Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Sports

October 17, 2012

Eastern XC rallies around coach in time of need

Greentown — It had the potential to be one of the worst weeks of Eastern cross country coach Brandon Mink’s life, but a special group of young adults made sure it wasn’t.

On the eve of what would prove to be the single-most successful cross country season in school history, Mink’s father, Vern, passed away 300 miles away in Davenport, Iowa, just shy of his 83rd birthday.

He headed to Iowa to be with his family and pay his final respects to his father, and wasn’t expected to return in time for Eastern’s first team event of the season, the Northwestern Combo.

What happened on race day was something members of the team will never forget.

“It was definitely something he didn’t have to be back for,” senior Brittany Neeley said. “But I remember [sister] Bethany and I were up to the line [ready to start the race]. We’d already said our prayer and everything, and Kristi, our assistant coach, said ‘Guys, turn around.’ [Mink] was there and it was one of the only times I’ve hugged him in four years. That was when I began to recognize that we had one of the best coaches in the state, not even just coaching-wise, but character-wise.”

In a show of respect, the Comets all signed a card for the Mink family. It seemed like a small gesture at the time. Turns out it was much more.

“We take a lot of pride in our relationships with each other and our coach,” senior Sarah Wagner said. “It effects our performances in our practices every day and our meets. It’s a good feeling to know we helped. He’s my favorite coach. He works so hard for us. He’s always working to get us in [the right direction] in our workouts and practices. To be able to give something back to him means a lot.”

While still in the initial stages of the grieving process, Mink felt compelled to return to Indiana to join his team, a group of young adults that leave him feeling uplifted by the way they treat each other and their training regiments.

“I can’t tell you how much it means to have them,” he said. “They really are like family. Just coming to practice every day and seeing their positive attitudes, you really rally around each other. Coming to practice every day with that surrounding me, I couldn’t help but have my spirits be lifted right away. As soon as I was done having been at the memorial service for my father, I wanted to get back as soon as I could to just be with them. You take time to grieve, but at the same time, I’m excited for [the team]. Seeing what they’re capable of gives me joy.”

Eastern is enjoying an outstanding season. The Comets posted perfect scores of 15 in winning the Mid-Indiana Conference and Logansport Sectional meets and they won the Culver Academies Regional last week.

The vast majority of press received by the team in recent years has been on the runners who take the course. In the minds of the athletes, the achievements, which include four MIC, four sectional and two regional championships, the man who leads the program deserves much more credit than he’s received.

“I think he is one of the most underrated coaches in the state,” Bethany Neeley said. “People don’t know who coaches Eastern except for the locals. He’s definitely one of the most humble people I know. He doesn’t care if we swept the meet last week, we still have to come out here and perform. Like [Saturday’s regional] for example, we won the meet but he told us there are still a lot of things we need to work on for [the semistate].”

The No. 6-ranked Comets enter Saturday’s New Prairie Semistate seeking their second straight appearance in the state finals. The current athletes admire the way Mink is able to help them balance the sense of achievement they feel with the understanding that no matter how impressive the most recent performance was, room for improvement is always present.

“He really emphasizes the little things,” Bethany Neeley said. “[The conference and sectional meets] might never be swept again, but he helps us look forward and realize that although we didn’t run well as individuals, we need to take time to enjoy these little things because they may never happen again in Eastern cross country history.”

To Mink, having a team that consists of humble and coachable runners makes his job much easier. While blessed with great natural ability and a trophy case to display the impressive achievements, his Comets are able to continuously strive to reach new heights, a testament to the type of young people they are.

“They really are just a great group of kids with great character,” Mink said. “They are the kind of kids that look out for each other, and that’s really what makes our team special. A lot of the success we’ve had in recent years has come from that nurturing care for one another. That unshakable bond is really what makes the difference.”

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