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Eakin's Run Is Done: Iconic Hanover Coach Retires

  • Hanover coach Jim Eakin directs his runners at practice in 2007.<br/>Valley News -  Nicholas Richer

    Hanover coach Jim Eakin directs his runners at practice in 2007.
    Valley News - Nicholas Richer Purchase photo reprints »

  • "I'm not as obsessive-compulsive as some running coaches. There was a lot of ad-libbing and humor." -- Retiring Hanover High cross-country coach Jim Eakin<br/>Valley News - Jason Johns

    "I'm not as obsessive-compulsive as some running coaches. There was a lot of ad-libbing and humor." -- Retiring Hanover High cross-country coach Jim Eakin
    Valley News - Jason Johns Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hanover cross country coach Jim Eakin on December 13, 2007.<br/><br/>Valley News - Jason Johns

    Hanover cross country coach Jim Eakin on December 13, 2007.

    Valley News - Jason Johns Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hanover coach Jim Eakin directs his runners at practice on November 27, 2007. <br/><br/>Valley News - Nicholas Richer

    Hanover coach Jim Eakin directs his runners at practice on November 27, 2007.

    Valley News - Nicholas Richer Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hanover coach Jim Eakin directs his runners at practice in 2007.<br/>Valley News -  Nicholas Richer
  • "I'm not as obsessive-compulsive as some running coaches. There was a lot of ad-libbing and humor." -- Retiring Hanover High cross-country coach Jim Eakin<br/>Valley News - Jason Johns
  • Hanover cross country coach Jim Eakin on December 13, 2007.<br/><br/>Valley News - Jason Johns
  • Hanover coach Jim Eakin directs his runners at practice on November 27, 2007. <br/><br/>Valley News - Nicholas Richer

— When Jim Eakin arrived as Hanover High School’s cross country coach in 1981, a couple of confident Marauder runners insisted the program already held great pride and tradition.

Ever the skeptic, Eakin took one glance at the walls of the school gymnasium and asked, “Really? So where’s the banner?”

There would be plenty of them before Eakin was done.

Eakin, 63, is retiring after spending nearly half his life transforming a Hanover program into a preeminent NHIAA running force.

Boys and girls combined, the Marauders netted zero team or individual championships before Eakin was hired by then-Hanover athletic director Glyn Reinders. Thirty-two years later, that number is 49. More importantly, Eakin fostered a culture the Marauders could be proud of for more than just championships.

Eakin’s even-handed approach and funny sense of humor ensured every runner enjoyed the sport while striving to reach their full potential.

“It was a no-star program where everyone counted, whether you were finishing first or 60th,” said Eakin, who also served as a learning specialist and teachers’ consultant at Hanover High from 1981-2008. “I didn’t gravitate toward the stars, which some people thought was a waste of time.

“I wanted to be inclusive of everybody, but at the end of the day, I was also a coach. I knew that someone who placed 35th one season, three years down the road they could be one of the top runners in the state. I saw a lot of those up-and-coming runners who got much better over a very short period of time.”

While his workouts were difficult and compliments distributed sparingly, Eakin used humor to help cultivate perspective. Bantering with athletes nearly as much as he offered encouragement, Eakin never made things so light that athletes lost the desire to improve.

“I’m not as obsessive-compulsive as some running coaches,” Eakin said. “There was a lot of ad-libbing and humor. I think it sort of alleviated some of the stress of the high-stress (academic environment) at Hanover.”

Raised in the working-class town of Mahwah, N.J., Eakin said he developed organizational skills at a young age while playing outside. After watching the 1964 Summer Olympics — featuring long-distance wins by Americans by Bob Schul (5,000 meters) and Billy Mills (10,000) — a teenaged Eakin helped rally neighborhood boys together for their own version of the Olympics, with shuttle runs, badminton and horseshoes.

“That’s what we did all summer,” Eakin said. “We were the players and coaches of our own leagues. There were a lot of boys and no adults. It was a long street full of small Cape Cod houses, which my dad thought was a little piece of heaven.”

Over at Mahwah High, the cross country team dominated. The Thunderbirds went undefeated from 1962-67, with Eakin joining the team as a junior in ‘65.

