At first Brian Corcoran seemed to me a bit forbidding to approach.
When Maurice Brooks of The Daily Record first introduced me to the veteran Pope John XXIII cross-country and track coach Corcoran at the Sussex county Interscholastic League Championships in the spring 2000, Corcoran was all business and had no patience for uninformed questions.
I quickly learned this about Corcoran: He wanted sportswriters to take cross-country and track as seriously as his athletes did, because they deserve at least that much. Since that evening, Corcoran has been one of my closest confidants inside of the high school athletic realm and outside as well. And 20 years later, we can't see each other at a meet without making fun of each other and cracking up.
Corcoran was an easy choice to follow Ridge's Tim Mooney and Rumson's Tim McLoone as someone on whom we could focus our coaching spotlight.
We're asking coaches to provide the three most memorable moments -- team or individual -- on the cross-country course or track while they've been a coach. The only rule is that a coach cannot name an achievement -- whether it be a title won, a record broken, etc. -- by one of his or her own student-athletes.
Corcoran's resume speaks to his extended catalog of great NJ memories. He's been coaching girls outdoor track at Pope John for 26 years, boys indoor track and girls cross-country for 24 years, boys cross-country and girls indoor track for 23 years, and boys outdoor track for 21 years.
1 - Columbia's Olivia Baker anchors comeback in 2014 Championship of America 4x800
Olivia Baker, a 2014 Columbia High grad and a four-time outdoor Meet of Champions 400m winner, entered the 2014 Penn Relays not only as the reigning New Balance Indoor National champion in the 400m, but with valuable Franklin Field experience as well. She anchored Columbia's winning 4x800m relay the year before (8:56.37) with a 2:09.9 split to catch Edwin Allen of Jamaica by .49 seconds.
In 2014, Baker got the baton for the Championship of America 4x800m in seventh place and with a six-second gap behind Edwin Allen. The All-American roared back with a meet-best 2:02.55 to catch Edwin Allen anchor Marleena Eubanks (certainly no slouch with a 2:06.77 split) on the final turn and win in a US#1 8:45.37. Edwin Allen finished second in 8:50.36.
Columbia became the first US team to win back-to-back C of A 4x800m titles at Penn, and Baker was awarded the girls track MVP for the second straight year.
"Watching Baker catch a Jamaican team for the second straight year was pretty cool," Corcoran said. "Talk about an unbelievable athlete. To make up that ground in a place where everyone is cheering for the Jamaicans, that was an unbelievable race to watch."
2 - Haddonfield's Erin Donohue nearly conquers distance and javelin in one Meet of Champions
In June of 2000, Erin Donohue won her second straight MOCs 1600 meters in 4:50.17, she ran over to the javelin strip and placed third with a 136-4, then jogged back to the track and won her first 3,200 in 10:43.14.
In 2001, as unlikely as it seems for a distance runner, the Haddonfield All-American was favored to win all three events at MOCs host South Brunswick before she carried her considerable talents to North Carolina. For sure, Donohue won the third straight mile in 4:53.57 and her second straight two mile in 10:49.32. And in between her track tests, Donohue placed second in the javelin with a 139-3, just six inches behind Buena's Chelsea Salisbury.
"For me, it was the unprecedented aspect of it, for a girl to win the mile, two mile and javelin," Corcoran said. "One event has nothing to do with the other two. To see her come jogging over from the javelin and lace up her track spikes.... Think about that. A national level distance runner who can throw and compete in the jav. It's just awesome."
"She didn't have the typical distance runner build or javelin build. She was just an athlete and there's something cool about that. I think it proves a little that to reach a pinnacle you still have to be an overall athlete."
3 - Craig Forys of Colts Neck nearly steals the Nike Outdoor National two mile
Corcoran strongly feels that, perhaps with the exception of St. Benedict's product Edward Cheserek, the state has seen no better distance runner than Craig Forys of Colts Neck. "If he's not the best, at least he's in the conversation," Corcoran said.
The future Michigan star left an indelible mark on NJ track history, and on Corcoran, with his performance at the 2007 nationals.With 600 meters left in the boys two mile, Forys made his move and surpassed All-American Matt Centrowitz of Maryland.
Centrowitz made a decisive move with 200m left, passing Forys and winning the national title in a meet-record and negative split 8:41.55. Forys finished second in 8:44.53 and missed the meet record (8:44.43 by Dathan Ritzenhein) by a whisker.
"Watching Centrowitz and Forys was a marquee event," Corcoran said. "The best distance runner in Maryland and perhaps the country, and Forys, the best distance runner ever in New Jersey, no pacer, the two of them just going. Forys was as good of a runner I've ever seen and watching him take his shot and try to break Centrowitz, that was incredible. I'll always remember that race."
BONUS -- Pope John girls run fastest 2007 Penn 4x800 heat
Because he's an all-state needler, Corcoran loves to bring up this story. I was in the Franklin Field stands talking to him and Pope John assistant Nick Dilworth about how the Pope John girls just won their 4x800m small school heat in 9:03.56, the fastest time of the day among 68 teams, including two Jamaican teams, Edwin Allen (9:05.02) and Holmwood Tech (9:05.11).
It was an incredible feat for senior Lara Heigis, sophomore Sarah Cariati, senior Lauren Bariexca (2:16) and sophomore Emily Carrollo (2:11.8).
The next day, Pope John was the first American team and placed fourth overall in 9:07.49. That same foursome went on to set the school record (8:56.47) at Nike Outdoor Nationals.
Anyhow, back to the Penn 4x800m trials. So as I'm scribbling quotes from Corcoran and Carrollo, my cell phone buzzes. It's my daughter's preschool in Union calling, wondering why I haven't yet picked up my daughter. I say I'm in Philadelphia for work. The teacher says with an annoyed tone, well, you're supposed to be here.
Aggravated and worried at the same time, I called my wife in a panic and she told me her father must have forgotten to swing by the school. That's who had pick-up duty today.
Corcoran and Dilworth were delighting in the mess laid out before them. No longer did they want to talk about the 4x800m. They wanted to know how I could abandon my daughter (Catherine was 4 at the time) while running around a high school track meet and yukking it up with coaches.
Last summer several friends helped me celebrate my 50th birthday, and when I got around to thanking Corcoran for making it to the soiree, the first words out of his mouth were.... Do I know where Catherine is?