When Sam Slaven noticed the cashier at the Ace Hardware in Cedar Crest reading an issue of The Independent newspaper, he had no idea it would lead to a high school coaching job.

“It happened to be the very first time I’d seen The Independent,” Slaven said. “I saw the photo of somebody running on a trail and it caught my eye.”

Slaven saw the Aug. 28 article about East Mountain High School’s cross country program being in limbo and needing a coach a month before the scheduled start of the season, and as a distance runner himself, he took the story to heart. “I never had the experience of maybe not having a season because of not having a coach,” Slaven said. He reached out to the school and was given the head coach position of the boys’ and girls’ cross country teams.

“It was a fortunate accident,” he said about seeing the article that led to his new gig.

Slaven, who moved to Cedar Crest in June from Wisconsin, has never coached a high school team before, but has been a successful runner and a private coach and trainer with individual runners.

A standout runner in high school cross country and track, Slaven was recruited by several colleges. He chose Purdue University in Indiana, but a knee injury sidelined his college running career.

He then went into the Army where he got back into distance running. He said he has run professionally and competes in ultramarathons—races that are longer than the traditional marathon length of 26.2 miles.

As the new skipper of East Mountain’s cross country program—with the New Mexico Activities Association’s Covid-19 restrictions in force—Slaven initially contacted the school’s runners and their parents through Zoom meetings. When the season officially got underway Oct. 5, he began holding in-person practices.

Slaven said the NMAA’s requirements of wearing face coverings and physical distancing while running are challenging. But the uncertainty of whether the season would be postponed poses a bigger challenge. Even as The Independent went to press with this story, conditions were changing.

“The only thing I know about this season is that it’s gonna be completely unpredictable as to what the rules and guidelines are gonna be,” Slaven said.

He noted that one thing he hopes to accomplish, besides getting the runners’ bodies in shape, is getting their minds in the right place.

“If everybody can prepare themselves to approach this like they would any other time, knowing that everybody’s performing in the same conditions, wearing masks, having a short season, it shouldn’t be too horribly different from what they’ve done before,” Slaven said, adding, “Who knows, maybe it’ll be the best season ever, right? It’s definitely gonna be the most different season of all time, that’s all I know for sure.”

At the team’s first practice, only about seven or eight student-athletes showed up, but there was no lack of enthusiasm. Slaven started with the mandatory temperature taking and asking the required Covid-19 questions: Do they have a fever, cough, sore throat, or been in contact with someone with Covid-19?

Maintaining their distance, the team ran a lap around the trail behind the school and then Slaven showed them a slew of conditioning exercises. “I’m really excited because we get to work with someone who’s like a good trainer and has run a lot before,” Ashley Sesnie said.

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East Mountain’s new cross country coach Sam Slaven running the trail behind the school with Andre LaJeunesse.

“I’m honestly super excited. I’m hoping that the season goes amazing because last year was great and we were an amazing team, and I think [Slavin] will help us,” Jessie Leibold said.

Sesnie and Leibold both qualified for the 2019 Class 3A girls state championship meet last year.

Leibold finished 20th overall out of a field of 87 runners and scored a 19th-place team finish. The Lady Timberwolves finished eighth as a team.

Scott Hofmann, who is in his first year of cross country, said: “I’m definitely excited to have a coach with this much experience.”

Bryson Naylor, the son of East Mountain’s former cross country coach Dave Naylor, said he misses having his dad as his coach but has high hopes for the season.

“The whole point of cross country is to be the best that I can be and hopefully we can achieve that with this coach,” Bryson Naylor said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”

Editor’s note: This story was filed before Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham’s update on Covid-related restrictions and the NMAA’s decision to postpone fall sports, as The Independent went to press.

Ger Demarest
Ger Demarest

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.