Beaver River boys won State titles, while Sandy Creek, Tully, Weedsport and Sauquoit Valley ranked in the State Top-20.
This excellence reflects in many ways the passion for running that area coaches display. Tracy Fanning, Mike Guzman, John Hohm, Jim McCaul, Rick Nastasi, Andy Pino, Jack Reed, Jerry Riordan, and Al Wilson, to name a few, have risen above the level of sectional dominance to bring Section III into regional and national prominence.
The success of a cross country program is measured not only by the numbers, but by its impact on the lives of the athletes. Many high school runners break down under the constant stress of training and competing. The emotional and physical poundings carry a heavy toll, taking away the joy of running. As a result, numerous rising stars burn out early, and with them the promise of running as a way of life.
A successful program requires the partnership of school administrators, parents, coaches and athletes. The administration provides morale and material support for uniforms, facilities, scheduling and transportation. The parents provide role models, opportunity, availability, commitment, encouragement, proper nutrition and adequate rest. The coaches inspire, motivate, train, encourage and console. Finally, the athletes run the race, the fruit of a lengthy collaboration.
The coaching staff is an integral component of this partnership. While every coach understands the main ingredients in a running program-- base miles, intervals, hills, stretching, weights-- it takes knowledge and experience to get the right mix for each runner. A perfect mix leads to a healthy program, while a careless mix can lead to boredom and under achievement on one end, and injury and burnout on the other. A good coach sets realistic positive goals for the runners and for the team, and motivates the athletes to achieve them. A seasoned coach knows the difference between middle school and high school runners, motivating the youngsters to participate and inspiring their elders to excel.
Beyond the mechanics of training and competing, a successful coach needs to communicate well. A coach's charisma, love for the sport, and accessibility to the athletes make training a lot easier. A good coach recognizes a good losing performance, notices an unimpressive but consistent participant, and acknowledges a gutsy effort. A sensitive coach rides the emotional roller coaster of his teenagers, laughing on the upward climbs and screaming together on the downhill falls.
In a society where families take on many forms, the parenting and mentoring roles of a coach take on added significance. The cross country coaches in Section III have risen to this responsibility in a manner unseen in other sports. Yet, the ability of a coach to communicate with the parents remains an essential ingredient of a good program.
Many parents and coaches live their unfulfilled athletic aspirations through their children. Common in many games, this little league syndrome is hard to find in Section III running. The coaches are themselves runners and racers, earning their athletes' respect through mud and sweat. Decades of running and competing on the trails and on the roads have formed close friendships among the coaches. This friendship translates in turn into a friendship among the runners. Cross country meets turn into family events, where runners, coaches and parents join hands to applaud the leaders and cheers the stragglers.
The overall stability and low turn over rate among the cross country coaching staff in Section III has a noticeable impact on the performance of the athletes. Many coaches have established dynasties, returning to their program year after year, providing continuity and inspiring confidence. While high school students expect new teachers every year, retaining the same cross country coach provides security in the midst of uncertainty.
The chill in the air and the colors in the leaves announce the start of another cross country season in Central New York. Section III promises much excitement, as seniors seek to be remembered and freshmen try to get noticed. Many runners will excel and many teams will succeed. Behind every effort, there is a coach who has given time and energy, for the love of running and youth.
Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at email@example.com.