One the coaches who is universally admired around the state is Justina Cassavell of Voorhees. She came into the coaching profession almost by accident but has surely found her niche. Over the past 10 years, her XC teams have finished out of the top 10 at MOC only once, wining the championship twice in 2007 and 2008 and finishing 2nd twice. During that 10 year period, her XC teams have also won 7 state Group meets and finished 2nd two times. Her 2007 team made it to the Nike Team Nationals, finishing 13th there. Lanie Thompson led those 2007 and 2008 teams winning the individual title both years.
She has been no less successful in track, coaching multiple state and MOC winners and Penn Relays Championship of America qualifiers as well as a national championship 4x800 team. Perhaps as or more important than her record of success, Justina is always looking for ways to learn and to put that knowledge gained to use for the benefit of her runners. She took a few minutes to sit down with NJRunners before practice recently in hilly and bucolic Glen Gardner.
NJR: Can you tell us a little about your background? High school, college, where you grew up etc?
JC: “I was a middle distance runner and ran all three seasons for four years for Ludwik Lubaszka at Hunterdon Central. I went to Rutgers and ran for 4 years and that is where I met my husband who was a runner there as well.
My high school bests were 2:14 and 5:0-something. I didn’t break records and I ended up running against some really good runners like Jodie Bilotta, so I didn’t win too many races. We were a pretty good team and I was a decent XC runner but I liked track better. I was a very committed runner.
At Rutgers I had a scholarship so I ran XC and track. I ran 2:09 and 4:26. I just missed qualifying for the NCAAs my junior year in indoor track for the 800. Although I learned a lot at Rutgers I was a very frustrated with my running career there, That’s for sure. I never did any serious competitive running after college, but I did run the Turkey Trot last year!”
NJR: Are you a fan of the sport? Did you follow it as a kid and do you follow it now on the elite level?
JC: “Oh yeah, a big fan. When I was a kid I was a serious figure skater but the expense of figure skating was just too much and had to give it up. I used to jog to stay in shape for figure skating so when there were races at middle school I did pretty well so I fell in love with running”
NJR: Did you watch and follow the college and elite levels of the sport when you were in high school?
JC: “Oh sure, stuff like the Mary Decker – Zola Budd thing really got my attention. Decker was one of my favorites but I also liked Budd. I was really more into the competition rather than the personalities. I didn’t idolize any particular person.”
NJR: Was there a coach that had a big influence on you as an athlete and coach?
JC: “Not really, between ice skating and running I had a bunch of coaches, all very different, so I liked certain things about each. If you asked me in college if I would be interested in coaching afterwards, I would have said no way. I had no interest. I remember when I was trying to pick my major at Rutgers thinking about teaching but didn’t think I would like it. I decided on economics and by the time I was a fifth year senior at Rutgers I was engaged to Bob Cassavell, a very talented runner out of Bergen County. Paul Schwartz knows all about my husband. He was a basketball player and didn’t run until his senior year. He ran 1:54 (1:54.8) as a senior in high school. He was widely recruited as a runner but he didn’t know much about running so he went to Rutgers.;He was just unsure about committing to running. He had many injuries because he had no base from high school. Now he’s really into the sport and he’s the unofficial volunteer coach. He loves the sport as much as I do and he follows it very closely. I think we were both a bit frustrated with our running careers and that was a big influence on how we approach running with young kids.”
NJR: So no coach was a really important influence on you?
JC: “I learned commitment from Ludwik and that’s a big thing. He’s very committed – he coaches both boys and girls at Hunterdon Central and it’s a huge number of kids, not an easy job. I didn’t appreciate his commitment when I was a kid, I do now. The reason I ended up coaching is kind of a funny story. I was shuffling around not knowing what I wanted to do and started to do some substitute teaching. Somehow Luwik got the word to me – it might have been through my sister, Jocelyn – that they needed a coach at Voorhees immediately. It was winter track and they had no coach so I interviewed for the job and got hired right on the spot. That was it – bam! I was a head coach! That was 17 years ago – I’ve been doing this for a long time!”
