KYHS at DCS
Yoncalla track coach trying to foster running culture
March 30, 2011By Brian Berry of Yoncalla High School
ENLARGE Yoncalla cross-country coach Gabe Piechowicz, right, cheers on sophomore Alex Anderson at the Oct. 30 District 4 cross country championships at the Douglas County Fairgrounds. Piechowicz, also the school's track coach, is a New York native who came to Oregon in 1998 to attend the University of Oregon. ROB McCALLUM I The News-Review
YONCALLA - As a choker-setter and sling ringer, Gabe Piechowicz blends right into this blue-collar town.
But each afternoon when the 30-year old trades tin pants and caulk boots for shorts and running shoes, Piechowicz (PEE-hahv-itch) becomes a pioneer in a foreign land.
The logger by day is Yoncalla High School's track and field coach, who is trying to foster a running culture in the North County.
The Eagles have a rich history in jumps, throws and sprints, but little in the way of distance running. Piechowicz started the first cross-country program in school history last fall, a few months after becoming the head track coach.
At a practice earlier this month, the Eagles - throwers, sprinters and all - ran from Yoncalla's cinder track a mile or so to Mathis Hill Road, where each athlete ran a dozen sprints up the steep incline.
"I don't care what events you do or what your goals are for track and field," Piechowicz told his team. "This workout will make you a better athlete. It hurts now, but you will notice two weeks from now."
Yoncalla's lack of a cross-country program baffled Piechowicz when he came to the North County town from his native New York via the University of Oregon.
"Here we are 45 miles from Track Town, USA, and these kids knew nothing about it," Piechowicz said. "Growing up a running nerd in Buffalo, all the kids talked about was Eugene and the legend of (Steve) Prefontaine. That's pretty much why I came out here - to chase the legend."
After graduating from Frontier High School outside of Buffalo in 1998, Piechowicz came to U of O. But two years into school, out-of-state tuition forced him to drop out to gain residency in Oregon. He first worked at a clinic for autistic children - where he met his future wife, Gina - and later a logging company in the Eugene area.
"Coming from New York, I didn't even know what logging was," Piechowicz said. "I showed up at the shop and the foreman told me I'd be clearing brush. I honestly thought he meant going on the side of the road clearing road brush. You can imagine my surprise when I saw the actual operation."
Piechowicz received a crash course in the timber industry, but a distance runner's work ethic and strong legs came in handy.
With one child and another on the way, the Piechowiczes purchased a house in Yoncalla and commuted to Eugene. But three years into his logging job, Piechowicz suffered a back injury that kept him out of work.
While recovering in the spring of 2009, he saw the Eagles working out near his home. He inquired at the school about coaching and soon found himself as an assistant.
"We had eight kids out, and they were doing (track) more or less to have a social group," said Piechowicz, who accepted the head coaching job in 2010. "When I proposed the idea of having a cross-country program they all said, ‘What's cross-country?' " he said. "I told them it's three miles of hell, but we'll have a lot of fun getting there."
For track and cross-country, Yoncalla has a co-op agreement with nearby North Douglas. The combined enrollment of the schools is just more than 200 students, but Piechowicz was confident a program would be supported.
"My high school was the equivalent of a 6A school, but oddly enough we found our toughest competition to come from rural schools," he said. "Most of these places didn't have arcades or roller parks, so all you could do was run and we'd get destroyed by these small schools. If I can build the tradition and get a few kids to find success, we could have that here."
Besides workout programs and training techniques, Piechowicz has tried to instill a respect for the sport of track. Yoncalla traveled to Hayward Field to watch the prestigious Oregon Twilight last season. The Eagles competed there during all-comer meets this past summer.
"Seeing college and pro athletes competing in a packed stadium was quite an experience," said Austin Blanchfill, a Yoncalla junior. "Gabe has been really inspirational the way he coaches. It makes the sport all that much better."
Piechowicz's back injury prevents him from choker-setting, but he still works as a cartographer, plotting roads on logging sites. That has taken him as far north as Tillamook and as far south as Tiller, Piechowicz said.
A typical day for Piechowicz starts before sunrise so he can get to work at different sites in Western and Southern Oregon. After Yoncalla practices end, he has an hour's drive to the family's new home in Veneta.
With children ages 3 and 1, Piechowicz has a demanding schedule, but said he's committed to this generation of Yoncalla athletes.
"I do see myself moving up in the coaching ranks. I'd love to be a coach at the college level someday," he said. "But you'd be hard pressed to get me to leave Yoncalla for the next few years."
Nicole French, a North Douglas sophomore, ran cross-country last fall and is a jumper and sprinter on the track team.
"I don't think I'd be doing track if it weren't as fun as Gabe makes it," French said after the Mathis Hill workout. "He runs with us and pushes us. I hate workouts like (Mathis Hill), but I love how quick they get you in shape."