Sean Walsh didn't take the most conventional path on his way to becoming a legendary cross-country coach. In fact, his journey has had nearly as many twists and turns as the trails at Holmdel Park.
But in the end, he wound up back where it all started, at his alma mater, North Hunterdon High School, where he has returned the Lady Lions to their XC glory days of the 1980s as a state and national powerhouse as Walsh has built another dynasty at North Hunterdon.
Last fall, Walsh, now in his 17th season at the helm for the girls XC squad at North Hunterdon, led the Lady Lions to its third straight XC Meet of Champions title, and a fourth straight Northeast Regional title!
That gives North Hunterdon a state-record tying nine XC MOCs girls titles (Red Bank Catholic has also won nine). Under another legendary North Hunterdon coach, Bob McGivney, the "Fast Ladies'' as they were aptly nicknamed, captured six XC Meet of Champions during the decade, including four in a row.
At the head of the Lions packs back then were stars such as Jodie and Stacy Bilotta, Olympian Anne Marie Letko, Jeanne LaPlaca, Sharon Greene, Marge DeMarrais, Alanna Gurwitz, Tracy Bigley, Liz Ludwigson, Liz Hertler, and Connie Tkac.
Walsh is one of six girls coaches in state history who have won three MOCs XC titles, and one of just four to ever win three straight.
The other five XC coaches to win at least 3 titles are Jack Rafter of Red Bank Catholic (1972-76), McGivney (1980, '81, ''83, '84, '85, '86), Mike Yurcho of Shawnee (1991, '97, '02), Mary Banks of Red Bank Catholic (1994, '95, '96), and Justina Cassavell of Voorhees (2007, '08, '12).
Walsh is a rare breed.
He bucked the conventional wisdom that suggests that most great XC coaches come from strong running backgrounds, where a strong foundation is laid for successful coaching careers. A golfer in high school, Walsh is living proof that you don't have to be a distance runner to know how coach them.
So how did this all happen? How did Walsh get where he is? How did he become the mastermind and architecht of yet another dynastic run at North Hunterdon?
We'll get into all that and more here as the spotlight shines on Walsh in NJ MileSplit's latest installment of The Starting Line, a series devoted to chronicling the career journey's of some of the state's best coaches and athletes.
What's been the secret to Walsh's success?
A blueprint that combines a blue collar work ethic, a strong brotherly bond, a remarkable feeder system, student of the sport, and an unrelenting sense of pride and passion to bring North Hunterdon back to the top, fueled Walsh to reach the upper echelon of the coaching ranks in a state loaded with great mentors.
But coaching XC wasn't something Walsh envisioned after graduating from North Hunterdon in 1995, where he earned All Skyland Conference honors as a golfer.
After graduating from Monmouth University in 1999 with a degree in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing, Walsh took a job at the Raritan Valley Country Club for a few months.
"I thought I might want to go into the golf business in NJ as an assistant at a golf course,'' said Walsh, who teaches Senior Health and varying grades of PE as well as Unified PE at North Hunterdon. "I left there and worked for AT&T for two years. That wasn't for me, just because I wanted something a little more out of the office.''
So Walsh decided to head in a completely different direction, literally.
"I packed my Hyundai and drove down the East Coast and wound up outside of Tampa for a few months working at Jersey Mike's,'' said Walsh. "I realized eventually that I wanted to find something else. So I came home and starting substituting at North Hunterdon and Voorhees. I was thinking of becoming either an English teacher or a Physical Education teacher. I choose PE and went back to school at William Paterson University for two years to get my second bachelor's in Exercise and Movement Sciences with Health and PE certification for K-12.''
Walsh was hired by North Hunterdon in the spring of 2004 after subbing there since 2001.
But Walsh nearly wound up coaching a different sport.
"I was hired for the fall of 2004 for teaching, and they told me I was going to coach JV field hockey,'' said Walsh. "But then they found someone for that position, then they said I was going to coach freshmen soccer. Then they found someone else for that position. Then they told me Coach Don Roberts (girls XC) was on sick leave and that I would fill in for him for the cross-country and spring track seasons. He wound up retiring, so I stayed in those coaching positions. After two years of coaching basketball, I volunteered for winter track as well and eventually took that over as well. We wanted the programs to be united and well planned throughout the year.
Walsh's brother was jacked up when he heard Sean was taking over the girls XC program.
"My brother, Brian, ran on some very strong teams at North in the 90s with the likes of Brendan Heffernan (National Foot Locker champion in 1992) Brian Harris, and Pat Dolan, just to name a few),'' said Walsh. So, Brian was very excited I got hired. I was horrified (said with a laugh).''
The rest is history as Walsh went on to establish a legacy of greatness at North Hunterdon as he became one of the best coaches in state history.
But it didn't happen overnight. This was several years in the making for Walsh.
