Cross country coaches

Area cross country and track coaches converged recently for a clinic at Upper St. Clair High School to learn useful techniques and training tips for the season. Pictured are: (front) Mike Agostinella from Mt. Lebanon; Rich Wright from Baldwin, Doug Petrick and Maureen Chermak from Upper St. Clair; Lori Poe from Chartiers Valley; (back) Joe Winans from South Fayette; Tim Wu and Justin Pinto from Peters Township and Mark Galley from Canon-McMillan.

Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair. South Fayette and Chartiers Valley. Peters Township and Canon-McMillan. Bethel Park and Baldwin.

They may be rivals on the gridiron, pitch or baseball and softball diamond, but they are one big happy family when it comes to cross country and track.

At least the teams’ coaches are.

“It’s the make-up of the sport,” said USC coach Maureen Chermak of the camaraderie among the coaches. “Yes, it’s competitive, but it is also something that every individual can get better at regardless of the level they are on.”

Chartiers Valley boys and girls teams coach Lori Poe said “there are no secrets” among the South Hills running community.

“It’s not like you have to be developing a great offense or defense,” Poe said. “You have to get the kids out running. Whatever you can do to inspire them to do that is good for all runners.”

Several years ago, Poe inspired USC to join in training runs she organized on the Montour Trail in Cecil Township. The Wednesday night sessions start near Tandem Connection, a bike shop that Poe owns with her husband, Dave. This summer, Canon-Mac and Peters joined the workouts. So did runners from South Fayette, where Poe’s daughter, Hailey, is a senior captain for the Lions.

“When we first started doing this we had USC going one way and CV going another,” Poe said. “I told them, ‘that’s not the purpose. You guys are supposed to run together.’ It’s a good way to meet each other.”

The sessions, said Poe, also build confidence and promote improvement.

“If you just run against your own teammates, then you are only as good as runners on your team,” she said. “So, if you do it with other runners, that helps.

“It helps, too, when they see them line up against them for a race, then they are not thinking ‘I can’t run with them. I can’t beat them.’ It helps develop all the kids in our area to be good runners.”

That’s what running coaches are all about. That is why they are so supportive of each other and their programs.

“As coaches, we all like to see our kids from our area do well. Go on to states,” said Poe. “If it benefits training with other people, then that’s great. This is a great way to network and say, ‘hey come run.’”

Area athletes don’t just run against each other in sectional meets within the WPIAL. They compete against each other in invitationals throughout the fall.

Events like the Marty Uher Invitational held at California University and the Red White and Blue Classic held at Schenley Park prepare local runners for the WPIAL championships in late October. The Foundation Meet, held later this month in Hershey, is a preview of the PIAA championships.

The athletes are not only cheered on by their teammates, opposing runners and the coaches offer encouragement throughout the courses and at the finish line.

“Even being in different events, we are always cheering for our section,” Chermak said. “Go to a 5K road race in Pittsburgh, and everybody is cheering for you, but they may not know your name because it’s just the sport. So I think it makes sense that you get coaches to gravitate to a sport like this and are willing to share what they are doing and not think it’s like a secret.”

Peters Township coach Tim Wu agreed.

“As coaches, we are competitive sometimes,” he said, “but it’s like we are not here to get the glory. We are trying to help facilitate kids, mentor them, get them going in the right direction.”

Wu added there indeed is a “common bond” among coaches, and they “like to share” nuggets of knowledge they gain.

“That’s what’s healthy (about our sport),” Wu said, “and what makes our runners better. We have people running together and coaches contacting other coaches. That’s been beneficial. It’s not like I know more than you and all that.

“It’s a learning process,” he continued. “I don’t care how much somebody knows, we always learn something new.”

Many of the area coaches learned plenty when they attended the USC Coaches Clinic. During the summer session held at the high school, renowned coaches such as Doug Soles and Dan Caulfield shared words of wisdom and secrets to success.

Soles has coached Great Oak High School to prominence in California as well as the nation. Caulfield competed at a high level in the collegiate and professional ranks before bringing his talents to California University of Pennsylvania.

The clinic proved a beneficial reunion for the coaches as they prepared for the competition of what is expected to be another exciting cross country season.

“We see each other all the time,” SF coach Joe Winans said, “but getting all the coaches together in the same place and having the chance to sit down and really bounce ideas off them and see how similar programs might be, how similar some of those challenges are and how we want to do things to make our athletes better is really a good opportunity.”

For Winans, whose girls team is expected to challenge for the PIAA Class AA title, the forum proved a boost as he was able to hear how coaches do things differently way. He said he could “internalize” that information and see how he could apply the data to his team.