NJR: How did you find it when you started?
JC: “I was shocked that I loved it right away and I also loved substitute teaching. I spent some time as a long-term sub, teaching math and decided to start taking teaching courses, but then I got pregnant and decided I would stay at home with our kids. I stepped away from coaching for only one season when I had my first daughter, Claudia in June, but then I went right back to winter track . I’ve been continuous since then (1996) right through 3 more pregnancies. I missed some chunks of time as an assistant under Al (now AD Al Stumpf) . He was the head coach for both track seasons and I became head XC coach in 1997.”
NJR: So that’s a little odd since you ran a little XC but were more of a track runner.
JC: “Yes, I love Track and enjoy coaching both but there is something special about coaching cross country”
NJR: You must have drawn a lot from your experiences in high school and college.
JC: “Yes I did, I learned what worked or didn’t work on myself and others. I did a lot of reading and still do – a LOT of reading. I did the reading and then learned from trial and error with my earlier teams, applying what I learned coaching literature. I record everything about training and then look back at it to see what worked and what didn’t. If the kids didn’t run well I would look at my coaching and training of them. Of course it’s not always my fault but I always have looked at my training first.”
NJR: What would you say your coaching approach is – speed oriented, tempo, lots of miles, etc?
JC: “Definitely not a lot of mileage. I am conservative on that. Very rarely do we go over 40 miles a week and that’s with older kids. The younger ones will be more like 30. I give my team off once a week and sometimes I will give a kid more if they need additional rest. I think I have a good feel of when to push forward and when to pull back. Definitely, something I have learned over the years.
My philosophy definitely depends on the runners I have. Sometimes you have a team that has mostly distance runners and are not speed based runners. Other times you have half milers that you are trying to make into XC runners. So how I train them depends on the type of runners they are.”
NJR: Do you do a lot of hill work? Do you ever go on the track during XC?
JC: “We run hills – it’s hilly here but we do have a flat run that goes through the gorge that’s just beautiful. We rarely go on the track during XC. We do a lot of longer “interval” work on trails, we are very fortunate we have that – 1000s and repeats like that.”
NJR: How does a group 2 school like yours keep coming up with teams that compete at the highest levels? You’re now on your 3rd distinct group in the past 10 years.
JC: “It’s not numbers. I don’t have a large team; there are only 22 girls out for XC. I hear about teams with 60 girls and I don’t know if I would like that. I admire coaches that do both boys and girls and have both doing well. You can only pay attention to so many kids at once and I like to be able to work with all my runners, not just the varsity. Last year was unusual in that I had 13 freshmen out for XC. That’s a lot for us and those are the kids that are running so well this year. I think our success has to do with leadership passed down from one year to the next. I have been very lucky to have incredible kids that have great leadership abilities. They’re close, real friends. The dynamics were good on the better teams. But that all started with my first state class runner, Sarah Rhodes (recently inducted into the Voorhees Hall of Fame). She started all the team stuff with the tee shirts, pasta parties and braiding the hair. We started doing some big things running wise. Then came Liz Wort another great leader and it continued. The Lanie group was that way too - very close. We kept and keep the competition to the day of the race. We don’t worry about who is number one and who’s number four and all that. You’re all going to do great. I try to treat them as one big group rather than singling people out even if some individuals obviously emerge. The whole situation fosters this “work hard but have fun” type of atmosphere that seems to work well for us and has over the years.
Having a local youth track program has helped as well – the Hunterdon Hawks. A bunch of kids on my team were Hawks, it is pretty low key. With the size of this school, it is important the kids are exposed to track otherwise, they may never come out. Jim Crossin has a youth program in the area as well and it is very exciting for us to keep running alive in Hunterdon County. The Hawks had 180 kids come out last year and Jim had 200. The Hawks program runs from March through May which makes my life completely insane in the spring, my own kids are involved and I love it.”
NJR: What does a typical training week look like at Voorhees during XC?