“We had a great coach (Dick Stack) and there was a lot of pride for the program,” he said. “We got a lot of press, being in the New York metro area. That was back when dual meets were huge. My senior year, we played Pascack Hills (from nearby Montvale) and they really wanted to beat us. We had 300-400 people come out to watch.”

Eakin consistently ran times ranging from 12 minutes, 52 seconds to 13:16, depending on the 2.5-mile course, which drew recruiting sniffs from Eastern Kentucky University as well as Western Kentucky and The Citadel. Instead, he enrolled in Iowa’s William Penn College, which had only a scarcely supported running program.

“They had no coaching and hardly any (numbers),” Eakin recalled. “I only went because I had friends going there, and I was the only one who stayed (to graduate).”

Suffering multiple ankle injuries while playing pickup basketball, Eakin put his own competitive running on the back burner and married his wife, Beckie, in 1970. After earning his history degree, Eakin spent a year as a mail carrier in Mahwah before accepting a special education teaching position at a middle school in St. James, Minn.

While pursuing a masters degree in special learning and behavioral problems through Minnesota’s university off-campus program, Eakin moved on to Prior Lake High, where he accepted an assistant track and field coaching position.

“I didn’t really want to coach, but it was good money,” Eakin recalled. “It was $1,000, which was a lot back then, especially for an assistant.”

After a brief stint teaching back in New Jersey in the town of Ringwood, Eakin migrated to Hanover because “Ringwood was too expensive, and I missed the snow (from Minnesota).”

His first autumn in town, Hanover runners Billy McGrath and Nord Samuelson took him to the trails of Storrs Pond Recreation Area to show him the ropes. “I was so out of shape, but I wouldn’t let them run me into the ground,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let that happen, so I really ran like crazy over those hills.”

With numbers on the girls team so low it accepted junior high runners at first, Eakin slowly built that program up with extra recruiting. It didn’t take him long to find success with the boys, with Rolf Sonnerup capturing individual NHIAA Class I championships in 1981 and ‘82 and the team winning states during the latter season.

Both programs had formed into consistent powers by the late 80s, the boys winning three straight state crowns from 1989-91 and the girls capturing six in seven years from 1988-94.

The programs didn’t always attract avid runners — some freely admitted they participated to stay in shape for other sports — yet most of them excelled under Eakin’s tutelage.

“We were kind of like the island of misfit toys,” said Brian Cook, of Norwich, who ran on the title team in 1989. “There were some who loved running and started the first day they were freshmen, but I didn’t start until I was a junior. I showed up the first day with a basketball, as if it were some declarative statement not to take me too seriously.

“Yet Jim made us feel so welcome. Looking back, I realize that I might not have liked running very much, but I liked running for Jim. For two years, he convinced me that I liked it.”

Eakin’s teams continued their success in the 2000s, peaking with a girls’ New England championship 2006. Junior Georgia Griffin was the New England individual champion that year before winning states and the Meet of Champions as a senior and going on to run at Stanford University.

Heidi Caldwell, now running at Brown University, helped continue the Marauders’ tradition with MOC wins in 2008 and ‘09, capping Hanover’s run of six straight titles from 2004-09.

On the boys’ side, Hanover began the 2000s with back-to-back individual state titles from Russell Brown, now a professional runner, and a team title in 2001.

The boys captured another pair of crowns in 2008-09, a run that featured Aaron Watanabe’s Class I record time of 15:51 at states in ‘08.

Like many of Eakin’s former athletes, Watanabe cherishes his time running with the Marauder cross country team as one of his favorite high school memories.

“He cared about us first as people, which is why I think a lot of us looked forward to practice during the school day and looked forward to the season as the highlight of the year,” said Watanabe, now a Harvard junior who ran two seasons with the Crimson.

“At the end of the summer, we were all excited to go back to school and be part of the process of training with coach Eakin.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.

CORRECTION

This story has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction ran in the Friday, Nov. 16 edition of the Valley News:

Retiring Hanover High School cross country coach Jim Eakin ran times ranging from 12 minutes, 52 seconds to 13:16, depending on the 2.5-mile course, while a cross country athlete at Mahwah High School in New Jersey. Eakin went on to accept a salary of $1,000 as an assistant track and field coach at a high school in Minnesota.

The times and salary were incorrect in a story profiling Eakin in yesterday’s Valley News.