Walsh had some success at North Hunterdon during his first few years as head coach, placing second at the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Championships in his first year (2004), and placing third in the rugged North 2 Group 4 meet in 2010.
But the huge breakthrough for Walsh came in 2012, in his ninth season at the helm, when won his first North 2 Group 4 title, placed second at the State Group 4 meet, and was fifth at the Meet of Champions. That was the first team that Walsh brought to the Meet of Champions, which began a run of seven MOCs berths in the last eight years.
After runner-up finishes behind archrival Ridge at both the State Group 4 and the Meet of Champions in 2016, Walsh's dream came true in 2017 when he brought the Lions back to the top of the NJ's distance running world, sweeping the team titles at the State Group 4 Championships and Meet of Champions. It was the first MOCs title in 31 years for North Hunterdon.
The Magnificent Seven for North Hunterdon at the '17 MOCs were Chloe Gonzalez, fifth in 18:30, Emily Nugent, 16th in 19:08, Ellie DiMarcello, 28th in 19:27, Samantha Kehler, 51st in 19:58, Brenna Talamo 72nd in 20:17, Angela Kearsley, 87th in 20:30, and Alexandra Carlson, 96th in 20:43.
Ever since then, Walsh has kept North Hunterdon perched atop the NJ state rankings, finishing No. 1 three straight years, and it was named the top Girls XC Program of the past decade by NJ MileSplit!
WALSH BY THE NUMBERS
17-Number of years as the head girls XC coach at North Hunterdon
16-Highest finish at the Team Nationals in 2018.
7-Appearances in the Meet of Champions, including six straight (2014-19)
6-Sectional XC titles won (2012, 2015-19)
5-Number of Skyland Conference and Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex Championships
5-Number of sub 19 runners at Holmdel (Chloe Gonzalez-17:45 in 2019-school record/No. 6 in course history), Eve Glasergreen (18:15 in 2014), Emily Nugent (18:34 in 2018), Ellie DiMarcello (18:40 in 2016), and Magdalyn Hoffman (18:57 in 2019).
4-Northeast Regional team titles captured in a row (2016-19)
3-Number of Meet of Champions XC team titles (2017, '18, 19)
3-Place on Holmdel Park's All-Time 5-runner average list with a 19:02.6 at the 2019 M of C
2-Individual Meet of Champions winners (Chloe Gonzalez-1600m outdoors in 2019, XC in 2019).
Note-Gonzalez was the first North Hunterdon girls to win the XC MOCs since the great Jodie Bilotta won her third straight in 1987.
Q&A WITH WALSH
While you've already heard a lot about Walsh's background, we will take a much deeper dive now and see what makes him tick, learn even more about his remarkable journey on his path to becoming one of the very fast to one of coaches in the state, and find out about all the people who he learned from over the years in the Q and A below..
Plus, we got Coach Walsh to reveal some of the greatest NJ high school moments he's ever witnessed during his coaching illustrious career.
WHY COACHING AND WHO HAS HAD MOST IMPACT
When did you know coaching was something you wanted to do and why did you want to coach?
I wanted to coach as soon as I started to substitute at North Hunterdon (2001). My exposure to coaches at North Hunterdon made me want to do great things like they did.
Which coaches that you've either played for or coached with have had an impact on you, and in what ways? What types of things did you learn from them that you incorporated into your own coaching? In what ways did they help and shape and influence you as a coach?
My brother Brian, who has coached with me since the beginning, and has had the biggest influence on me and the success of the program, regardless of what people think. He has done the research, put in the time (for free), and made the 100% commitment to make the program a truly great success. We balance each other well I think and it has been great to get North XC/Track & Field to where it is. We are not who we are without Brian Walsh as my Co-Coach.
Mike Owdij made huge improvements in strength training and in the field in track & field. The consummate positive person who makes girls work hard without even noticing. Jeff Shanklin, who still runs with the girls and the boys teams and always has something positive to refocus the athletes.
North coaches including Don Roberts (XC coach before me), Tom Hank (my high school golf coach & North girl's basketball coach), Jason Hawk (North wrestling coach), Tim Flynn (North wrestling coach), Coach Dennis Haughey (former wrestling coach at NHHS).
Coach Roberts taught me how to know when to be tough and when the girls needed your support, a very great thing to learn from a great coach. Coach Hank showed me how to be a leader when I played for him, how to be a professional as an athlete, and how to have fun when the time is right. Coach Hank also taught me how to work with superiors and understand that you must respect all people that you coach and work with; a truly great person he is!
Coach Hawk showed me how to work with parents, how to avoid email confrontations with parents, and how speaking in person with athletes and parents is the best way to create a relationship and a program. Coach Hawk was my mentor as I grew into a coach and teacher at North Hunterdon. Coach Flynn has been my support since I started teaching and taught me how to do the right things and how when you work at a school, you are in a system and you must respect all parts of the system.
