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The Greatest High School Coaching System Comes to an End!

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Marc and Joan Hunter Built a Model for Success!

Circa 1989, Virginia

Marc Hunter was coaching track and cross-country at South lakes High School, and Joan Humphries was doing the same at James Madison High School.  The friendly rival coaches often swapped training ideas and coaching philosophies.  They soon became a couple and married in 1994, and the tandem was formed.

Marc Hunter was born to run.  In both track and cross-country, Marc was a multiple-time State High School Champ, multiple-time D-1 College All-American, and post-college national caliber runner who represented the USA in the World Cross-Country Championships.

Joan was also a highly accomplished runner, from her Virginia State Championship days in high school to her Age-Group Masters performances where she was a 4-Time National Champ!

September, 2014

The Dynamic Duo began their new coaching positions at Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville, VA.  Over the next seven years, their boys and girls cross-country and track programs produced dozens of All-Conference, All-State, and All-American runners, numerous Virginia State Championship and National Championship teams, and too many other accolades to count!  There are few who could argue that they have created the most successful and dynamic high school distance running program in America!

As fans of high school running began to see the emergence of this growing powerhouse at Loudoun Valley, I knew this went much deeper.  As nothing more than a fan of the game, I reached out to Marc several years ago via e-mail, and the busiest coach in the country and I became modern-day pen-pals.  What I discovered was a systematic, business-like approach to high school coaching that rarely exists.

Their Systemic Program

Marc and Joan arrived at Loudoun Valley with a combined eight decades of national and international caliber running, coaching, passion, and experience, as they began the journey to build a better mousetrap.  From an operational standpoint, they got rid of the status quo that was holding back other programs: traditional over-coaching, over-racing, and over-training.  They implemented their system of weight-training, drills that promote overall athleticism, increased mileage, long easy runs, and fewer races for an injury-free athletically friendly experience.  “It’s long-term development with a focus on injury prevention,” said Marc.  This system, while it is shockingly simple in design, produced rapid and impressive results.  The boys squad won their first (of five consecutive) state cross-country titles in the fall of 2015. The girls won their first (of three consecutive) titles in 2017. Covid ended those streaks when the 2020 seasons were scratched.

Marc handles most of the administrative duties and Joan works much of the day-to-day operations (coaching).  Moreover, while volunteer and assistant coaches are hard to find, Loudoun Valley has had some level of help in this capacity.  Regardless, Marc and Joan work overtime ― all the time!

Says Marc, “In the beginning, we wanted a great program, and we each knew what needed to be done.  Joan and I have different schedules, so we divide the work.  We simply out work you (other coaches), and our athletes benefit!”

“No stone is left unturned.” Joan added.  “We really care about building a quality program.”

Funding

As the success of the Loudoun Valley program was steamrolling its way toward national attention, funding this national caliber organization became next challenge.  (Traditional School Board budgets do not include airfare, hotels, meals, and other travel expenses for dozens of athletes and coaches, three seasons per year, covering the eastern seaboard to the west coast.) Marc created a Board of Directors to handle fund raising, and they ran with it!  They raise tens of thousands of dollars per year through relays, raffles, and other events.  “The 24-hour relay (in which relay teams run around the track for 24 consecutive hours, passing batons, and raising money) has become a community event, and even the mayor showed up,” said Marc. “It’s like a small-town county fair.  It’s quite amazing, and people like supporting (financially) a championship team!”

A group of local college students studying various components of sports psychology, sports medicine, and sports management was searching for some young athletes to work with.  “I reached out to the group, and they soon began meeting with and working with some of our athletes,” said Joan.  “You know, I later asked the group how many other Virginia high schools took part in the program, and the answer was none!”  Marc and Joan moved forward, systematically building their border-line professional athletic franchise while most of their would-be competitors, comparatively, were operating recreational jogging clubs!

Metrics of Success

Like most dynamic operators, the Hunters’ have attained success as a byproduct of their process: the process of passion, discipline, and vision.  If success is measured in wins and losses only, Marc and Joan have that in spades.  However, their priorities are rooted in their ability to effect change on every level.

One metric that cannot easily be measured is the impact that a program like this one has on the whole student body.  While the high school sports of track & field and cross-country do tend to attract a certain amount of speedy, strong young athletes, there is also a significant number of square pegs and misfits that seemed to be attracted to the running sports.  “A lot of our athletes just didn’t seem to fit in with the more traditional sports,” said Marc.  “But these kids found a home in our program.” In addition, Marc and Joan know that winning occurs on many levels. “I get really excited when one of my average kids from the JV team runs a PR (personal record) in a local dual meet!” said Marc.  Joan chimed in, “I will never forget the first time we had one of our girls qualify for the nationals (in cross-country)!”

