NEWPORTâ€“While most people don't get a chance to see it, North Country Cross-Country coach Chris Shaffer is doing good things with the program.
For the second time in his two years as head coach, the Falcons will once again be represented at this weekends' New England Cross Country Championship in Rhode Island, but Shaffer knows that he is just a part of the success that the athletes have had.
"There is a point where all my talking and all my running next to them can only go so far, because once race day comes it's how determined they are and what abilities they bring."
This year the Falcons determination was personified in their senior girls captain Stephanie Watson, who will be the 2011 North Country rep at New England's.
Watson was consistently a top finisher all season long, and her 11th overall finish at the State meet punched her ticket to Rhode Island.
"I am really excited for it," said Watson, "I have been looking forward to it for the last two weeks. I just want to go and run it."
Shaffer's philosophy of continual improvement as the season progresses has rung true with his top female runner, as she feels like she is where she needs to be for Saturday's race.
"I feel better at practice now then I did five weeks ago. Being ready for states was more important in some ways (can't get to New England's if you don't do well at states), so I think I'm in the best shape of the season so far."
"I have seen a lot of dedication, and a lot of effort," said the coach of Watson's work ethic.
Shaffer also saw growth in other areas besides the running aspect, saying, "She really grew into the leadership role this year and has been a greater leader for our girls squad, and it has spilled over to the boys side as well. She was really hungry for it this year. You could definitely tell she put in the training over the summer, definitely tell she had that hunger."
Watson is no fool. She knows that you have to put in the work if you want to reap the rewards.
"The only way to become faster I've found is to want it and work hard," she said.
Her goal at states, says Shaffer, was not just to get to New England's herself, but to get her entire team to qualify as well. They came close, missing the mark by only a few minutes. After states, Watson gave herself a well earned respite from her usual regiment.
"I had to go and binge on some junk food, which I hadn't done for two months," she admitted with a smile.
But for the most part she maintains a very healthy diet, usually starting her day off with toast and eggs. When mid-day rolls around either something form the NCUHS cafeteria or a sandwich and an apple is what's for lunch, and a pre-race dinner usually will have a chicken or pasta component along with a salad and no desert.
Simply put, "I just try to eat healthy. I don't want to eat crap before the race so it(eating right) is important to me."
Steph's goal for Saturday's race is to crack the twenty minute mark during the five K. She has been training as diligently as she has been all season, and has not strayed from what got her this far because, as Shaffer explained,"You have typically two weeks before a training takes hold, and it has been two weeks since states, so really you can't do anything more to strengthen. You just want to make sure sure you don't get injured and that you are fresh and ready."
Watson has not been alone in her play-off training. Many of her teammates have been right along side their captain, and she appreciates what they do for her.
"All my teammates have given me great support and have pushed me to be better."
Now it is simply up to her as she will take today off, resume her preparations on Friday, and then head down to Rhode Island for the Veteran's Day Weekend event.
She did have few other people she wanted to thank for their help and support over a great 2011 season; her coaches.
"I think the coaches are great, and I just want to thank them for everything, for encouraging the team and all of us to always look forward to what we could have, and for pushing me to go farther."
Like I said before, whether it is the talent level of the kids he has running for him, or a coaching strategy that just seems to resonate with his athletes, Chris Shaffer is doing good things with the North Country Cross-Country program, and Watson's performance this year is proof of it.