For the first time in more than a decade, East Mountain High School is devoid of a cross country coach—and the season is scheduled to start in less than six weeks.
East Mountain is actively looking for both a head cross country coach and an assistant coach because veteran running coaches Dave Naylor and Phil Keller are no longer at the school.
Keller parted ways with East Mountain in late June. Naylor recently informed The Independent that he no longer works for the school either.
The two coaches had been the driving forces behind the Timberwolves’ successful running programs—both cross country and track—since the early 2000s.
“I thought a lot about why I left,” Keller said. “There’s times when you have to move on, there’s times when you don’t feel you’re appreciated as much as you could be—I think I was at the point where it was just time to move on.”
Keller added that his resignation coincided with a job offer in Albuquerque.
Naylor said his departure was because of an issue with the timing of when he submitted his virtual contract. He said he had been on vacation out of state without cell service, and upon returning, he learned his contract was overdue.
“My wife and I did it at the same time,” Naylor said. “I even called the business manager and told her I’d sent in the contracts. Then I got an email August 3 that said the school had accepted may resignation.”
Naylor said he was told that because he hadn’t turned in his contract on time, the school took it as a resignation. He said he was told that he has no recourse.
Regarding Naylor’s departure, East Mountain principal Trey Smith said, “It’s a private personnel matter that I can’t comment on.”
Smith confirmed that Naylor’s wife, Nicole Naylor, is still with the school.
Typically, preparation for the cross country season would be well under way at this point and practices would have started. With the New Mexico Activities Association rescheduling the start of cross country to October 5 due to Covid-19, East Mountain has a little breathing room.
Kasi Giovenco, East Mountain’s head volleyball coach and athletic coordinator, said the school hopes to secure two coaches soon. “Ideally, we’d like to have a head [coach] and an assistant, but if we can only find one, so be it,” Giovenco said, adding that the school has not gotten any New Mexico certified applicants yet.
Not having a coach has some East Mountain distance runners concerned.
“It’s kinda worrisome knowing there’s no coach,” East Mountain junior Natalya Villescas said.
Villescas, who has been a member of the Timberwolves’ cross country and track teams the past two years, added, “I’m really looking forward to competing—if we even have [a season] this year.”
Raising further questions is a recent announcement by Albuquerque Public Schools that it is extending its remote learning through the end of the fall semester, and whether that decision will impact fall sports in the district. The NMAA canceled all sports last spring when schools went to remote learning.
In an email this week to students and parents, Smith said that as an APS charter school subject to many of the policies and procedures of the district, East Mountain will most likely be under the same plan regarding remote learning.
But Smith told The Independent if East Mountain remains fully remote the rest of the semester, the school can still have athletics under the NMAA’s guidelines.
In a video posted this week on the NMAA website, executive director Sally Marquez confirmed that if a school district decides on remote learning, it is the school district’s decision as to whether it would participate in sports and activities.
“As of now, we’re making plans to continue sports and we’ll adjust if we’re told to adjust,” Smith said.
“We’ve had such an amazing program at East Mountain, we don’t want to let the kids down,” Giovenco said, referring to the cross country program that Keller and Naylor created.
“In the fall of 2004, Naylor and I started the cross country team together and co-coached it,” Keller said.
Naylor led the girls cross country team to a state championship title in 2013 and he coached multiple cross country individual state champion runners on both the girls’ and the boys’ teams. He also helmed East Mountain’s baseball team and led them to a state title in 2012. The girls cross country and baseball titles are East Mountain’s only NMAA-sanctioned sports state championships in school history.
Naylor and Keller also served as athletic directors for East Mountain. Keller was A.D. from 2003 to 2007 when he took a few years off to pursue a master’s degree. Naylor was A.D. from 2007 to 2019.
When Keller returned in 2012, he took over the track team and served as assistant A.D. and assistant cross country coach.
Keller and Naylor were instrumental in building the cross country trail behind the school and created the annual cross country meet that became the Nick Martin Memorial Invite, named in honor of an East Mountain runner who passed away in 2010. They also created the T-Wolf Trail 5K Run, an annual fundraiser. The two also helped provide input on the gymnasium that was built at Vista Grande Community Center and raised thousands of dollars in sponsorship banners that don the gym’s walls.
Villescas, who said running is very important to her, is looking forward to cross country and hopefully making it to the state meet. “I hope that we are able to find a coach so our runners can do well this season and all this Covid stuff calms down, because it’s not really fun,” Villescas said.
Giovenco agreed. “Cross needs a coach which I hope we can find,” she said, adding, “We’re in limbo right now.”
Ger has been writing and shooting photos of high school sports for The Independent for 15 years. His dedication to youth athletics goes beyond sports reporting. He is past president of East Mountain Little League and works as a baseball umpire. He lives in Edgewood with his family.