JC: “If we have a dual meet on a Wednesday, that’s a workout for us. We do not get workouts in if we have a dual meet and a Saturday meet. Everyone runs the dual meet unless they’re hurt or sick. On Monday we’ll get in a long run of maybe 8 miles, Tuesday will be a shorter run, maybe 5 miles.”
NJR: Do you do anything else with the dual meet – any other kind of work?
JC: “No, a warm up, cool down and the race itself. We don’t do anything extra like a workout after a meet. Thursday will be a recovery day from the meet, probably 5 miles and Friday another 5 if there is a meet on Saturday. We do other stuff like weight room and core work. When we don’t have dual meets we get in more workouts.”
NJR: Are these 5 mile runs easy runs?
JC: “No, we don’t run anything really easy. We are not out there playing around. I would say we run most days pretty hard. The more I coach the more conservative I am with the mileage so we make the miles we do run count. I want to avoid injuries and keep the kids fresh for November when it really counts. My runners come into the season with a good base. I ask them to run consistently through the summer and they run one of three plans that I have for them.”
NJR: So you are not doing any speed work during XC but you are also not running high mileage. So what’s the secret of your teams doing so well?
JC: “I don’t have the kids run a lot of speed work but we add that in towards the end of the season everything else is at race pace or slower. The most important thing I have learned through reading and my coaching experience is that racing 5000 meters is 80% aerobic and only 20% anaerobic so my training is based on that. I don’t think success is always about what workouts you do or don’t do; I think there is much more than that. Training is a big part but fostering a good work environment is also important.”
NJR: Sounds like you have been reading Jack Daniels.
JC: “Among others. I can’t say that I am a Jack Daniels follower or any other coach in particular. I try to take some from each of them.
In XC I don’t believe in doing a lot of fast work. Maybe my kids could be faster but I want them to have a future and I’ve found that this way works best for us.”
NJR: Do you have race plans for each of your runners?
JC: “No, I don’t sit down and talk to them for too long - after about two minutes they don’t listen anyway! I find if you go into too much detail most of them start tuning you out. I remember being that way too. I try and make key points but I let them learn what works for them on their own too. I think it stays with them better. With Lanie (Thompson) I knew her racing instincts were very good so I didn’t want to mess that up. I would talk to her about races but I wouldn’t get into a lot of detail about planning her race. I let my runners feel their way a little and learn from their mistakes. After the race we’ll talk and I’ll make a point or two – “maybe you shouldn’t have gone out that hard.
Recently, after we raced at Shore Coaches I noticed something and we talked about it and I suggested that maybe next time we can try something different. I was pleased with the results and told them that but the idea is to improve."
NJR: A lot of people want to know how you keep coming up with these great teams. You’ve had two distinct groups that have performed at a very high level and now seem to have another. How do you do that given the size of your school and the fact that you are not “in the building”?
JC: “The 2007 team was a very special group of kids. They were extremely competitive and were great racers. They had the talent and lots of emotion and knew how to channel it into their races. The leadership was there and we rolled into the next year. In 2008 we won the MOC by one point that day over Ridge so in a way we were a bit lucky, it could have gone the other way.”
NJR: Certainly that group was comprised of distance runners. Now what about this team?
JC: “This group has 6 sophomores, one freshman and a senior in the top 8 with a very good JV team behind and they are mostly distance runners. They are working hard and we have great leadership.”
NJR: How talented are they? What is their potential for this year and beyond?
JC: “Well, looks like they’re in the mix right now. I don’t like to get too far ahead but they certainly have lots of potential. They are competing well and committed and that’s what you want. They’re young and building confidence so we are moving in the right direction.
This group will go as far as their love for running and their commitment to the program will take them. They have to stay focused but they certainly have the potential to be in the mix for the next few years. Sometimes kids lose their focus or love for running as time goes by. I tell them they have to work harder every year if they want to make the next step. I’ve had a few over the years that lost their focus but fortunately not too many.”
NJR: Are they track runners too or do you think they will excel mostly at XC?
