Good Will Running
Longtime THS coach retiring from teaching, but not cross country
Tonganoxie coach Phil Williams has a few things in common with Matt Damon's character in the 1997 Academy Award winner Good Will Hunting.
Williams, a THS math instructor, and Hunting, a janitor at MIT, both excel in mathematics.
Both are known as Will -- Damon because that was his character's name, and Williams because that's the nickname his runners affectionately call him. That, however, is where the similarities stop.
Damon's character needed Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) to help find his niche in life.
Tonganoxie's Williams, meanwhile, has found his.
The longtime instructor and coach is in his 30th year in the Tonganoxie school district. At the end of the school year, Williams will retire from the classroom, but not the cross country course. He will continue to coach at THS.
A cross country team at one of Tonganoxie's meets last year had unique team T-shirts. On the back, it read: "Our sport is your sport's punishment." That's a legitimate statement. Run and fun rhyme, but the two don't necessarily mesh for many people.
For Williams, that's not the case. Lebo High didn't have cross country when Williams was in school in the late 1960s. In fact, he went to Emporia State to play football as a defensive back and run track as a short-distance runner. At LHS, he also played basketball.
1969, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001
1979, 1982, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1999
1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1990
¢ Boys have finished in the top three in regionals 15 times since 1978; girls have had same success six times.
¢ Boys have finished top five in state nine times; girls have accomplished the feat three times.
Williams, however, wanted to learn about anyone who could run and run.
"I was never a distance runner, always a sprinter," Williams recalled. "But I was always enthralled in distance running.
"Jim Ryun was my hero. I read everything I could get my hands on."
The football player/sprinter was engrossed in a sport he hadn't yet tackled.
"I just sort of fell in love with it," Williams said. "(Steve) Prefontaine and Gerry Lindgren were right behind Ryun in getting the four-minute barrier."
Williams was referring to the mile run. A Wichita native, Ryun later starred for Kansas, while Prefontaine ran for Oregon and Lindgren at Washington State.
As for Williams, he finished his collegiate career at Emporia State and headed into the education profession. After two years at Belle Plaine High School, Williams ventured north to Tonganoxie with his wife, Jeanie.
They haven't moved since.
An assistant coach in football, basketball and track at THS, Williams has been the boys track head coach since 1995 when he replaced another longtime THS coach in Phil Lobb.
Cross country, though, has been Williams' baby for 30 years. The school added cross country to its athletics department in 1969. About five years later, Williams took the reigns.
Building a tradition
¢ 1981 Bret Evans 20th ¢ 1982 Bret Evans fifth ¢ 1982 Casey Boatwright 13th ¢ 1983 Mike Filley 12th ¢ 1984 Casey Boatwright second ¢ 1985 Casey Boatwright sixth ¢ 1985 Tom Flynn 13th ¢ 1989 Mike Pearson 10th ¢ 1989 Jason Hagg 14th ¢ 1990 Mike Pearson 10th ¢ 1990 Kevin Stine 17th ¢ 1990 Jeff Bunnell 20th ¢ 1991 Jason Hagg first ¢ 1991 Kevin Stine fourth ¢ 1991 Jeff Bunnell 10th ¢ 1992 Eric Hammond third ¢ 1992 Kevin Stine fourth ¢ 2000 Alan Davis eighth ¢ 2000 Kyle Norris 13th ¢ 2001 Kyle Norris eighth ¢ 2001 Alan Davis 13th ¢ 2002 Kyle Norris fifth ¢ 2002 Tony Aligo tenth
Girls ¢ 1979 Cheri (Sparks) Heim 14th ¢ 1979 Janice (Marshall) White 16th ¢ 1980 Cheri (Sparks) Heim 10th ¢ 1980 Janice (Marshall) White 12th ¢ 1981 Janice (Marshall) White second ¢ 1984 Susan Seufert 17th ¢ 1987 Janet (Magner) Strickland 12th ¢ 1988 Janet (Magner) Strickland fifth ¢ 1988 Shawna (New) Gilmore 12th ¢989 Janet (Magner) Strickland first ¢989 Shawna (New) Gilmore 15th ¢ 1990 Shawna (New) Gilmore sixth ¢ 1991 Becky Coffin 11th ¢ 1991 Jennie Burkin 18th ¢ 1999 Laura Korb fifth ¢ 2002 Laura Korb 20th
The resume is pretty lengthy.
Under Williams, Tonganoxie has 15 boys league titles, seven girls crowns, six regional boys championships, one girls regional championship, the 1991 state title.
On two occasions, the boys team won four straight league titles. Most recently, the Chieftains won six consecutive titles (1996-2001). On the girls side, Tonganoxie won five consecutive meets from 1980 to 1984.
At state, the Chieftains have finished in the top five team-wise nine times. The girls have held that distinction three times.
Williams also has coached two individual state champions in Janet (Magner) Strickland in 1989 and Jason Hagg in 1991.
