Coach JP Kaminski, Phobe Ward, Eva DeMarco
Dobbs Ferry - It was 2003, and a small downstate Hudson rivertown was in the dumpers. Sure, the year before its football team had won the first of the four state championships that it would amass in eight trips to the Carrier Dome, but everyone knows that it's XC prowess not pigskin glory that makes a town, and Dobbs Ferry's running program could be kindly described as moribund. Longtime residents had no clue that the high school ever had an XC team even though decades earlier it had boasted two state champion runners (Steve and John Hunt, take your bows).
Then a lone young runslinger named Coach K rode in from the west (actually northwest) armed with newfangled knowledge (DF had just created a middle-school technology teacher position), boundless enthusiasm (Ouch, those jokes!), and some practice squad routines that were truly innovative (Okay, just weird). After many trials and tribulations over countless courses 17 XC seasons later, Coach K would ride off into the sunset after leading the locals at last to a promised-land Sectional championship and States visit and bringing utter joy and exultation to the Eagle faithful.
In an odd nutshell, that is the story of John-Paul Kaminski's time leading the Dobbs Ferry cross-country and distance-running program, with a good deal of other track and field, wrestling, and an initial stint with modified soccer stuff mixed in. His tale not only pulls in the hundreds of Eagle athletes who wouldn't have donned spikes and learned to spread their wings and fly without his mentoring, but it also hooked in a lot of alumni, Dobbs Ferry parents, and supportive village folk to kindle and rekindle a big enthusiasm for Eagle harriers. And yes, one of the poor DF unfortunates (Me, big Oy!) ensnared in this web would be doomed into running up Bowdoin way too many times and spending his fall months crunching through speed rating numbers to unlock the ranking order of every XC team in the state. So JP has a lot of things to take both the credit and blame for.
Now, needing more family time with the Eagles' elite cheering squad of daughter Allie, son Andrew, and wife Joan, a special education teacher at DF's Springhurst elementary school, JP is pulling out of the XC and track coaching duties. At the beginning of the fall season he announced his decision to hang up the coaching spikes and omnipresent (Get up there!) course-trekking bike, and that declaration put extra focus on a final piece of unfinished business -- the quest to send a first Dobbs Ferry team to States and add a glaze of magic to the last XC campaign.
Starting in 2006 in the first season that DF had both full boys and girls varsity XC squads, the Eagles battled to place a team at States but always came up at least a little short. The boys had suffered back-to-back heart-breakers at Sectionals with a 2-point loss in 2007 and 1 point loss in 2008, while the girls were always running behind the bucking Broncos during a 22-year stretch of Bronxville Sectional wins from 1997 to 2018 under Coach Jim Mitchell. JP had good success sending individual runners to States, starting with Carey Hickey's qualification in the first real season of any XC in 2004, and 29 more at-large appearances were earned from 2006 through 2018. But still no team winner, though the girls had come tantalizingly close in 2015 in a 6-point loss to the Broncos at Sectionals when they sent only star Mika Andrews on to States for the first of consecutive 4th-place finishes. But in the midst of all the team setbacks, JP could have announced as a famous first namesake (last name, Jones) had once declared, "We have not yet begun to fight!"
In this fall's preseason, the Eagles were not on anyone's radar. The guys were too young and had lost their top two runners from 2018, and the girls were on the fringe after a 32-93 drubbing at the 2018 Sectionals and loss of two-time States medalist Alia Moustafa to graduation. Eagle captain Phoebe Ward had bagged three States medals from 2016 to 2018, but Kaminski was blunt about his concerns that the team lacked the depth to compete with Bronxville even though its rivals had graduated six seniors from its 10-runner Sectional squad and also finally seen the retirement of the legendary "Mitch" from the XC coaching ranks. The Broncos were still ranked 4th in the preseason Class C rankings for Tully Runners, and the Eagles were flying low and pretty much out of view at 24th in my preseason listings.
The Eagle XC girls outlook changed quickly in September with an eye-opening performance at the Somers Big Red meet that boosted them into the top 10 for Class C, and then two weeks later a close 2nd behind reigning Class B champ Cornwall at the Dan Purdy - Pawling invite sent them flying squarely up among the top 5 state teams. From there, they were the hunted favorites instead of the lagging hunters in Section 1 Class C. Still, when Sectionals rolled around on November 9th, Kaminski's Eagles were really mindful of that 22-year-streak by a Bronxville team that always got a bump of late-season development. "Confidence not cockiness" was the guiding principle all season, and the Eagles gutted out a hard-fought 43-55 win over the Broncos with senior Phoebe Ward, freshman Fenna Laban, and junior Eva DeMarco in the top 5, and junior Marijn Laban and freshman Molly Hunt in the top 20, and seniors Jessica Baker and Emily Ducic completing the action. A long streak of wins and a long streak of losses ended together.
