COTTONWOOD – First, there was unbridled elation. Then, after a long pause, Jim Bostwick said, “That’s wonderful news.”
The former longtime Mingus Union High School cross country coach had just been told that one of his former runners – Justine Sparks – was following in his footsteps as the new head coach of the Marauder program.
“As a coach, it is a wonderful compliment that one of your former runners would want to become a coach. She is the sixth kid I’ve coached that has gone on to become a coach. I know she will do a good job,” said Bostwick.
Upon reflection, Bostwick said he is not at all surprised that Sparks would become a coach.
“She was always a team leader,” said Bostwick, who coached the Mingus program for 18 years and twice led the boys team to state championships and also twice saw his girls teams finish as state runners-up.
“She was primarily a track runner – a sprinter – who came out for cross country as conditioning for track,” Bostwick continued. “When she first came out, she was probably last on the team. You have to understand that just because someone was a good runner doesn’t always mean they will be a good coach. Justine, though, knows what it means to work your way up from the bottom through pure hard work and goal-setting. She understands that mind-set and I think she will do a good job of getting that point of view across to the kids.
“In three years, she worked her way up from last on the team to being first-team all-state in cross country, while primarily being a track athlete.”
For Sparks, she said she fully expects her rookie season as the Mingus coach to be one in which she frequently looks back on the lessons learned from Bostwick.
“I definitely take most of my inspiration for the sport from him,” Sparks said of Bostwick. “He made it easy to work hard. He inspired us so much and made us understand what we were capable of. I want to emulate that.”
Sparks was hired as Mingus’ new cross country coach by another of her former coaches. Mingus Athletic Director Yancey DeVore coached the Marauder girls track teams to three consecutive state championships and Sparks was a key performer on those teams.
“She was an exceptional athlete, talented on several levels,” said DeVore. “Beyond that, she was self-motivated; she had a strong work-ethic. She worked hard in practice and equally hard during the off-season. She always went above and beyond. She was a good leader and set a good example for her teammates and especially the younger athletes. They looked up to her. All those attributes should set her up to be a successful coach.”
‘I wanted to contribute in whatever way I could’
A 2014 graduate of Mingus, Sparks moved back to the Verde Valley about a month ago. When she heard about the coaching job at Mingus, she jumped at the chance.
“I had a really great experience running cross country for Mingus,” she said. “It really molded me, so when I heard they needed a coach I wanted to contribute in whatever way I could.”
Her biggest challenge to date involves generating numbers. Sparks only has three girls and seven boys currently out for the team. She plans to beat the bushes on social media to recruit more athletes and “I’m definitely telling the runners to get the word out.”
But what Mingus lacks in pure numbers, Sparks said the team makes up for with experience and talent.
For the girls, senior Hannah DeVore and junior Meg Babcock are seasoned performers who have competed as the state’s highest levels in both cross country and track. Babcock, said Taylor, “has so much potential and is very focused.”
DeVore, said Sparks, “reminds me a lot of myself; basically a sprinter keeping up with distance runners. Her work ethic is like nothing I have seen before.”
For the boys, junior Cody Wager and sophomore Lucas Doerksen are the top returners for the boys team. As a sophomore, Wager twice ran under 20 minutes for 5,000 meters while Doerksen cracked the 20-minute barrier once.
Other members of the boys team include freshmen Jehihah Rogers, Riley Bliss and Adam Hines; and sophomores Braden Arnold and John Valentine.
“They are definitely very hard workers,” Sparks said. “They are putting in the work.”
Already, Sparks has tested her runners’ mettle with a grueling 6-times 1,000-meter repeat workout on the track.
“Lucas and Hannah hit their goal times based on their best 5K time from last year. Everyone else was very close to their goal times. I’m very happy with what I am seeing so far.”
The Mingus runners will make their season debut Sept. 2 at the Peaks Invitational at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff.