Henley Track Coach Guides a Winning Team

Henley track and field coach Mike McCormick and team assistant Brenda Allerton. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The Henley Middle School track and field team took home the trophy at the first-ever Albemarle County Middle School Invitational meet held at Western Albemarle High School (WAHS) May 20. Henley runners dominated the standings, winning more than 60 individual and relay team medals and racking up enough points to be crowned overall team winner among competitors Burley, Lakeside, Walton, and Charlottesville Catholic School. 

The Henley athletes won at least one medal in almost every event, and swept the top spots in girls shot put, discus throw, and 7th grade 200m, and boys 6th grade 100m, 7th grade 400m, and 7th grade 800m. Team members Katelyn Cusick, Keelan Shepley-Mrazek, Noble Cooper, and Reid Vagnetti came away with four medals each in a diverse array of events, and nine other team members earned three medals each. 

Henley runners Andrew Chang (left) and Tiege Sewell compete in the 8th grade 100m

Henley’s team came into being through the time and energy of its volunteer coach, Mike McCormick. “What I believe is that I am greatly blessed in my life, and it’s time for me to give something back,” said McCormick. “That’s what this is about. I know running and I know track and cross country because I’ve done it ever since I was 15 years old. The first mile I ever ran was in high-top tennis shoes, because I didn’t know anything about running, but I had some very wonderful teachers and coaches in junior high who encouraged me to run and knew what they were doing, and that made a big difference in my life.”

Henley Middle School track and field coach Mike McCormick and sixth grade team member Hailee Allerton.

Currently the director of business development at AMSG, McCormick served in the Marine Corps for almost 30 years in leadership roles supporting logistics systems around the world. He still enjoys competing as a senior athlete in sprint triathlons and track and field events. Calling himself “an idea guy,” McCormick’s enthusiasm for coaching the Henley team is evident when he talks about the students. “Last year was the first year of the program and we had 20 or 30 kids come out for track, and then this year when we started cross country in the fall we had 51 runners,” he said. “It took me a year to learn the ropes out here and connect to the meets that are available in the area.”

Middle school track and cross country programs are coordinated by the Parks and Recreation department in Albemarle county. “Joe Clark, the person who’s with the county, was a baseball player and didn’t really know anything about running, and so I helped him kind of take a different approach to it.” The county sponsors one cross country meet and one track meet each year, and county staff help with meets and advertise events to schools across the area. McCormick has coordinated and funded several more meets himself during both seasons.

Burley Middle School track coach Val Thompson lauded McCormick for putting on more meets for the students. “Last year we just had one meet at the end of the year,” said Thompson. “This is our third one, which is awesome, and it’s thanks in large part to Coach Mike doing today’s meet and also taking a leadership role in the Walton meet a couple of weeks ago. The other thing Henley did was bring in medals for the competitors—the kids are thrilled, so excited to win them—so credit to Henley for bringing that element in.”

Henley Middle School track and field team after their victory at the Albemarle County Middle School Invitational on May 20

In jumping into coaching at Henley, McCormick particularly wanted to help eighth grade runners, who were allowed to practice with the WAHS team but not to compete in most of their meets. “I’m hoping that by having a good program at Henley it will fill that need for them,” he said. “I’ve also talked to the high school coach about integrating our programs, so that if some of the eighth graders want to run here and others with the JV at WAHS, that’s fine. But at least we’re offering them more meets than they have access to at the high school.”

The fall cross country season culminated in a middle school state meet in Mechanicsville, which the Henley team participated in. McCormick said he coached after-school practices two days a week last year, but upped that to three days a week this year, and sometimes on Saturdays he offers sessions where students can try out different events they might be interested in, like shot put or high jump, to expand their repertoire. Henley was able to add a throwing program this year run by Eliese Zawacki, a science teacher and former shot putter and discus thrower.

Henley runners Noble Cooper (left) and Reid Vagnetti compete in the 8th grade 200m

Sixth grader Hailee Allerton picked up a gold, silver, and bronze medal in the 4x100m relay, the 4x400m relay, and the 200m dash at the Invitational meet. She said she decided to join the team because she liked running and had been good at it in elementary school. 

“When I heard there was a team at Henley, I wanted to do it because I’ve never been on a school track team before,” said Allerton. “It was about what I expected, it’s pretty much fun. As a team we’re very supportive of each other.” Allerton is a sprinter and likes the 200m best, and said the coach inspires the team to work hard. “He always says that you get out what you put into it, so he’s helped us and I’ve improved a lot this year.” Hailee’s mom Brenda volunteers as Coach Mike’s assistant and helps with all the details to keep the team functioning smoothly.

Much of the funding is provided by McCormick, but the team did secure a sponsorship from Southern Development Homes for the team bibs, and the company McCormick works for has agreed to chip in $1,500 a year. Beyond coaching the regular practices, McCormick has adopted new software to organize the meets and helped the county implement it across schools, and he regularly drives team members to and from meets. He said the time he puts in is well worth it. 

Henley runners Finn Wiley Smith and Deegan Gardner compete in the 8th grade 800m

“I tell my wife, if I’ve had a bad day at work, I go over and practice with the kids and I’m in a better mood. It’s a very positive experience and the kids are just phenomenal. I tell her it’s restored my faith in humanity—they are so cool about everything. It’s great to see, say, a sixth grader stand at the door when we come in from practice and give everybody a high five. They are so encouraging to each other.”

McCormick believes that part of becoming a fierce competitor is “experiencing winning,” and he works to give every student that chance. “I have another idea,” he said. “I think that now that there are enough schools that we’ve got a connection with, I think we should form a Western Albemarle Middle School Conference. It could be six or eight teams [public and private] that can collaborate on this whole process and we can each sponsor meets to give the kids more opportunities to compete.” Keep those ideas coming, Coach Mike. 

Henley Middle School track and field team before the Albemarle County Middle School Invitational on May 20

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Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.


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