By Tony Hooker
Coach Jim Kestner has been involved in coaching, in some form or another, since 1989. So there’s not a lot he hasn’t seen. Until 2020, that is. I recently caught up with the Villa Grove Heritage High School and Villa Grove junior high cross-country coach to get his thoughts on the upcoming season.
Coach, has this been the weirdest season you’ve ever seen?
It certainly has been! The strangest thing has been the constant changes, not knowing from day to day what changes will lie in store.
How long have you been coaching?
I actually started as a track and field coach at Oakland High School in 1989.
With all of the ups and downs concerning the upcoming season, how have you kept your team engaged?
We’ve tried to focus on opportunities instead of barriers. There are a lot of people everywhere that don’t have the opportunity to participate. We’ve always emphasized having fun, and this year is no different. This year, we’re just trying to add a bit of thankfulness to the mix.
Have you seen an influx of more athletes this year, with the cancellation of other sports?
Honestly, it’s added more to my junior high team, but I’ve actually lost two athletes to the golf team since football was cancelled. I have the biggest numbers I’ve ever had, but it’s not due to the cancellation of other sports in my case.
How many runners do you have?
I have 26 junior high runners and 23 high school athletes.
As we’ve discussed before, it’s not always about how the team performs, but more about emphasizing personal improvement with you. Are you seeing that again this year?
It’s funny that you mention that because one of the biggest changes is that I’ve always said I have a fitness team and a competition team, and my athletes could cross back and forth between the two as their fitness levels and goals changed. In the past, I’ve always had runners who started on the fitness team who crossed over to the competition team. I’ve never had a season where I didn’t have everyone on the team compete at some point. This year, however, there are severe limitations on the number of the athletes who can actually compete at meets, so I’ve had to formalize that and they won’t be allowed to switch. For the first time, they have to pick up front. As far as those who are wanting to compete at the highest level, they’re still out there, focused, running hills, doing interval training and running lots of miles like they’ve always done.
Do you have any runners in mind who will be your team leaders?
We haven’t elected captains yet, but I have two senior runners who are in a leadership role because of their class. We actually have some strong athletes coming from Heritage this year, and I think everyone has run in the IESA state meet and they’ve actually finished quite well. Our best times will probably come from our younger runners, but we continue to have improved times from our younger runners from last year. I probably have a dozen runners on my team who have experience at the IESA state meet. They have tremendous potential in making that switch. There’s an adjustment period, of course because in junior high they run two miles and in high school they run three so they have to develop the poise to maintain their pace for another mile, but they’re coming in in great shape, able to run 8 or 9 miles, and that hasn’t happened in the past. At the end of last year, some of the older runners got together and insisted that the whole team work hard and come back this season, and for the most part they did. Many of them have been able to run six miles, seven miles, or even eight miles this summer.
Do you have a pretty strong contingent of girls runners this year?
We do. One of the Heritage girls ran at the IESA state meet. Last year, our girls really surprised us at the very first LPC conference meet. We went in there and finished second.
You have a new addition to the coaching staff. What has he brought to the table?
Absolutely, Jacob Griffith, a Villa Grove alum, who ran track and cross country at Millikin, is a very accomplished runner. He has a philosophy that is very similar to mine. What he has though, is the fact that he’s an elite runner. I know how to coach them, but I know how to coach them to that level, but I’ve never actually competed there. I was never that fast! <laughs> It’s tremendous to have someone who understands how it works, but also to have been there. It’s one thing for a coach to tell you what you need to do, you have to have a certain level of trust, but I think it’s another thing when you have a coach who has done those same things. It’s really exciting for the kids to have him as a part of the team. He’s creative, he’s energetic, and the kids have really responded to him.
What are your expectations for your junior high and high school teams this year?
It’s hard to say, because we won’t have a post-season this year, but I will say that it is our goal to have medalists at all of the big meets we’re attending this year. I think what we’re really going to do is to develop a solid core of people who want to keep running and who are preparing themselves for the future and looking forward to when we can come back. I honestly believe that when the post season comes back to us, we’ll be taking kids to those meets. Our team has taken athletes to junior high state the past three years in a row, and I really believe we would have done so again this year if we had been given that opportunity. I truly believe that when post season comes back we’ll be well represented by Villa Grove Heritage athletes. I have to say that I feel bad for the eighth graders who have gone to state multiple times and are at the top of their physical development and won’t have an opportunity to compete at the highest level. My hope is that they come back as freshmen and really light things up. It’s really an exciting future for cross country at Villa Grove.