By JAMES COOK email@example.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — COLUMBUS, Ohio — It's been a hectic few weeks for Sara Vergote.
The Kalkaska native moved to a different state and took a new job — all kind of unexpectedly.
Vergote left her job as an assistant track coach at Iowa State and accepted a similar position at Ohio State when a position came open late in the summer after she finished her first season with the Cyclones.
"It's been a little bit of a whirlwind," Vergote said. "There was a lot of movement in the coaching community this year. It's was unprecedented how much movement there was. The former distance coach here left to go to LSU, so this job opened up rather late. I started a week after school started."
The 1998 Kalkaska graduate becomes one of just three full-time coaches in the Buckeyes' women's track program, and also helps out with the cross country team.
"It's pretty huge," Vergote said. "Growing up in the Midwest, the Big Ten has a pretty strong presence. To not only coach at a Big Ten school, but also to have control over the distance program here at Ohio State is huge for me."
Ohio State has three full-time coaches — head coach Karen Dennis, associate head coach Rosalind Joseph and Vergote. Dennis handles the sprinters, Joseph the field events and Vergote the distance runners.
Vergote said she thinks Ohio State has perhaps the only all-female track coaching staff in Division 1.
It's also the first time collegiately that she'll coach only women. At her stops at Manhattan College, the University of Toledo and Iowa State, she coached both men's and women's runners.
"For me, it's nice," Vergote said. "I can obviously relate to the female distance runners. I was a collegiate female distance runner. But, that said, I don't really care either way, coaching men or women. ... I enjoy coaching any motivated distance runner and motivating distance runners, regardless of the gender."
Vergote coached the Toledo women's cross country team that twice qualified for the NCAA championships, placing 21st in 2010 and 28th in 2011.
Vergote spent three years as the men's and women's cross country/distance coach at Manhattan College, including a Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference runner-up finish in 2007. In track, the Jaspers won three straight men's and women's indoor and outdoor MAAC titles.
A five-time co-captain of the Toledo women's cross country and track teams, Vergote was the first associate head coach of the cross country and track and field programs for the 2011-2012 seasons. With the Rockets, she was a member of three nationally-ranked UT cross country teams from 2000-2002. The Rockets won the Mid-American Conference title in 2001 and 2002, with Vergote finishing as the 2002 MAC runner-up, a two-time NCAA qualifier and MAC 10K champion in 2003. She is a member of the University of Toledo Athletic Hall of Fame and is still ranked as one of the all-time best runners in MAC history in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and 10K.
And those accomplishments on the college level almost didn't happen.
A three-sport athlete for the Blazers, it was basketball coach Dave Dalton who convinced Vergote that she should run track an cross country at the college level.
"I was much more of a basketball player in high school than a runner," said Vergote, who still hosts Kalkaska's school records in the 1,600 and 3,200. "I didn't even run cross country in high school. I didn't run it until college.
"I didn't even think about running in college. I didn't know what to even look for, and he was the guy who was calling schools for me and planting that seed in my head. He was my basketball coach and he was calling track coaches for me."
The Buckeyes were sixth in the Big Ten last year — and Vergote hopes that finish will only get better.
"With it being Ohio State and the level of talent we attract here," Vergote said, "I'm hoping over the next couple years improve to the point where we're a top-three team in cross country and contributing a lot more points in track."
Of 21 athletes on the Buckeyes' women's cross country roster, 19 are from Ohio. The other two hail from Pennsylvania and Indiana. Of the 44 track team members, just three are from Michigan.
"With Michigan and Michigan State in the state, those two schools get a lot of the Michigan recruits, obviously," Vergote said. "But when I was at Toledo, I actually recruited heavily in northern Michigan. Distance running is not exactly huge in northern Michigan, but there are a few schools up there that really capitalized on making cross country and distance running — for lack of a better phrase — a 'cool' sport for kids to do. I went to Kalkaska, and distance running wasn't huge there, but I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to run in college and really develop. There are schools in northern Michigan where the kids are being coached really well.
"Take Benzie (Central), for example. That's a smaller school, and the amount of kids who have come out of that school and gone on to run and be really successful as college runners (is great). Asa (Kelly) and his wife have done a great job there. And they've made it a cool sport for kids to do."