New Blacksburg High School Cross Country coach Stephen Howard is a familiar face in the New River Valley running community.
He grew up here, ran track and cross country at Blacksburg High and is the former manager of RunAbout Sports, the local running store owned by Howard’s former high school coach James DeMarco. (DeMarco coached Blacksburg’s boys and girls cross country, indoor track and outdoor track and field teams to more than 20 VHSL championships during an 11-year tenure that ended in 2015.)
This month, Stephen is taking over a cross country program that’s been led for the past five years by Brandon Bear, DeMarco’s successor who has moved to upstate New York.
While pursuing a degree at Virginia Tech, Stephen gained coaching experience as one of DeMarco’s BHS assistants. For the past few years, he’s coached at Christiansburg Middle School, where he also teaches science.
He says the opportunity to lead the BHS distance program was too good to pass up.
“Cliche aside, this is a dream come true. During my initial introduction to the team I told them that some people dream of being an astronaut when they grow up, I dreamed of being back coaching Blacksburg. While I have enjoyed my time coaching Christiansburg Middle School, there is something incredibly special about the program Blacksburg has developed over the past 15 years,” he said.
While most of the team has been meeting for summer training, cross country practice officially starts Monday. The team will host two meets at its Blacksburg course — the Blacksburg Relays on Aug. 28 and the Metro XC Championships on Oct. 20.
Howard says his most important goal is to promote a healthy team and community culture, but he also plans to set high expectations for his runners.
“Just like an individual athlete, I believe it is important to set high goals. I would like Blacksburg to re-establish itself as a state renowned powerhouse for both the girls and boys teams. While this is an overall goal, it will take work to recover from a tough time during COVID,” he said. “Dynasties in any sport are not created by a group of individuals, but rather by a unit of harmonious teammates who hold each other accountable to shared objectives. I want every athlete to feel supported by their teammates, supported by their coaches, and supported by their home to promote the best possible atmosphere of success. I think this is something Coach Bear and Coach DeMarco have done well with previously, and I hope to continue the legacy.”
College? I graduated with a B.S. in Biology from Virginia Tech in 2006. More recently I graduated with an M.A.Ed. in Science Curriculum and Instruction from Virginia Tech in 2019. I thoroughly enjoyed both experiences, but going back for my Master’s felt far more rewarding – I am still very thankful for supporters of my Master’s program like Trevor Stewart and Ignacio Moore!
Family? I have been married to my beautiful wife Hannah for 10 and a half years now! We have three fantastic kids: Charlotte (7), Eloise (5), and Samuel who is almost 2. Hannah and I both ran track at Blacksburg High School together for 3 years, though we didn’t begin our relationship until our fourth year of college.
Tell me about how running track under James DeMarco influenced your life? I vastly preferred track to cross country, as I excelled more so in the mile and 800 than I did at the 5K distance. Having James as my coach changed my life permanently, and for the better. James is the kind of coach that makes you believe that you are capable of great things even when you can’t envision it yourself. As my previous coach, and boss, I can say that there is no one I would rather work for in the world! I have learned a tremendous amount from James from running to business management. However, my greatest takeaways from James have been how to care for and respect people; the man is almost generous to a fault!
Was managing Runabout Sports your first job out of college? I actually worked as a sales associate for four years at RunAbout Sports during my first stint at Virginia Tech. After graduating with my B.S. at Virginia Tech, I did a full 180 and moved to Korea to teach English for students aged K-6. That is also where my wife and I married! After moving back to the U.S., I became a zookeeper at the Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach working with reptiles. After that, I moved to a promoted zookeeper position at the Dallas Zoo, where I worked with primarily venomous snakes.
What brought you back to the NRV. Was it RunAbout? While working with venomous snakes 8 hours a day might seem fun, it is also very dangerous. When we became pregnant with our second child, we realized that the risk-to-pay ratio was not justifiable to continue working at the zoo. Hannah and I also wanted our parents to be around their grandchildren, so we decided to move back to Blacksburg. James DeMarco heard we were looking to move back to the area and he offered that I could manage the events, and later retail, aspects of RunAbout Sports.