The States appearance in frigid Plattsburgh was in a sense gravy for the 4th-ranked Eagles, who captured there the place that was projected for them. The trip north came with a huge chunk of drama in the week before though, as Kaminski was struck down by abdominal pains midweek and needed emergency kidney stone surgery that Thursday. Though it first appeared that he would miss his Eagles' States run, JP got released from the hospital in time for Joan to pack him up for the 4 1/2 hour drive (3 1/2 for some other guys, not saying who) to the starting line so he could relay sage coach's maxims to the runners like, "Watch out for the ice!" But unlike 10 years before at Plattsburgh when he had joined me in battling through raging streams in point-to-point bivouacs around the course in the freezing rain, this time the race observation was a little more sedate, and both of our roles have greatly changed in the passing decade.
For now at least, Kaminski's journey with the Dobbs Ferry running program is ended. One team and 37 runners were in the States XC championships during his tenure. As a track coach he also guided athletes to 9 States appearances, many of them for the steeplechase event in first in 2011 (Brendan Wortner, Sarah King) that the Eagles' Grant Sheely won a 2015 D2 state title in, but last year he ended off his outdoor track era skippering with a trio of Eagle guys going to Middletown States in the 400 (Cole Ginghina), 3K steeplechase (Jed Katzenstein), and triple jump. And Jelani Williams' medal in the TJ was especially impressive since the Eagles have no track facilities and very little T&F equipment, and trying to stick the landing on a 45-foot TJ on a turf field in practice requires a special kind of fortitude. (Just ouch, J-guy).
As an upstate guy out of the APW high school and SUNY Oswego teacher training program who headed south and survived a fitful few grueling years as a young teacher and coach to build an established running program, Kaminski has a few pointers about starting up the engine for young novice coaches and the many small resource-poor schools that would like to get into the game.
Beyond the demand for effort, excellence, and commitment from athletes that all successful teams require, Kaminski points to the need for keeping things fun. His coaching tenure was filled with pumpkin relay Halloween races, themed dress-up practices, Friday morning breakfasts with the coach along with the standard pasta parties, and visits to the Six Flags Wild Safari meet after which the parent chaperones had a tough time deciding whether a 7th grader or the coach was the craziest kid on the Kingda Ka and Nitro rides (verdict: Coack K absolutely, though the bet on the first one to upchuck at the back of the bus after too many sugar overdoses on the ride home tended younger). Dobbs Ferry's inaugural 2013 Holiday Hustle 5k was highlighted by Kaminski in his homemade sleigh being pulled around the course by his stellar band of Eagle reindeer runners, enjoyed especially by a 56-something guy who breezed to a win without any pesky DFXC whippersnappers getting in his way.
The XC year always finished off in December with a big team party highlighted by Coach K's musical slide-show reminiscence of the feats and follies of the Eagles' season, and each runner got a CD of the production so he could again watch himself being trampled by teammates on that tricky little slope for the start of the Brewster meet. So, yeah, it's both no pain, no gain and no fun, no run for DFXC.
But in addition to all the sweat and laughs that go into building a team, Kaminski emphasizes that a coach needs to "believe that every kid is a runner" no matter how fast or slow (yep, that's you Pat Wortner, 2009 S1-SQ-Outdoor-D2 champ) they move as a rookie, or how deep the odds are stacked against a runner making it to States in his senior season (George Epstein improbably snatching that fifth at-large spot in 2010). He has learned to tailor different work-outs for a wide variety of runners and has become adept at knowing what buttons to push or not push to inspire his motley crew of strivers. Another thing that Kaminski always hoped for but never really got for long was a modified program and youth track club that could start the fitness and development for Dobbs runners at an early age. A head start can make a huge difference in forming a team and making it stick together.
Through the years Kaminski has had to change and modify to keep the Dobbs program moving ahead. Determined at the beginning to limit his DFXC varsity to high school athletes, he did open the squad to middle-schoolers in 2006 when the girls were faced with a second straight year of competition with only three runners, and a huge group of 7th-grade newcomers clamored for a promotion. An immediate win in the team's first race that year at Somers appeared to show that the cross country gods approved the decision. He also learned early on that the blue potato-sack uniforms ordered for the team might do for the boys, but the girls captains Paulina Nunez and Lauren Hanley took control and got some decent garb delivered for the next meet following the Somers win in 2006. In track, faced with limited training resources for his distance runners amid tough competition in Section 1, Kaminski hit upon the steeplechase as a great event for advancement, and he even built a wooden barrier in his shop to give his steeplers the advantage of an everyday workout option.
At the end of it all, a lot of kids with maybe not a lot of confidence have found their passion and strength and identity on the DFXC team, and as a testament many of the Eagles from the early years of the program and after were following the team's progress online during two weeks in November when the States quest finally reached journey's end.
So with everything now set, the Eagles will spread their wings and fly onward with or without their lame-joke coach, but yeah, we'll kind of miss him, maybe, certainly.