Strickland went on to run at Kansas State where she helped the Wildcats to a co-Big Eight title. K-State shared the crown with Colorado in a conference race held in Boulder, Colo. Strickland went to NCAA nationals as a freshman and junior. On the track team, she ran the 5,000 meters and took third place in the Big Eight meet her junior year in that event.
Hagg eventually ran at Emporia State, while Shawna (New) Gilmore was an all-American at Pittsburg State.
Others who have run or are running in college include Bret Evans (Bethany), Andy Snapp (Neosho County), Mike Filley (Fort Hays State), Alan Davis (Baker) and Kyle Norris (Butler County). For all the success Williams has had at Tonganoxie, he said the bottom line is numbers.
"The main thing I think is getting a lot of kids out for the sport with coaches who are willing to give the kids a chance," Williams said. "A lot of schools I don't think have done that.
"I don't think there's any secret other than getting good numbers out."
Strickland had a dream season in 1989 when she became Tonganoxie's first and still only state champion. It was a gradual climb for Strickland, who placed 12th in 1987 and fifth in 1988.
Williams' workouts were demanding. Teammates would run in groups based on talent, but sometimes he would move a runner up to challenge them, Strickland said. That meant, at times, she would run with boys groups.
"He made us peak at the right time at the end of the season," Strickland said. "My senior year when I won state I think that proved that he did well in preparing workouts for us to get better."
Gilmore agreed, especially when it came to college. Gilmore also attended Fort Scott Community College before running at Pitt State.
"From coach Williams, I think I developed a good work ethic that I think helped me in college," Gilmore said. "Because to work at that level you have to work and stick to it."
To an unknowing spectator, cross country could seem simple -- just keep running until you hit that finish line.
But training isn't that easy.
"There's a lot of conditioning, of course," Williams said. "You start the season by building strength with a lot of miles."
The team then works on many quarter-mile intervals with rest time between the runs being shortened, also for conditioning.
Williams then works with each runner to decide what their goals are for a race. They then divide the race into quarter-miles and what pace would have to be run for each interval to reach the goal.
It seems the mathematics instructor crosses curriculums just a hair.
"There is a little bit of math involved," Williams said with a chuckle."
Clark Kent or Phil Williams?
Phil Williams doesn't seem to get angered. Ask former runners and they'll tell you the same thing -- he's a mild-mannered coach who has done super things in Tonganoxie.
Alan Davis, who placed eighth and 13th at state respectively in 2000 and 2001, said Williams always has been positive.
"The guy always has a smile on his face," Davis said. "That's what makes Will Will, I guess. I've never heard anybody say anything negative of Will on the team or off the team.
Bret Evans said Williams always was easy-going, although his team did push a few buttons.
But even when Williams was trying to threaten his team, the intention failed.
"He said, 'You know guys, we've got this race to run but I've about had it and I'll kick you off the team if you don't pay attention,'" Evans said.
Overall, Williams was easy-going.
"When it was down to competition, he took it seriously," Evans said. "When it was time to have fun, he was always in there laughing it up with us."
Motivating the masses
Williams has been involved in numerous sports, but he's found motivating a runner differs from preparing other athletes.
"It's a little different than football and basketball, especially football," Williams said "You get kids ready to run through a wall."
For cross country, that pregame differs greatly.
"You get them too pumped up, they'll go in and kill themselves in the first mile," Williams said.
Instead, Williams' runners visualize before the race what they'll do during the race.
"He would talk to every runner before the race," Davis said. "He's always positive, telling you what to do."
That comes with years of experience, Davis said.
"The guys a genius when it comes to running," Davis said. "He's good at getting you in a good base in the first few weeks and he's just good with his speed work because he's done it for so long."
And Evans, who had brother John and sister Starla as fellow alumni, said Williams could motivate you during a race.
"I can just remember being on the cross country course at state," Evans said. "Coming over a hill he was right there screaming at me and I could see him running to the next spot to make sure I was right on time."
Runners noted Williams' enthusiasm during the race, but also have appreciated him running with them in practice.
"He's such a trooper," Evans said. "One thing I would remember is that he would run with us and race us and challenge us," Evans said. "Versus other coaches. "They'll take you in a pickup truck and just say 'OK, we'll see you when you get back.'"
Williams would rather run than ride.
"There's a lot of coaches who don't run with kids, but I think it helps me get a feel for how they're feeling," Williams said. "I think it motivates them. If they see me doing it, they think they can do a little bit more."
That's worked for Evans, who has run track competitively on the corporate level for his company, GE. In high school, Evans ran the 800 in about 1:58 before shaving it down to 1:55 in college. During a recent meet in San Francisco, he ran in 2:02.3.
Evans is still doing competing in a sport Williams tutored him in.
As for Williams, he continues to coach a sport that wasn't available in high school.
Now, in his third decade coaching, he's in a position he never really gave much thought -- coaching cross country for so many years.
"I often don't look a long ways down the road on things," Williams said. "I never thought about it.
"I just assumed I would I guess."