JC: “They will do well on the track as they get stronger. Maybe some of them will be good half milers and some more distance. Track is so different from XC.”
NJR: Are you very organized with respect to training? Do you have a detailed plan?
JS: “I plan my weeks as we go. I love the training aspect of coaching, coming up with workouts and pace etc. I keep training logs and I look at them and see what is working and what isn’t and make adjustments on the fly if I need to. I think you have to be flexible to be effective based on the weather, the way the kids are feeling, etc.”
NJR: What is the greatest thrill you have had as a coach?
JC: “I have been very fortunate to have had quite a few. On the track my first great thrill was when we won the 4x800 in 2002 at the addidas Outdoor Nationals in 2002 when we weren’t even on the radar. Having a few teams run in Championship of America finals at the Penn Relays and watching Lanie win her MOC titles were all very exciting. For XC, when the kids broke the state team average record at Holmdel and won MOC in 2007. That’s one of those things you don’t try for – you try to win the race, not break the record. That same year when we qualified for the Nike Team Nationals. That was a blast for the kids and a great experience for me. This group wants to get there someday and that’s what drives them.”
NJR: What was the worst moment?
JC: “When we were favored to win the XC MOC title in 2003 but came in second. Sure I was upset but not like the kids; they were devastated. I didn’t like losing but the looks on their faces, that was hard. They were upset for days. I’m not in the building but I heard it from their teachers. I’m still not sure what happened that day. Maybe it was the pressure of being the favorites or maybe they just had an off day.
Another bad moment was in 2002 at Egg Harbor. We were in Group 2, about to win our first Group 2 track title. The girls were running 1-2-3 in the 800 and started to get passed near the finish. The girls were trying so hard one of them started to tie up and fell down right before the line and took down her teammate. The 3rd girl (Lauren Rugge) made it across the line for 3rd but the other two (Sara Best and Lindsey Owen) crawled across the line barely qualifying and we lost the meet to Pleasantville by 3 points. Al was the head coach back then and neither one of cared about losing the meet; we were just so upset for the kids because they wanted to win so badly.
And of course, because they tripped they had bad seeds and had to run in the slower heat at the MOC. Kim Mineo won (in 2:12.21) and Katy Trotter was second (2:12.34). Lindsay just missed beating them (3rd in 2:12.35). Who knows what would have happened if they had been in the same section? I really thought Lindsay could have won that race. They were so upset and fired up they went on to win the national title in the 4x800 one week later.
Winning the national championship was a nice consolation!”
NJR: Do you stay close to your runners once they graduate?
JC: “Yes, I do stay in touch with the kids once they are gone and they also keep in touch with the kids that are still there. Some come and help with the youth program when they are home.”
NJR: Name the best track and field/XC athletes that you’ve ever seen from New Jersey.
JC: “Well, Jodie Bilotta for one because she won 3 title at the MOC and of course Lanie for her great races at the MOC. She was more of a team player than an individual. When I would push her to do the individual stuff, it wouldn’t work sometimes. She was at her best on the XC course with her teammates or anchoring a relay. You will see the best from Lanie (in college) when the team championship is on the line. Maybe that will change down the road for her but for now she’s about team and was in high school.
Boys, I was amazed watching Craig Forys run. There was something about watching him run when he was behind like in those miles (anchoring the distance medley).
One of the most exciting races I’ve ever seen was last year at the nationals when I was on the turn during the 2 mile and I heard Joe Rosa say, “let’s go get him” to his brother about Lukas Verzbicas. And they went and caught him.
I’ve seen so many great races; Ajee Wilson is another one. I’m a track fan and I’ve been around a long time so I’ve seen a lot of great athletes and races.”
NJR: What does the future hold for you? Do you ever think about coaching college?
JC: “I’d like to teach math some day but I’m happy coaching here for now. College doesn’t hold any appeal for me. I’ll wait until my little guy goes to school before I think about teaching. I love having my daughter on the team and look forward to the next few years a she matures as a runner along with all the other kids.”
Cover Photo: lehighvalleylive.com