Coaches keep pace to give runners a nudge

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
When Jasper cross country runners Mary Lechner, left, and Sydney Berger aren’t running in meets, it’s common for them to run with coaches Kevin Schipp and Kathy Overton in practice. At Jasper and the other local schools, coaches lace up and run with their athletes as a way to stay in shape themselves while connecting with their runners and more closely monitoring their progress.

Herald Sports Writer

When Northeast Dubois cross country coach Vic Betz ran in high school, his coach had a unique way of motivating the team.

“We would run and he would be behind us with a pickup truck honking and hollering and telling us to pick it up,” Betz recalled.

Times have since changed. Betz and his colleagues haven’t had any problem keeping up.

Instead of barking directions and watching, seemingly all area cross country coaches run with their teams during the season. There are plenty of reasons for the change.

“I just see that as such a positive,” Betz said. “I really believe a coach has to feel the pain of the kids. So if I go out there and see, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s tough on me,’ I think I know how the kids are feeling. As a coach, I have some empathy for them.”

This shift helps coaches better understand how and when to push their kids, one reason why Jasper’s girls team and Forest Park’s boys team will compete in Saturday’s semistate at Brown County. Heritage Hills’ Sienna Crews and Ben Woolems advanced as individuals after finishing first and second, respectively, at last Saturday’s regional.

Southridge coach Leslie Denu, a Northeast Dubois graduate, ran with the Raiders in the early part of the season as she trained for the Heartland Half Marathon — staying in shape is a big motivation for coaches who run —  and she said using personal experiences in explaining to kids why they need to run a certain way creates more of an impact.

Kids see their coaches running beside them and figure they must know what they’re talking about. Denu said she grew up with this rational, especially considering Betz coached her in high school.

“He hardly ever missed a day,” Denu said. “We definitely respected him a lot more. He knew what he was talking about and he could show us.”

Jasper coach Kevin Schipp will usually run warm-ups and cool-downs with his team, though in the middle of practice he’ll typically watch. With 44 kids on the roster this year, it’s easier for him to see everything. But assistant coach Kathy Overton, a four-year prep runner and 2006 Shoals High School graduate, regularly runs through the season when the Cats are on long-distance runs. Running gives coaches a reliable gauge, both for how well they’re in shape and on the progress of the kids.

Overton took a little break from running with the team this season. When she started again, despite not feeling like she had lost anything, she had difficulty keeping up whereas before she was in the front. That told her the team had improved.

But practice isn’t the only time when coaches try to keep up.

“When we’re coaching, we’re actually sprinting from place to place, so you have to be in shape to coach cross country,” Overton said.

Even though Schipp won’t run during the year, he’s joined in the last two weeks with just the girls team still competing.

Not surprisingly, having coaches on the course helps ramp up the competitiveness.
“If we’re beating him, it’s kind of funny,” Jasper’s Sydney Berger said.

Schipp ran a half-marathon in back-to-back years five years ago, and participated in this year’s Wettlauf 5K during Strassenfest. Many other coaches still run, either competitively or just for fun.

Heritage Hills assistant coach Gary Ayer fits into both of those categories. Ayer has competed in everything from 5Ks to half-marathons, and talks like he’d be jeopardizing his health if he wasn’t training for something.

That’s one reason he runs with the Patriots, “usually closer to the front,” Crews pointed out. The Patriot No. 1 runner even joked, “Sometimes, I’ll take it a little easy on him.”

But Ayer sees value in running outside of satisfying an urge.

“I think you get a lot more respect out of the kids if they see you going through the same thing,” Ayer said. “Coach (Kurt) Denning and I can tell them that we ran in high school, we went through the things that you did, but when we’re doing it with them, that changes the dynamics.”

“It shows that they’re dedicated to us and they want us to be better,” Crews added. “It shows that they really care.”

Forest Park coach Philip Wolf is what a mathematics professor would call an outlier. Wolf, a marathon runner who last month finished third overall at a half-marathon in Louisville, typically joins the Rangers on runs, as does assistant coach and wife, Karrie. Similar to other assistants, Northeast Dubois volunteer coach Ben Gessner also joins in workouts with the Jeeps.

Philip Wolf tapers off his runs toward the end of the year, however, as he wants his runners to develop their own sense of when they should surge during a race.

No. 1 Ranger runner Trey Dooley has greatly improved this season. A year ago, he finished 48th at regional. This season, he came in 14th. Dooley’s teammates, Ben Kitten (68th to 49th) and Sean Verkamp (69th to 58th) have similarly progressed in their last two regionals. Conner Bolte also moved up six spots, from 43rd to 37th.

“It feels like he’s mentally closer to us, and it kind of makes it where you feel he’s been in your shoes,” Kitten said.

“He knows what we’re going through, so he can help us to push a little bit harder,” Verkamp said, finishing the thought.

Everybody on the team is welcome to challenge Wolf at any point during a run. No one has ever accepted. Dooley once joined Wolf on a 6-mile run, keeping up with him as the two ran at a 5:55 pace. Dooley begged off after the first two miles, though, saying that pace “was just going to kill me.”

Both Kitten and Verkamp noted there’s never a shortage of topics when running with Wolf. Jokes and jabs are routine. But there’s plenty of advice being dispensed. Kitten is striding out more this year, while Verkamp’s confidence has risen. And Kitten noted Wolf’s routine of running less with the team as the season continues helps, with Kitten able to figure out on his own when to increase his pace.

Before Tuesday’s practice, Wolf and the guys poked fun at Kitten, who decided to wear a coonskin cap, a la Davey Crockett. It was difficult to tell where the coach-runner relationship began and ended.

Much like when coaches decide to run with their kids, maybe that’s the point.
“I always talk to them while they’re running,” Wolf said. “That’s why they respect me and I respect them.”
Contact John Patishnock at

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