And Dennis Haughey taught me how to have fun with the kids and let the nonsense roll off your back. Never take the attacks of others too seriously. Coach Dennis Shea, our golf coach at Monmouth University, showed me how adults should act, how athletes should conduct themselves, and what you need to do if you want to build a program. It took me years to understand what he was trying to do, but once I started coaching, I understood everything that he was doing. Wish I was more mature when I was with him at Monmouth.
TAKING OVER A LEGENDARY PROGRAM
You obviously took over one of the greatest programs in NJ XC history. There is a lot of responsibility and pressure that comes with taking over a program as successful as North Hunterdon. What was it like when you first took over? What was the pressure like to bring North Hunterdon back to the top in NJ, and how motivated were you to build the Lions into the No. 1 team in the state again?
It was very tough at first and never got easier. We took the responsibility of making North XC/Track great again very seriously. The goal was always to be the best and I can't tell you how many drives home I was just hoping to get 1 sectional title for North. There was so much competition with Hunterdon Central, Ridge, Hillsborough, Voorhees, Franklin, etc...It was really hard to even get little successes. We said if we didn't see any progress in five years, we would step aside and let someone else try. However; right around five years, we started to turn the corner. The pressure to be good was pressure from within. We tried to put coaches in place that shared the same goal, and we were very lucky to find great people to put in those places.
Let's get into all your great success at North Hunterdon. What was the feeling like when you won your first MOCs title in 2017 after being close in previous years? Returning North to its championship glory for the first time in 31 years must have been very satisfying and must have made you very proud!
It was a huge relief to get that first MOC! After being so close, I was so happy for all the girls who laid the foundation for winning, but never got to be the best, and of course for the girls who got it done. We were happy for Jim Crossin and his Hunterdon Lions Track Club coaches, who did so much work to help us connect the younger kids with the High School program.
It was a great moment and all I thought about was everyone who helped us to get to that spot and it is a huge list of helpers! I think most coaches will tell you it's exciting, but also a relief as you have to manage so many things to get championships. Most importantly for all the girls who have been a part of it, all the coaches who helped North girls get to that spot, and all the parents who sacrificed so much for their kids, it is great for them to be in history with the rest of the greats of North running!
How much did winning it all in 2017 serve as more fuel for you and the girls to build a dynasty and go on to win three straight MOCs titles along with four straight Northeast titles?
I think that once we won that first Northeast Regional, it made all girls want to feel that championship feeling. The combination of the first Northeast Regional Championship and the first MOC in 2017 the following fall was the key to getting girls who were coming up to want to be the best and get in the mix.
What has been the key to all of your success at North Hunterdon, Sean? Obviously you've had a lot of talented runners, but you've worked very hard along with your coaching staff to build a championship winning culture. What is the secret recipe in the sauce?
(1) Step one, Jim Crossin helped Brian and I by making the Hunterdon Lions Track Club a reality. Jim built one of the best clubs, if not the best club, in the state for 4th through 8th graders. He had a team of great supporters who love the sport and wanted to see North Cross Country/Track & Field be great again. They put in long hours and it was a huge undertaking. The founders (Crossin, Knowles, Harris, Folsom) led to even more people from the community helping out and playing big roles (DiMarcello, Richards, Blake). That was a huge start to helping us build the program.
(2) Learning how to work with teenage athletes. I believe that athletes need to know that you care about them before you can hope to have any success at all. That starts by going above and beyond in the time you spend with the program and the opportunities you present to your athletes for success. No matter how athletes feel if they have setbacks, they can never say that I didn't care about them. If they do believe that, they have clouded their thoughts with outside negativity, not negativity from me.
(3) You need leaders who set the tone not only for the current teams, but with team behavior that lasts through time.
(4) You need tough, nasty girls who will go to war for you. We have had a lot of them! Running is nasty stuff and you very rarely feel 100%. Teams that are great run hard no matter how they feel in that race and they never give in to weakness; even on tough days.
(5) You need coaches who are there to be coaches, not coaches who are there to collect paychecks. If you are there to collect a paycheck, you need to go coach somewhere else.
(6) You need to treat coaching decisions with no bias. This fact has led many athletes/parents to have hard feelings toward me, but I have never favored any athletes and have always made each decision after careful thought and consultation with all coaches involved.
What do you like the most about coaching? What's the most rewarding part of it and the most challenging part of it?
The best part about coaching is being involved in the lives of the athletes. While winning is a huge priority for us, it has been the conversations about boyfriends, the struggles with classes, tough times at home, tough times with friends, etc... that the girls come to you about. It is the greatest opportunity anyone can have in a job, the ability to help teenagers get through their ever changing life, one day at a time. Every coach will tell you that when an athlete comes back to visit you or reaches out to you after graduation, that is the good stuff. When the athletes know that they can find you any time during the day if they are having a rough day, those are the things that matter to me beyond the Championships.