If the truest metric of high school athletic success is winning, then Marc and Joan are in a class all by themselves.  The boys’ team, beginning in 2015, won five consecutive VA state cross-country titles, including the 2017 title where they swept the top five spots at the state meet, 1-2-3-4-5!  The Girls team was right there as well, winning state titles in 2017, 2018, and 2019.  There are the back-to-back National Cross-Country Titles with record-setting margins of victory, the indoor and outdoor National Track Championships, individual and team champions, and national records.  Marc cites his favorite high-level accomplishment as the time, on a single weekend in March of 2019, the Loudoun Valley boys indoor track team won three national titles: 4×1 mile relay, 4×800 meters relay, and the distance medley relay, the triple crown of high school distance running.  Both the 4×1 mile and the distance medley were won in national high school record times.  In the same race as the record-setting effort of the Loudoun Valley “A” team in the 4×1 mile, the Loudoun Valley “B” team finished seventh and the Loudoun Valley “C” team finished eighth!  Yes, in the National Championships, the Loudoun Valley varsity set a national record, their team of square pegs finished 7th, and the misfits finished eighth!  It’s true, their JV can beat your varsity!

Another metric of success in the business of high school athletics is the number of athletes that move on to compete on a college level.  Most high school programs occasionally send a track athlete off to compete in college.  (In the 1970s, I was blessed to be part of a highly successful high school program that won four consecutive conference titles in both track and cross-country and one state cross-country title, and our program, over my four years, had three athletes go on to compete on a college level.)  Well, over the past seven years, Marc and Joan have had 42 athletes from their program move on to compete in college, and that number is still growing.  “It’s great to see some of our athletes get into a college that may not have been available to them without (athletics)!” Joan proudly says.  “We still hear from our former athletes on how running has changed their lives.”

During the Hunters’ tenure at Loudoun Valley, Marc estimates that, at any given time, more than ten percent of the student population was part of their running program.  “We generally had between 110 and 120 students (in our program),” Marc says.  “I couldn’t walk down the school hallway without seeing some of our kids (the athletes).”

Marc and Joan coach three sports: cross-country, indoor track, and outdoor track.  For this, two of the top coaches in the nation receive less than $20,000 combined annual compensation.  The Loudoun Valley school system and the students are getting a bargain!

Life Outside of Coaching

Marc and Joan Hunter do have a life outside of coaching.  For the past 36 years, Marc has worked his full-time job in Washington, D.C. as a policy writer for a government agency.  Joan told me that (while not training for and winning age-group championships) she was a stay-at-home-mom for their nine children.  (Yeah, that’s not a typo!)  Some of their children have run at Loudoun Valley, including Drew, whose accolades include National High School Champion in both cross country and track (2 mile) and Gatorade National Cross-Country Athlete of the Year.  Drew is currently a professional middle-distance runner training at the Tinman Elite team out of Boulder, Colorado.

In early 2021, Marc and Joan gave their notice to the powers that be at Loudoun Valley High School that this would be their final year of coaching.  Two school years of Covid restrictions, post-Covid regulations, compliance, and politics had set in.  “A lot of the joy was gone,” says Joan.  “Marc was taking daily temperatures of 80 – 90 kids, writing down (the data), and then, when he gets home, entering all that into the computer.  Even though we practice outdoors, our athletes were expected to train ten-feet apart while wearing masks!”

“Our numbers (of athletes) were cut in half,” Marc added.  “Some parents no longer wanted their kids involved in sports (due to Covid).”

June 19th, 2021, Post Covid 

Virginia held its first outdoor track championships in two years. It was a bittersweet day for the Loudoun Valley family.  Both the boys’ and girls’ teams won their respective Virginia state track & field titles, the final two championships under the Hunter’s tenure.  Moreover, Joan and Marc Hunter crossed their own finish line, together, as champions.

As the 2020-2021 school year was coming to an end, it appeared that the legendary Hunter tandem would no longer be coaching.  However, a call came in from the Tinman Elite team. (Amazing things happen to people who are at the top of their field.)  It seems that a coaching change was in order at Tinman.  “The guys on the team asked us to coach them,” said Marc.  “We initially thought we (mostly Joan) would coach them through the Olympic Trials and then move on.  However, they really wanted us to move to Boulder, Colorado and become full-time coaches for the team.  They made it economically feasible, so, yes, Joan and I are the new coaches for the team!”

Marc and Joan’s first order of business is simple:“Get the current group of guys healthy again and running,” Marc said. “Next, we want to build a woman’s team as well!”  And of course… “Tinman Elite is always (currently) looking for sponsors and supporters to grow the group and to give the (athletes) more opportunities.”  This is all starting to sound very familiar!

At the time of our recent interview, Marc and Joan were in Boulder, Colorado.  Marc will be heading back east to tie up some loose ends.  In the rear-view mirror is the home that they used to raise nine children and the school that they used to cultivate the next generation of great people.  And in their wake, they leave behind hundreds of disciples.  There are dozens of All-Conference, All-State, and All-American runners that just didn’t fit into the more traditional sports.  There are at least 42 (and counting) college-level athletes.  And let’s not forget the middle-of-the-pack kid from the JV squad who popped a PR in the mile at a local dual meet.  Many of the athletes, square pegs, and skinny teenagers from the Hunters’ reign at Loudoun Valley will become life-long runners.  A few dozen will become coaches who will begin to shape the next generation of misfits and square pegs.

Dennis Siggins
Photo Credit: Jon Schweppe, High-End Headshots

From the Desk of Dennis Siggins

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