August 8, 2012

Ever Striving

By John W. Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

His boyish looks-those Irish eyes breakdancing with bedevilment-seem to be jumping off a vintage box of Wheaties. Jim Kavanagh, forever easygoing, belies his biostat of 65. In many ways, he is still the All-American freckle-faced kid with dreams of Olympic fame, if not becoming a cover boy for the Breakfast of Champions.

"These kids at Holy Cross keep our staff physically fit and mentally young,'' Kavanagh remarks with aw-shucks modesty. "Coach K," the Richard L. Ahern '51 Director of Cross Country and Track and Field, leads a very experienced staff: women's coach Egetta Alfonso '92 has been with the Crusaders for 13 seasons; assistant coaches Pete Mariani and John Hoogasian have been on the Hill for 17 and 20 seasons, respectively; and women's assistant coach Bruce Stearns has 31 seasons under his belt.

But Kavanagh himself rings in at 41 seasons at Holy Cross: In that time, he has motivated thousands of young men and women to achieve their personal bests in cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field while pushing them to perform as well in the classroom. He has been an agent for change while adapting to seismic alterations in the College's athletic landscape.

When head coach Tom Duffy '20 and assistant W. Harold "Skip" O'Connor approached Kavanagh about becoming a Crusader assistant in 1971, Kavanagh told them bluntly, "You know I am THE ENEMY. Holy Cross has a track program, but not a track and field program. As a decathlete, I don't appreciate how one dimensional the program is."

Indeed the legendary Bart Sullivan, head coach from 1912 through 1964, smartly recruited gifted sprinters who could excel also in mile and two-mile relays and earn Holy Cross national attention. But other events were often neglected. "That's why we want you to come to Holy Cross, to change all that," Duffy replied.

Kavanagh had a glossy resume. He set Boston College records in the discus, the hammer throw, the shot put and still holds the all-time Eagle record for most points scored in the decathlon. Along with All-America honors in track and field, Kavanagh snared 44 catches in football during his junior and senior seasons. Drafted in 1968 by the NFL Kansas City Chiefs, Kavanagh had but a week to decide whether to turn pro and give up his amateur status and Olympic dreams. He signed with the Chiefs and broke his ankle in the preseason. "That [decision] blew up in my face," he says.

Yet along with world-class athletic talent, Kavanagh had brains and a backup plan. At La Salle Academy in Providence, R.I., he had found a perfect role model in Pete Curtin, his geometry teacher and coach in track and field. "He was my idol. Because of him, I always knew I would someday coach and teach math," recalls Kavanagh, who taught math in the Worcester public school system for 30 years while serving as a Holy Cross track and field and cross country coach.

Kavanagh's parents impressed the importance of a good education on their seven kids. The two girls went to Providence's St. Xavier's Academy and all five boys went to La Salle Academy, where Coach K's brother, Donald J. Kavanagh '73, is now the school's principal. Their mother, Thelma, a librarian by training, ran the household while giving home piano lessons. For 40 years, their dad, Ed, a burly no-nonsense guy, ran Kavanagh's Tap, an Irish pub where boisterous political arguments often raged.

"My dad worked long hours and could never understand all the time and energy I devoted to athletics. He worked from dawn until after midnight and never saw me compete," says Kavanagh, who now has three children of his own-Brian '03, Michael and Jane-with his wife, Elizabeth.

Since Kavanagh's arrival, times have changed dramatically, athletically and otherwise, at Holy Cross. Today, competition for gifted athletes is keen among highly ranked academic schools in the Patriot League and the Ivy League and in general among colleges and state universities throughout New England. The growth of sports such as soccer and lacrosse has watered down the talent pool. The College had but a handful of sports 50 years ago; now students compete in 27 varsity sports, notes Kavanagh, who assumed the mantle of head coach (still part time) in 1978.

A hard-nosed optimist by nature, Kavanagh sees a positive spinoff from the whirlwind of change. "The quality of the student-athlete here is fantastic. Our women's program is getting better and better. Our kids are receptive to studying and training hard," Kavanagh says. Holy Cross' resurfaced outdoor track and other improved facilities are also providing added recruiting tools.

The women are guided by one of Coach K's prized protegées, Egetta (Schumski) Alfonso '92, a senior co-captain who set records in the shot put and as a member of the 4 by 100-meter quartet under the guidance of the esteemed Al Halper and Kavanagh. Alfonso taught English at Worcester's  South High, where she was a colleague of Kavanagh. In 1999, when Coach K was anointed full-time director of track and field and cross country, he brought Alfonso aboard.

This past indoor season, Holy Cross women posted their highest finish, fourth, in New England. Stephanie Okpoebo '14 emerged as the team's MVP, winning the 60 and 200 meter dashes in the Patriot League Indoor Championships and the 100 and 200 meters dashes in the Patriot League Outdoor Championships, hosted by Holy Cross. "Coach Alfonso was very supportive of me when I tore up my knee (ACL) in high school soccer. Her encouragement made me want to come here and get better each year,'' says Okpoebo.

No doubt, the women's team will miss senior leaders such as Katelyn Hartnett '12, who set Holy Cross records in the 800 meters and 1,000 meters, and Alexandria Culkeen '12, a fine performer in shotput, discus and hammer. Yet Coach Alfonso looks forward to the return of Holy Cross' record-setting 4 by 100 meter relay team (47.02 seconds) of Okpoebo, Brianna Tabin '15, Melanie Forte '13 and Katie Bobinski '15, as well as a strong supporting cast of other returnees and recruits.

The men's teams are a slightly different story. "We are in a building phase,'' explains Sam McGrath '14, a promising 800-meter talent who ran a personal best (1:53:27) in the New England Outdoor Championship and is part of a very good 4 by 800-meter relay group with Nick Petsky '14, Trevor Dutton '15 and Nick Athanasidy '14. "Our attitude is to train harder, compete harder and improve," McGrath adds.

Coach K, the athletes will tell you, is two parts philosopher and one part drill sergeant who inculcates a realistic approach to keep Holy Cross competitive. He understands the formula for success: a mixture of hard work and talent. "I know these kids are making the effort and sacrificing their social life, and often come up short of their expectations. But they are measured only by striving for their best performances," Kavanagh says.

An example of this attitude is Amenawon Johnson '14, a 6-foot-3, 185-pound athlete who is being asked to pool all his talents and transform himself into 10-event decathlete. "It is frustrating trying to be good at everything. There are times I want to give up, but Assistant Coach [John] Hoogasian tells me champions don't quit," says this computer science major from Framingham, Mass. So this summer Johnson is dedicating himself to "getting better," the Holy Cross mantra.

Is it worth it? "It's tough being an athlete at Holy Cross. It takes away a good part of your social life, but I love to compete, and I would not have changed anything,'' says Hartnett, who is trotting off to a career with a major accounting firm that believes Hartnett-like other Holy Cross athletes-is always reaching to achieve another personal best.

John W. Gearan '65 is an award-winning writer who worked as a reporter and columnist for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Rhode Island.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.