Talk about your experience at RunAbout. How will it influence your role at BHS? RunAbout Sports was an awesome experience to meet the running community of Blacksburg. I far preferred managing the events as opposed to managing retail. It was fantastic to meet so many awesome people! I learned many valuable skills while at RunAbout such as business and budget management, supervision and delegation, events organization, and perhaps most importantly for coaching, people skills and biomechanics knowledge. It is the latter two that I think will be the most helpful at BHS. At RunAbout, it was necessary to know of common running injuries and helpful tips to combat them. Knowing which products are currently available to help prevent and treat injuries will be very useful for keeping the athletes of BHS healthy. Having these skills will also help me to identify which athletes are potentially running in incorrect gear.
When/why did you decide to go into teaching? While I enjoyed my time at RunAbout working for James, I found myself fairly unfulfilled. I missed coaching the BMS and BHS distance athletes and often thought back to my time teaching in South Korea. There is nothing quite like seeing a student or an athlete work hard to achieve their goals, and seeing their hard work pay off. Seeing a student achieve that “A-ha!” moment when they finally understand how something works is much like seeing one of your athletes PR – very rewarding!
How long have you been teaching at Christiansburg Middle? I am about to begin my fourth year working at CMS! I love science and love seeing the students amazed by how the world works.
You were CMS Teacher of the Year for the past school year, correct? If it were up to me, the award would have gone to any one of the four teachers on my teaching team/pod at CMS, but yes, I did receive the award for the 2020-2021 school year.
Do you expect any major changes to the training and approach for BHS XC? Coach Bear and I have a lot of similarities for training style in our coaching philosophies. He was kind enough to let me see what they had done in the past and it was fairly similar to things I had planned already. As far as mileage, I think we will see similar numbers capping around 60-65mile/week at the height of training. However, something that might be slightly different is training intensity and duration of high mileage. Varsity runners will be hitting their peak mileage when the season has already started and will not be backing down until closer to championship season. My coaching style closely mirrors that of James DeMarco, and he and I have already collaborated together to come up with Summer Training schedules, workouts and mileage goals.
What messages do you have for the students (and parents) who might be interested in joining the program? Cross Country is FUN!!! We run in a variety of beautiful locations where you can enjoy lovely scenery and peace and quiet. Running is a unique sport where you can quantifiably see yourself improving. You get out of it what you put into it, and you can see the results in your times. It promotes healthy lifestyle habits that will hopefully last a lifetime! Whether your goal is to run a 4:10 mile, become a state champion, finish your first 5k, train to be in better shape for another sport, or meet new friends, you name it, we have a spot on the team for you! This sport is accessible to anyone and everyone! Parents, your athletes will often be hungry and tired, and that is normal! You can help them by offering them balanced meals, keeping some chocolate milk in the fridge for post-run protein, and encouraging them to go to bed early!
Have you lined up your team of assistant coaches for the coming year? I am very thankful that Chad Cox, Blacksburg’s previous assistant coach, will remain on the team! He brings with him a great deal of knowledge of the sport and the team. Most importantly, he brings an amazingly positive attitude! Beginning in August, BHS XC Alumnus, Michael Carter, will begin as a part-time volunteer. Michael was amongst my hardest workers when I coached Blacksburg Middle School and had a very successful running career at BHS. I am also waiting to hear back from a female I’ve asked to help coach. I believe it is very important for the girls to have a female role model to look up to. I do not want to name her but II will say that she would make an incredible asset to the team!
What else should I be asking you about? People can come cheer on Blacksburg XC on 8/28 for the Blacksburg Relays and 10/20 for the Metro Invitational! I would also encourage people to come out and run the Blacksburg XC course! It is open to the public and is a fabulous resource for the running community. There are fast flat sections, and hilly challenging sections of the course. Blacksburg XC wants the course and the track to remain open to the public to promote a healthier community invested in our amazing sport!
Coaching is demanding on your time. How can we as a running community support you and the team? Say hello! BHS XC is often at similar locations as other runners in the community. We routinely see people from RunAbout Sports, as well as the Blacksburg Striders! It would be great for the high schoolers to see others in the running community demonstrating that running is a lifetime sport and not just a 4-8 year sport. Ask the athletes what events they like to do intrack, what their PRs are, and how training is going! Come to the meets and scream your heads off for the Blacksburg runners! Knowing that their community is interested in them and believes in them will motivate them to work hard!!!
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