NAUGATUCK — Jeff Lownds was the first coach hired when Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls opened its doors in 2001. He had co-founded the cross country program at Region 16’s Long River Middle School in Prospect 20 years before, so asking him to take over at the new high school was only logical.
Eighteen years later, the decision looks especially good.
Tuesday afternoon, Lownds achieved the 400th victory of his varsity coaching career when his undefeated Woodland girls swept Naugatuck, WCA and Seymour at Hop Brook Park. The first seven girls across the finish line were Hawks, led by Jaden Young in 20 minutes, 54 seconds in a pack finish with Emma Slavin, Calisa Costanzo and Chloe Poulos.
For Lownds, who entered the day with 399 wins, that was more than enough to reach the milestone. The Woodland boys then added to his total with wins over WCA and Seymour, led by first-place finisher Cole Slavin (17:47). The Naugy boys swept the overall meet.
“It’s very gratifying that we’ve had good athletes in the program from the first year to the present time,” Lownds said.
The Danbury native’s own cross country career was limited to one year at Immaculate High. But after he and Mike Mulvey kicked off the Long River program in 1980, he read voraciously about coaching and tapped into others’ knowledge of running, too.
“We didn’t get paid,” Lownds remembered. “We got T-shirts (for the runners), and we started the program.”
Long River continues to be a feeder program for his high school squads, which have won seven Naugatuck Valley League crowns (six girls, one boys), including both titles in 2018.
At this year’s NVL meet Oct. 17 at Veterans Park in Watertown, the Hawks (13-0) will again be favored in the girls race and among the contenders in the boys race.
“You have to know who you can push and who you can’t,” Lownds explained. “And some don’t need to be pushed at all, like this year’s girls. (The perfect record) is not me; that’s all them.”
He has had only two assistants at Woodland, Ross Cooper for 14 seasons and Chris Misuraca for the last five.
“He’s very even keel,” said Naugy coach Bill Hanley, who has coached against Lownds for 15 years. “Whether he’s 14-0 or less than that, he’s the same guy.”
Lownds, 69, retired from his teaching job at Long River two years ago. Besides cross country, he’s in love with the four-legged kind of running.
He owns 5 percent of eight race horses, four thoroughbreds and four trotters. He happily reported Tuesday that one member of his stable, Chocolate Biskit, has won 13 harness races in Maine this year.
When will he walk away? Lownds isn’t sure.
“It’s year-to-year,” he said.
Lownds said he’s still having fun, and he still gets a kick out of the competition and the camaraderie.
“It’s been favorable in a lot of ways,” Lownds said. “It’s been a real nice career.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported the Naugatuck Valley League cross country meet is Oct. 16. The meet was scheduled for Oct. 16 but rescheduled earlier this season to Oct. 17.