By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News
With the high school sports season suspended indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Citizen’s News is highlighting longtime coaches at Naugatuck and Woodland high schools who patrol the sidelines during the spring. This week, we shine the spotlight on Woodland track coach Jeff Lownds.
BEACON FALLS — In the 19 years since Woodland Regional High School opened, Jeff Lownds has never had this much spare time.
With the outdoor track season on indefinite hiatus due to the pandemic, the 69-year-old retired teacher and three-season coach is digging deep into storage to pass the time.
“I got out my Strat-O-Matic games,” Lownds said. “I sent away for some more teams. I had a great game the other night with the ‘54 Giants vs. the ‘57 Milwaukee Braves. Tonight’s going to be the ‘65 Twins vs. the ‘67 Red Sox. It kills an hour. I need to fill my time between 12:30 and 5:30. That’s when I would be doing track stuff.”
Lownds has been doing track stuff at Woodland for 20 years — yes, longer than the school has even existed. Principal Arnold Frank approached Lownds in 2000, when he was a science teacher and coach of the cross country team at Long River Middle School, to gauge Lownds’ interest in becoming Woodland’s cross country coach.
“I said, ‘You know what, I think I would,’” said Lownds, who also had been coaching indoor track and girls lacrosse at Southington High for a decade at that point. “A couple of kids who were going to go to Woodland, who were (freshmen at) Wolcott High at the time, came up to me and told me they would really like it if I became the coach.”
Shortly afterwards, Lownds became the first coach hired at Woodland. Chris Anderson (football), Loren Luddy (girls soccer), and others soon followed, and when the winter and spring seasons rolled around, Lownds assumed his roles at the helm of the indoor and outdoor track programs.
Although running has been in Lownds’ blood for nearly 50 years, he wasn’t much of a runner during his high school days at Immaculate High in Danbury. He grew up playing baseball and basketball before he joined the U.S. Army Reserve. The running portion of the army’s fitness test stoked Lownds’ competitive fire, and it’s been there ever since.
He and Mike Mulvey co-founded Long River’s cross country program in 1980, mostly as a result of an overflow of athletes who didn’t meet weight requirements in the Pop Warner football program.
“I enjoyed running myself, and I liked the idea of bringing other people into trying to enjoy it,” Lownds said. “I used to run road races (until 10 years ago). I liked getting the T-shirts — they put your time on the shirt, so nobody will know you came in 285th place.”
At Woodland, Lownds’ programs have racked up more Naugatuck Valley League championships than any others at the school: nine in girls indoor track, six in girls indoor track, six in girls cross country, and one in boys cross country. Add in a combined five more titles in boys track, and those 27 trophies give Lownds more hardware than Ace.
But he will be the first to admit most of the credit for those championships should not rest with him.
“Don’t get me wrong — I love to win. But I don’t take any joy in saying, ‘I won this,’” Lownds said. “No, we won. We all did this together. We tell the kids, ‘You’re only here for four years. When you leave, we want you to leave here as a better person and a better athlete. We’ve been very lucky to have great kids over the years.”
Of all the championships, he elevated two in particular — the first cross country titles for his girls and boys teams. The 2008 girls cross country team earned Lownds his first NVL title as a head coach.
“I have a plaque over my desk,” Lownds said. “We only had 10 girls on that team. We went into that season knowing we would really have to work for it, and they did it.”
Ten years later, his squad finally nabbed the program’s first NVL boys cross country crown.
“We came up just short for a lot of years,” Lownds said. “We were always so close — 12-2, 13-1, whatever. It was great to finally win one.”
While Lownds enjoys the Hawks’ success — it’s self-admittedly a reason he plans on continuing to coach into his 70s — the championships aren’t his greatest source of pride.
“There have been a lot of proud moments. Some of them are just seeing a kid get a (personal record) in a meet and seeing the happiness they have with that,” Lownds said. “We’ve had kids go on to run in college, but we’ve also had them be the school’s (CIAC) scholar-athletes. Look at how many of our kids come back to work at our meets. They feel they got enough out of this that they come back to help out. That’s a pretty special feeling. We’ve created a real good culture here.”
He’s been a coach — which he says starts out as 80% technique and eventually morphs to 80% strategy and motivation — to some of Woodland’s greatest athletes. One tops his list.
“Our very first year, Gina DellaRose (Nunes) was a state champion when she won the 3200 in Class S,” Lownds said. “That was really a foreshadowing of what great things that were going to have. Gina is truly the best track athlete we’ve ever had.”
Lownds also credits his coaching colleagues, school administrators and parents for their contributions to the Hawks’ track and cross country programs.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve developed at Woodland,” Lownds said. “We get tremendous support from the administration and parents, and we have a very good staff. When you add all those things together, and you combine very good athletes, that’s a winning combination. It’s not one thing; it’s a combination of all those things. It’s a special place, and we’re lucky to be there.”
Lownds is enjoying retirement — he taught at Long River for 42 years — while staying involved in coaching and his hobby of horse racing. The recent downtime has made Lownds realize that he’s never been away from sports for this long.
“I told (my girlfriend) Mary, ‘I don’t know what my life would have been like if there were no sports,’” Lownds said.
As for the future, expect to see Lownds on the trails and the track again when the pandemic lets up.
“I don’t have any plans yet to give it up, but I’m taking it year to year,” said Lownds, who will turn 70 in December. “I look forward to each day. Maybe it keeps me young, I don’t know. But I don’t want to be hanging around when people are saying, ‘That old guy shouldn’t be here. He’s old and in the way.’ I knew when it was time to go as a teacher, so I’ll know when it’s time to go as a coach.”