For John Woodside, taking the helm of the Princeton Day School cross country program this fall was a matter of coming through for a good friend.
When previous PDS head coach Merrell Noden realized last year that he might be losing his valiant battle with cancer, he reached out to Woodside, a running buddy and former Princeton High boys’ cross country and track coach.
“Last winter I would officiate at some of the Lawrenceville meets and Merrell came to watch (his son) Sam run,” recalled Woodside, who first met Noden, a former Lawrenceville and Princeton University running star, in the 1970s, striking up a friendship through racing against him and running together through the years.
“He said to me, ‘John, look the truth is, I don’t really know if I am going to be able to coach next year because physically I am not able to so if I can’t coach, I really want you to take over.’”
While Woodside didn’t want things to come to that, by late April, Noden formally stepped down from his coaching duties. PDS contacted Woodside and he was quickly hired to guide the Panther boys’ and girls’ cross country programs.
Initially, Woodside believed that Noden would be available to assist him.
“I had expected him to be around and I was really looking forward to it because the kids would really like it and it would have been great for him,” said Woodside, who stopped coaching at PHS after the 2012 cross country season.
“We planned on having the team meeting the last week of school. Merrell had said it would be nice if we all could meet and he could introduce me as the new coach but that didn’t happen.”
Noden died in late May, leaving a huge void in the PDS and local running community.
Woodside acknowledges that the transition was a bit rocky as he succeeded the beloved Noden.
“I am a very different coach; Merrell and I were good friends but we coach differently,” said Woodside.
“I have to coach them the way I coach them. I have a way of coaching that is different so there is an adjustment but I think that is coming along now. They are getting used to what I expect of them. We are working with a good group of kids, the kids that really want to run and to compete are there.”
In Woodside’s view, that work is starting to pay dividends. “You understand the situation and you just work with what you have and we did,” said Woodside, noting that he had runners joining the team at different times, starting with the first day of preseason in late August through the first week of school.
“We have some kids who can run and they are learning my system. They are taking to it. I feel like it is finally kicking into gear.”
As for the PDS boys’ squad, junior Kevin Sun is hitting a higher gear at the head of the pack, followed by junior Russell Kirczow and sophomore Nicholas McLean.
“Kevin is our top runner; he is a true distance runner,” said Woodside. “He truly loves running long distances. We are trying to work on getting his 5k faster. He is adjusting to that. He is very, very dedicated to cross country. He is running well and I think he is going to run even better. Russell was one who came out when school started. He is a good runner. He is a good baseball player so this is his second sport. He is getting in shape. He really wants to get in there and compete. He has been making strides. Nick McLean has been running very well, he is going to be even better.”
On the girls’ side, junior Morgan Mills has been running very well for the Panthers, along with sophomore Bridget Kane and senior Emma Sharer.
“Morgan is solidly our top girl,” asserted Woodside. “She is very competitive, she plays lacrosse as well. She has really taken to the new style and the more competitive focus. She loves it, she really wants to do well. She really wants to improve herself and she is making strides. I am hoping that as we get into October here, her times will come down further. Emma Sharer and Bridget Kane are running similar times, they have been improving. They plateaued a little and now they are getting better.”
With PDS hosting Lawrenceville for a dual meet on October 3, Woodside believes his runners will be primed to compete.
“We are going to run hard and be ready to run what I consider our first real race,” said Woodside, whose team has previously taken part in the George School (Pa.) Invitational and the Newark Academy Invitational along with a dual meet against Rutgers Prep.
“The races we did already were just training. We had so much work to do we couldn’t stop training just to do races. We trained through the races; they weren’t really race ready.”
Woodside is confident that PDS will be ready to peak when it ends the fall with the Prep B championship meet on October 28 at Blair Academy.
“There is no question that the Prep B is the focus of our season,” said Woodside, who is also looking for a good effort in the county meet which takes place five days before. “That meet is the culmination; that is the holy grail.”