by Mike Byrnes

Being a coach is not a job, it's more a calling, a quest, a journey doomed to failure but a journey filled with joy and sadness; agony and ecstasy; mountainous highs and Death Valley lows; but one that a coach wouldn't miss. At the high school level the coach has little or no idea as to whom will show up at the first team meeting. What kind of turnout will they get? Will the athletic administration be supportive of the coach's efforts at recruitment? What about budgets? Every school administration will tell you all teams are treated equally but just as in the book 'Animal Farm', all sports are equal but some are more equal than others. Thus, to be a successful coach in a 'minor' sport requires dedication, determination and durability. And it helps to have an intelligent Athletic Director. Example, several years ago an AD saw a young girl running through his neighborhood. He knew she was a soccer player. He also knew talent when he saw it. Through his urging, the girl left soccer and began running cross country. Two years later she won the Foot Locker National championship.

The athletic administration at BLACKSBURG HIGH SCHOOL must be pretty good. Their cross country coach is a young man, James DeMarco.

"I have been a runner since I was 14," he comments on a bio he recently sent me. Like so many others he began running not to be a runner but to get into shape for another sport, in this instance, cross country skiing. DeMarco grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. And, like so many others, he discovered he loved running, "…it ended up turning into a passion." Fortunately, his high school, Bartlett HS in Anchorage has always been at the forefront of our sport in Alaska. During DeMarco's years his teams won seven State titles, three in cross country and four in track and field.

He earned a scholarship to South Dakota State, won All American honors and anchored a team that won the NCAA Div II nationals. Upon graduating he went back to his hometown and coached the distance runners at Bartlett. But he had another love, he wanted to own a running store. Friends turned him on to the Blacksburg area and in 2003 he opened Runabout Sports. He also got the job at the local high school and the rest is history.

But it isn't history if someone doesn't make it so, thus this article.

Blacksburg High School has been around for a long time and has a splendid record in athletics in virtually every sport. Their 11 state championships in Girls Cross Country is the best in Virginia history. So, their current achievements should come as no surprise to those familiar with the history of cross country in Virginia.

DeMarco took over the program in 2003 with this year's team being his greatest. Now, as any good coach will tell you, every coach, at one time in their career, will stumble upon an athlete with awesome potential. The real test of such a coach is what does he/she do with that talent? Certainly the athlete will win many races and set school records, that's expected. But can/will the coach delve deeply into their potential and bring out the best they have to offer? That's the test of a truly outstanding coach. James DeMarco fit's the bill…in spades.

"We knew we had a shot at the national record in the DMR (Distance Medley Relay) but we also knew it would be a terrific challenge," commented the coach. He knew whereof he spoke. Indoors the team went to the Nike Indoor Nationals hoping to break Saratoga's 4x1 mile mark, 19:59.24. But getting four athletes to peak on the same day —especially if one of your best runners is sick - is as difficult as getting a conservative to say something good about President Obama's health care plan. Blacksburg's attempt failed as they lost to Saratoga 20:15.06 - 20:24.07. "We learned a lesson," he said. BUT, more importantly, they LEARNED a lesson.

Heading into the Penn Relays he prepped his team. "It was pretty positive. We knew we had the ability, all we had to do was put it together." He knew the leadoff leg was all important. "If you get out badly, it's almost impossible to make it up." He gave the assignment to Kathleen Stevens. It was almost a disaster. Stevens got out poorly, was jostled and dropped well back. But these were four different girls than the four who were trounced a the indoor championships. "She ran a very smart race. She moved up slowly, not trying to make it all up too early and I knew we were in good shape." But they trailed rival Saratoga again! The 400m leg saw Blacksburg fall further back and even more so after the 800m leg. "But Hannah Brown had a break through 800m and came through with a 2:13.73." That left the responsibility for winning the coveted Penn Relays title squarely upon the shoulders of Joanna Stevens. "I knew I was 6-7 seconds (it was actually 3.37 seconds) but I went after her (the leader) right away." It was no-contest. {The Stevens sisters ranked #'s 2-3 in the mile, Kathleen - 4:49.96 and Joanna, 4:50.02. (USL, Emily Lipari, 4:46.77)

Strangely, Saratoga has always ranked right at the top for the distance relays but almost always based upon depth rather than relying upon a single outstanding kid. That would be their undoing at Penn.

Joanna Stevens caught up to her Saratoga adversary and the race was over. It merely became a contest to see how fast they would run.

DeMarco: "I think had everything gone our way, we could have run close to 11:40. I know Kathleen could have gone under 3:30. But, she got boxed in, pushed and shoved (Ed. Note: The Penn Relays runs ONE race in the DMR so the early going is definitely survival of the fittest) and by the time she got clear there was only so much she could do. Both Dorrell and Brown ran well as did Joanna, we have no complaints. We came to win and we won. Could we have run faster? Sure, but we didn't."

But don't count the Virginians out. With a coach like DeMarco, anything is possible.

And probable.


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