Longtime Hanover High School cross country coach Jim Eakin with two of the many champion runners whose careers he guided, Aaron Watanabe and Heidi Caldwell, in 2008. (COURTESY)
Ah, the memories as Hanover cross country coach retires
A tattered white ball cap stitched with the names of several former Hanover High cross country athletes is a cherished possession. So, too, are a pair of old gray Hanover sweats.
They belong to Marauders cross country coach Jim Eakin, and they elicit memories from a coaching career that spans three decades.
Memories of meets in the rain and mud of October, and the wind and cold of November. Memories of training runs with his athletes.
Memories of 10 individual state champions and 23 team titles. Memories of a Hanover boy and girl who each set state Class I records, which still stand, at Manchester's Derryfield Park. And memories of a girls' team that finished fourth in the nation.
Though Eakin recently announced his retirement from coaching after a 32-year career in Hanover, the white ball cap and the sweats will still be seen at meets around the state in the years to come. Cross country is in his blood.
"I came to Hanover in 1981 and I was teaching and coaching at the school right away," remembers Eakin. "Hanover had really never won anything in cross country, but kids came out for the team anyway. I wanted to make it more than just come out for cross country. I ran when I was in school, and I knew the effort and dedication and work cross country requires, and the rewards it can bring."
Working over the years with some gifted assistant coaches including Stan Crane, Tom and Roger Jennings and Sue Langdon among others, Eakin helped transform the Hanover running program into one of the state's most successful and respected programs ever.
"I had the pulse of Hanover High," Eakin said. "It was a school where kids were under pressure academically, but they were complacent and satisfied with just being on the cross country team. I told them, you're working hard, so why not go for the top?"
Go for the top they did.
The Hanover boys first found success in 1982 and went on to claim nine division titles under Eakin. The girls were even more successful, winning 14 times including streaks of five and six consecutive years in the early 90's and mid 2000's. The Hanover girls' teams have boasted seven individual champions who have combined to win the Class I and Division II title 18 times.
"I think it started with Woden and Zephyr Teachout in the mid 80's," said Eakin. "There were no feeder or junior high programs back then, and they started getting girls out for the team. From there it just kept building."
Zephyr won the New England Championship in 1985 as a freshman, and she was the class champion in both '86 and '87. Over the next nine years, Alais Griffin, Cara Aley and Kelly Brady brought Zephyr's crown back to Hanover eight times.
At the turn of the century, Catherine Bryson, Georgia Griffin and Heidi Caldwell won eight titles.
On the boys' side, Rolf Sunnerup and Russell Brown won twice each and Aaron Watanabe once.
Except for Bryson, who moved to England, each of the Eakin's champions went on to compete in Division I programs such as Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Wake Forest and Brown. Some had successful collegiate careers. Others stopped competing after one campaign. But they all shared one feeling - each said they had a better time running in high school.
"A lot of my athletes were cross country skiers, and I do that," said Eakin. "I don't know what it was, but we had a good time and we hit it off. I've been pretty fortunate, a lot of good kids came through. Some the kids, not even the stars, stuck with it. They never got their name in the paper, and I see them today and they're happy about what they did."
One of Eakin's fondest memories is of Watanabe, the 2008 Class I boys' champion.
"Aaron was the 11th guy on the jayvee team his freshman year," remembers Eakin. "He came out of nowhere. He won only one cross country meet in his entire career. It was the state meet his junior year. He went on and qualified for the Nike Cross Nationals. Some of his races were beautiful to watch, knowing where he came from and where he ended."
And there are more memories.
"I remember one year, we went 1-2-3-4 at the Class I meet back in the 90s," he reminisced. "We just hit it that day. Sometimes the kids took it for granted, and I had to remind them that a lot of people paid a lot of dues at Hanover. There are a lot of great coaches who haven't done what we have done. I never took any of that for granted."
There was, of course, the girls' team that won the New England Championship in 2006. It went on to finish fourth at the Nike Nationals the following year.
"They expected to win and they did win," the Hanover coach said. "I just reminded them of the effort they needed to accomplish that, and they went out and put in that effort."
Zephyr Teachout raced in the New England Championships during her sophomore year in sub-zero wind chills in Connecticut, without long sleeves or tights.
"She had a lot of natural talent, but her greatest strength was in her toughness," Eakin lauded.
Memory upon memory flows from the coach who has earned the respect of his athletes, their rivals and his colleagues throughout New Hampshire.
And a white hat and some Hanover sweats will forever own a special place in Jim Eakin's wardrobe.