“It’s easy to get stuck in your own echo chamber,” Winans said. “You do the same things because they always worked, but to hear something in a different way, that someone else is doing, makes you consider what you are doing in the past, how you can change that and make it better for your athletes in the future. It may not be a specific workout or specific pace running, but how can I take the essence of what was being done so I can take that to my kids so I can get more out of them.”

Winans added he gained an appreciation of the yin and the yang of coaching — the science vs. the art of coaching. All in the coaching fraternity, including Soles who coached individual as well as team champions, share workouts. However, that doesn’t necessarily add up to success.

“It doesn’t mean anything unless I can relate that to my kid. That’s the challenge. That’s the science vs. the art,” Winans said. “The science is very easy. Do this workout on this day, this pace with this rest, but the art is knowing how to apply that to your kids. How to couple that with some of the other extra circumstances that athletes might be dealing with and being able to do those things at appropriate times to get the most out of your athletes. That’s the challenge. That is what I enjoy most about coaching is finding those right moments.”

Indeed, timing is everything and not just reserved for the finish line. Canon-McMillan coach Mark Galley acknowledged he learned many things at the clinic that are helping him this season. Some things he’s implementing. Other things he has let go to the wayside, he is incorporating again.

“It’s simple little things, like athletes setting the goals,” he said of what he took from the forum. “I’ve had teams that set the goals and led the way, but I had a young team last year. We had a good summer for us, and we hope to build on what we did in the past, but it starts by meeting with the kids and discussing what’s important to them and what goals they want to go after.”

Galley added coaches can never underestimate what is happening in the lives of the athletes. All the interference athletes deal with can be such a big factor in their performance.

“As coaches, sometimes we focus so much on our training program that we forget about all those things influencing and affecting it as well,” he said.

As coaches, Poe added, it’s imperative to “think outside the box” and embrace new ideas. She found the clinic thought-provoking.

“It makes you think how you can impact each kid instead of keeping everyone as one team,” she said. “You do a lot of individual things based on their training, but you look at what would make them excel. As a coach, it is always good to hear different ideas.”

Some of those ideas gave the coaches validation regarding the programs they run.

For example, Mt. Lebanon already implements many of the ideas the speakers recommended. The Blue Devils do dynamic and static forms of stretching, running drills and weight training.

“A great deal of what they talked about are things we do,” said Mike Agostinella.

At USC, they started incorporating the ancillary things shared at the clinic in addition to the core workouts such as stressing how much sleep a student should have,” Chermak said.

“We are taking care of all those things outside of running that can impact performance,” Chermak said. “There are other ideas on how to continue to grow and not get stagnate once you experience success, too.”

Some suggestions though are “challenges” such as the idea of carving out more time for the athletes to have more individualized attention.

“Hard to do at the high school level, but I think it’s important,” Chermak said.

Agostinella agreed. He said he gained an appreciation for “individualizing” workouts, but sees the difficulty in its implementation when a team has a high number of participants and only one coach.

Agostinella said acknowledging that dichotomy is something he needs to do more of and he has the ideal opportunity as he coaches one of the best runners in the country.

Patrick Anderson is the defending PIAA champion in cross country. The senior has also competed on the national level at events such as the Foot Locker Championships and the prestigious Penn Relays.

“Pat is on a different level than most high school kids, and in order for him to continue developing we are going to need to individualize more,” Agostinella said.

Even with more than 50 years in the business, Agostinella continues to develop his coaching skills. At any age, people need to keep learning, he said.

“If you keep learning, it doesn’t matter how long you have been in it,” he said

Learning and implementation are two different things. All the sharing among the coaches doesn’t necessarily produce the desired results.

“You can share workouts, but if you can’t implement them in the right way, they are useless,” Chermak said. “So it’s more like, try this and get the athlete to reach their potential using this. It works for me even though what works for one may not work for all. For all of us, though, the goal is for them to reach their potential at the right time.”

For Justin Pinto, that’s the ultimate outcome. The Peters Township coach does not focus on wins and losses.

“You could have the greatest day for your kids. They could have the best times. Every one could run a personal best and we could still lose as a team,” he said.

“You can’t control the final results, but you can control the process to get the kids to where they wanted to go. You can’t just get a bunch of workouts and say ‘we’re all going to nationals.’ It’s how you make things fit within your contest and your kids. As coaches, the goal is what can we do to help them through the process to get to the results they want.”

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Almanac Sports Editor

An award-winning journalist, Eleanor Bailey has been employed by Observer Publishing Company since 1982. She is the sports editor at The Almanac and a contributor for the Observer-Reporter.

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