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HAZELWOOD: New London family ties go the distance

Mark Hazelwood • Updated Nov 6, 2017 at 10:51 PM

It was just a simple ‘good luck’ Facebook post.

Yet the basic picture of a runner with an early morning sunrise backdrop with the caption, ‘give them the business’ meant more to the New London cross country program than anyone could imagine.

“As soon as I saw that, I knew that was no accident,” head coach Keith Landis said. “It was a post from one of our community supporters who never ran here, and I’m certain she didn’t know anything about that saying.”

That saying was one often said by the late Dan Olien, who coached the New London programs from 1999-2005. He died in 2006 at the age of 37 after a years-long battle with a brain tumor.

Landis — a former standout runner himself for the Wildcats — found himself thinking of Olien on Friday as he took his boys and girls teams down to the Division III state championships in Hebron.

“He was taken too soon, and no one cared more about the program than him,” Landis said of Olien. “To be successful, you have to care — and he did as much as anybody.”

Olien had taken over for legendary coach Bob Knoll, who started the program in 1972 and turned the Wildcats into a state power. Landis has found himself often ‘stealing’ things that both Knoll and Olien did — because there are impactful influences left by both coaches throughout the program.

But how can one best explain the sustained success of the distance sport at this small school?

The village of New London has only twice exceeded 2,500 in population in the five decades since cross country began at the school. Nestled in the rural southeastern corner of Huron County, New London is perhaps most notable for being the hometown of former Miss Ohio and television personality Robin Meade.

In terms of athletics, a few sports at NL have had sustained levels of consistency over several decades. But cross country has been a state-caliber program for nearly 50 years. And with just one senior among the 14 runners at state last weekend — it doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon.

To some extent, it’s similar to other famous Huron County sports dynasties such as Willard in boys basketball or St. Paul in football. Continuity in the coaching staff, and talent to make it work are always essential to yearly dominance.

But for the distance runners who come through the New London program, it ‘runs’ much deeper than that.

It’s a close-knit family. And that’s not just a figure of speech.

Take this year’s two teams, which just finished 11th (boys) and 17th (girls) in the state. Six runners on the high school roster have parents who ran in the program.

A quick look through the all-time standouts or rosters spans three generations of several families.

Greg Landis, who ran on the first two teams in 1972 and 1973, saw his son also run through the program (Brian, 1992-95) and current junior Clayton Landis is his grandson.

Greg is also Knoll’s brother in law — and the uncle to Keith, now continuing the lineage as head coach.

But the family ties don’t just stop in the last names. Every Thursday, there is a family-style team dinner that could be mistaken for a 1960s setting. The kids — no matter their ages or seniority — and coaches help set the table and prepare the meals, then put everything away afterwards.

To some kids in today’s generation, that may come off as hokey and antiquated.

“But if enough kids buy into that, it becomes a situation where everyone else besides the coach is saying ‘let’s do things right,’” Keith Landis said.

Landis can only laugh when he hears the term ‘millennials’ and the negative work ethic that tends to get associated with the demographic. Before optional 7 a.m. workouts in the summer, the latest group of runners is often standing outside before Landis can even turn the key to unlock the weight room door.

Still, how do all those things account for the overall scope?

Through 2017, the boys program has won 54 invitationals, 23 Firelands Conference championships, 14 district titles, two regional titles — capped with the 1993 state championship and a runners-up state finish in 1992. Twelve times the Wildcat boys have finished in the top 10 at state.

The girls program has 30 invite wins, 15 FC titles, six district championships, a pair of regional titles and twice has finished in the top 10 at state, including third place in 1979.

“Workouts are workouts, but the magic answer to it all is the kids,” Landis said. “If they believe in what you’re doing, they will work hard. We have an entire community that supports the program more than expected or needed — and that stuff just comes natural.

“It’s my favorite sports team in the world, because it’s not a team — it’s a family,” he added. “It’s all just a combination of everything that has led to this. It’s an unbelievable thing that I’m blessed to try and help maintain.”

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