Fresh out of Washington State, Jim McLachlan didn’t know what he was getting into when he was named West Valley High School’s cross country coach in the fall of 1970.
But the Otis Orchards native and resident, not many years older than his athletes, hit the ground running with a fourth-place state team finish that first year and fell in love with the sport.
Forty years later, with 37 state boys and girls qualifying teams, 14 of them trophy winners – of which eight placed second or higher – and a lifetime of friendships and memories, McLachlan has called it a career.
Next Saturday, former runners and coaching peers will join him in a cross country reunion gathering at the home of Howard and Mary Floy Dolphin at Liberty Lake’s former Sandy Beach Resort. The memories will come flooding back as the stories are told.
Affectionately called “Otis” by his athletes and friends, McLachlan’s cross country achievements include state championship girls teams in 1977 and 1986 and four individual champs among countless boys and girls individual standouts – Judy Weitz in 1978, Tricia Hepton and Amy Duryee, back-to-back in 1985 and ’86 and Jessica Riehle in 1993.
Five boys teams placed second, including three straight in AA from 1982-’84. One of those teams was denied a title when beaten by Edmonds-Woodway, two high schools that combined, and should have been a classification higher.
Toni Kasparian Gray would twice become a top-four state finisher and was key to the ’86 state champs. She is now teaching in northwestern Washington and is one of the organizers of next week’s gathering along with a former WV assistant and Central Valley head coach John Preston.
“I kind of decided we needed to do this and threw it out on Facebook,” she said. “Between John and I, we’re winging it. It’s going to be kind of loose, a stop by potluck. Bring a beverage and a chair and hang out from 4 to 8 p.m. Forty years of this is big.”
McLachlan’s career includes more than 30 years as a successful WV head track coach. The boys had six top four state trophy finishes, including the 2005 championship. He coached 14 individual state track champions and his cross country and track teams won more than 40 league championships.
His career began with a call from his high school coach, Howard Dolphin, who would later become his father-in-law.
“I remember him saying, ‘Hey, do you want to teach and coach next year because WV would like to talk to you about cross country coaching and a teaching job.’ I jumped out of bed, was in the shower and at an interview almost immediately.”
Ron Kovick had coached the Eagles to second-place in state the previous year, but their top three finishers and four of seven overall were graduated. Veterans Ken Christen and Rick Barbero placed third and fifth and the neophyte cross country coach brought home a team trophy, proudly showing it off to his dad.
“Talk about wet behind the ears,” McLachlan said. “I was extremely fortunate. I was in the right place at the right time. These kids were diehard cross country kids and taught me more than I possibly could have taught them.”
Christen disputes that. Although the runners thought the workouts weren’t necessarily rigorous enough, his 54-place improvement, he said, was testimony to McLachlan’s coaching ability.
“We supplemented things, but he knew a lot about conditioning and had the basics down,” said Christen, an East Valley School District teacher. “It was a valuable lesson for me.”
In 1975, Laurie Curry and Diane Weitz came to McLachlan and proposed forming a girls cross country team.
He said, “I told them, ‘If you can go out and get some other girls to join you we’ll do it.’ I tell you what. They got it right.”
WV went 33-0 in three years of dual races, was a two-time state placer in the newly sanctioned WIAA all-enrollment meet, and won it all when a second (AA) classification was added.
Cross country athletes form their own tightly-knit bond, making it a community unlike any other sport. Success isn’t just dependent upon the star, but upon seven competitors running as a unit. From the top runner down to the slowest freshmen, the coaches and parents, it is all inclusive. Why not?
“How many (other) kids run 60 miles together, spill blood, sweat and tears together,” said Kasparian Gray.
Selling that concept takes a special coach and Spokane has been blessed with many. McLachlan had an inherent personal touch from the outset. Gray remembers at the end of a 10-mile team run – well at least 10 miles, since everyone, she said, knew the odometer of McLachlan’s Volkswagen Rabbit measured several miles short – there’d always be donuts waiting.
It was he, she said, who reached out to a troubled high school freshman with a simple kind gesture and turned her into a distance running success.
“Running was my salvation,” she said. “One of the things that made him so special is he went above and beyond. He found out a lot about you and talked with you. Sometimes the last thing was about running.”
It’s all about relationships, knowing people, caring for people, McLachlan explained. Everyone’s worthy of a shot and, although he didn’t save everyone, they got second and third chances on his teams.
“Winning or losing, down the road you’re not going to remember that,” he said. “I always find something to like about kids. You only have them for so long and if you don’t have them, you can’t influence them.”
Success, he added was a product of longevity in one school. He’s still in touch with many of his athletes who will gather next week. They’ll find there’s less of McLachlan, who’s lost 20 pounds due to a rigorous fitness regimen. But during his 40-year stay with the Eagles, his legacy remains large.