By DOUG DONNELLY
Jim Hojnacki tried cross country in high school. His trial run lasted less than two weeks.
“I thought those guys were crazy,” he said of the other runners. “I did it to get in better shape for basketball.”
His tenure on the high school cross country course was short-lived, but his love for coaching the sport wasn’t. Hojnacki recently stepped down as the head boys and girls cross country coach at Whiteford. He held the position 16 years.
“It is just time,” Hojnacki said. “The kids have always been awesome.”
Hojnacki got started in the sport shortly after graduating from Start High School.
“I was 20, single and I got hooked on distance running,” he said. “I ran my first marathon in Honolulu. I ran six marathons before I tore up a knee.”
His last marathon came in Louisville in 2000, a couple of years before then-Whiteford athletic director John Flynn asked him if he was interested in coaching cross country for the Bobcats. He agreed to be a volunteer head coach.
“The Tri-County Conference decided to make cross country a TCC sport,” he said. “John knew that I had a running background. He came and asked me if I was interested. After the first year, they talked about it becoming a paid position, but then, because of budget cuts and things, they decided to drop the sport.”
Hojnacki, however, had other ideas. That first season he had nine girls out for the sport and no boys.
“I came home after a practice during that first week and I told Marcia (his wife) that because of that core group I had of freshman and sophomores I thought that if they bought into it and really worked, they had a chance to really be something.”
But, first, he needed the sport to remain part of Whiteford’s athletic offerings.
“I went to the board and asked them to keep the sport and to give the athletes the same type of privileges as any other varsity sport,” he said. “It was operated as a club sport, but they kept it.”
The team continued to compete in the TCC and Michigan High School Athletic Association events. Two years later, Hojnacki had his first TCC championship when the girls team won the league. The Bobcats have four TCC cross country championships under Hojnacki and several of his teams qualified for the state meet and earned academic All-State honors.
One of those league championship teams included his daughter, Grace. His son, Mark, also ran cross country and became an assistant coach for the Bobcats.
“Those were special,” he said. “Watching my daughter race and compete and win a league title was extra special and having Mark run and become an assistant coach with me was an incredible feeling.”
Cross country was always part of the family. His wife, Marcia, was a major part of the success as well, coaching the team alongside of Jim.
“The only first-place boys cross country trophy Whiteford ever won, she coached them,” he said. “I was at work and they sent me a photo of the boys holding the trophy.”
The duo, who have been married 34 years, spent a significant amount of time running summer workouts, training and coaching together at night and weekend events. Marcia also took tons of photographs and they annually prepared a post-season booklet chocked full of information and photos of the team.
“I know I got the credit for it, but she was right there with me all along,” Hojnacki said. “She ran things. She was there, got things set up and sometimes had to coach the team. Over the years, I’ve been through four or five different jobs and I went back to college. It wasn’t uncommon to get a call on a Friday telling me I had to be at work on Saturday. When that happened, Marcia would run whatever meet we would be running.”
This past season, the Whiteford board of education was able to make cross country a full-funded sport at Whiteford for the first time, which included a coaching stipend for the 2017-18 school year.
“It was never about the money,” Hojnacki said. “It was about being there for the kids. You have to be there for them, the summer workouts and the practices. That was the big thing. Seeing the kids develop and watching them enjoy what they are doing was very special.
“And, now, running into them, seeing them still running at Wildwood (Metropark in Toledo) is really special. I have a girl who ran for me who is now a doctor, there is a pharmacist, a couple of nurses. It’s really nice to see them after all of these years grow into adults. It’s nice having them keep in contact with you and to see the success they’ve had.”
About 150 athletes ran for Hojnacki over the 16 years with about 30 boys and 30 girls running all four years.
“We didn’t always have a middle school program,” he said. “Cross country is a sport that came to a lot of them because they didn’t make the volleyball team or didn’t want to play football. I had several kids come to me and say they wish they would have ran all four years.
“Cross country is a self-driven sport. It’s an individual sport. If enough of the individuals run well, the team does well. But, you have to run for yourself, run the races yourself.”