What does it mean to you to be the coach of the most successful XC program in state history?
It is a humbling experience and it just makes me proud of all of those people who have been a part of it. Not much more to say than that on that question.
LOOKING INTO A CRYSTAL BALL
How about the future, Sean? What kind of goals do you have for the program moving forward? I assume that maintaining the tradition of greatness that you have established and continuing to add to North's great legacy is a huge priority for you and the girls.
We want to win more championships, stay at the top of NJ's programs, defend titles, and help more girls realize their potential. We want North Cross-Country/Track & Field to have staying power. We want to continue to have people say, as they have since the 70s, North girls are always good.
What are your thoughts on the upcoming season? You lost Chloe Gonzalez, the Meet of Champions winner last year (now at Georgetown), but you return 5 of your top 7. You must have high hopes for this team to make another run at being No. 1 in NJ?
We have huge hopes for our girls this year and I think each girl has a chip on her shoulder as the state will believe others are better. Our girls are motivated with girls coming back and young girls about to make their mark. We know how hard it is to be the best, but we believe we will be in those battles! There is obviously a lot of uncertainty if we will have a high school season this fall, and if we do it will look much different.
What are your thoughts on how the NJSIAA is handling the upcoming season (shortened schedule, no Groups or Meet of Champions? How tough is this is to deal with as a coach, and how are your runners are handling things?
It's very disappointing and as I have said to others, I think more could have been done to have at the very least, the full championship season. We are talking about three meets. If schools are going to be able to schedule other meets, why not just focus on those three meets, Sections, Groups, MOC's? I don't understand why the summer recess period ends and then no sports can practice until September 14th. It is a good way to get athletes injured and as I have said before, I don't think the athletes and their parents had any voice in decisions being made for them. Parents and athletes would sign off on these things in a heartbeat. Our runners are focused and working toward greatness. One way or another, they will meet other great girls and have at it. It just depends on when and where, but our girls will not be swayed and will be ready!
What kind of backup plans are you making to try to have a season in case the NJSIAA cancels fall sports? Are you trying to to put together "clubs meets'' so your girls can race? Do you think there can be some sort of state club championships in XC, similar to what NJ baseball teams recently did? What would like to see happen if the NJSIAA cancels the fall sports season?
I feel that there is a huge opportunity to have meets through club teams as long as athletes and parents support it, which I know they do. That is where it is headed if our state sports are taken away from the girls.
WALSH'S TOP MOMENTS
What do you consider the top 3 moments/highlights from your teams and what made them so memorable?
1 - Winning the Nike Northeast Regional 2016 in cross-country. "Finally our girls realized their full potential, the springboard to all that has happened. I remember the moment and the girls having that surreal moment! I get teary eyed just thinking about it.''
2 - Winning the 2018 North 2 Group 4 Sectional Championship. "We beat Ridge, and what means more than that in New Jersey girls track & field. They were the best and we had/have so much respect for them! The best part of that victory was that everyone contributed in almost every event. Those who think Track & Field is not a team sport, have never experienced a Sectional Title, it's so hard to accomplish!
3 - The 2012 Sectional Championship in Cross-Country. The first, very huge step toward greatness for the girls. I will never forget it as long as I live!
How about the greatest three NJ high school track and field/XC moments you've seen as a coach from an athlete or team that you weren't coaching? What can tell me about why those 3 moments stand out so much to you?
1-Watching Craig Forys run the 1,600 at the Group Championships in Egg Harbor in 2007 (he ran 4:07.36 that day). I was a relatively new coach and I had never seen anything like watching him run the 1600m. It was truly impressive, and for a non-runner it really made me appreciate the sport and the athletes.
2-The Ridge girls dominating the 4x800m relay for such a long period of time (they've won nine straight 4x800's at MOCs 4 indoors/5 outdoors). It is so difficult to get girls to compete at that high level and sacrifice their personal success for the sake of their teammates. They did it over, and over, and over again. So impressive!
3 -Justina Casavell and the Voorhees girls success. Truly inspirational for Brian and I and the girls at North. Everywhere we looked, we saw what we wanted to be in our own district. Anyone who makes excuses because they are a small school, look no further than Justina Cassavell's history as a NJ Coach and her domination in New Jersey. And Rutgers never considered hiring her???
Note: Cassavell is now a very successful coach at Ramapo College.
Coaches who influenced Walsh and his coaching staff: "If not for Rich Refi (Hillsborough), Tim Mooney (Ridge), and Justina Cassavell (Voorhees), we would never have had the motivation or the mentoring we needed to have our girls and our coaches work hard enough to be great,'' said Walsh. "We have the utmost respect for those coaches and know that they are a huge part of our growth as coaches and as a program.''