Stookey dedicated life to Wawasee XC, track

·11 min read

Jul. 2—SYRACUSE — Passion.

That's the word people closest to Dave Stookey kept coming back to when describing who he was.

Stookey was passionate about everything he did in life. He was passionate about cross country. Passionate about coaching. Passionate about mentoring kids. Passionate in his hatred for Warsaw.

If Dave Stookey set his mind to doing something, you knew that his whole heart, energy and soul would be into it.

The Wawasee coaching legend died last Friday, June 24 at the age of 79. In those near-eight decades of life, he spent almost six of them coaching, accumulating 58 years as either a head or assistant coach with the Wawasee cross country and track programs.

His stretch of time as the boys head cross country coach in the late 1990s and early 2000s proved to be the most successful in program history, as Wawasee claimed four-straight sectional titles from 1998-2001. They qualified for the state meet in 2000 as well, finishing in 10th place against the state's best.

Stookey was named the Northern Lakes Conference boys cross country Coach of the Year in 1998 and received the Longevity Award from the Indiana Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches (IATCCC) in 2017 in honor of his 50 years of service to the sports.

It wasn't just the accolades that made Stookey a great coach, though. His desire to see all of his student-athletes succeed both on and off the field of competition left an impact on every person he had the opportunity to work with.

Three people who grew close to Stookey over the years — Jerid Stoffel, Doug Slabaugh and Scott Lancaster — share what they'll remember most about their former coach, colleague and friend.

JERID STOFFEL

Stoffel ran for the Wawasee cross country teams during the 1997, 1998 and 1999 seasons. He would then be named the new head boys cross country coach for the 2003 season, replacing Stookey. It was a position he would hold for 10 seasons, the last nine of which Stookey was an assistant coach for.

Q: What first comes to mind when you think of Dave Stookey?

A: "Mostly his passion. His passion for the sport of cross country, his passion for helping kids. His willingness to do anything for anyone. Just his smile and his laugh and his big, booming voice. That's some of what comes to mind."

Q: What was it like replacing Stookey as the head coach in 2003?

A: "That first year, he stayed away. I didn't ask him to and it was something that he didn't need to do, but he gave me the space to establish myself as the coach. I felt honored that he respected me and trusted me enough with the program that he loved so much — but I was really glad to have him back. He started hanging around a little bit more that second year, and I could tell he was missing it. We started talking about it, and I said, 'Why don't you just come back full time, coach, and join the staff?' And he jumped right on that."

Q: What are some things you learned from Stookey that helped you become a better coach?

A: "Relationships I think were always first and foremost with him, and that just rubbed off on me. That was the most important thing: the kids and the athletes on our team. The training, obviously; a lot of what he did is what I learned. I had another high school coach and I had my college coach that were both influential on me, but he obviously had the most impact, time wise, on me as a coach. So, training and hard work; the importance of working hard. The importance of the mental game, too; we always talked about how important being mentally prepared was. He would always say running was 90% mental. You've got to be able to stay mentally focused and be mentally prepared to push yourself to your limits. It's not the easiest thing to ask kids to do, so just focusing on that mental aspect was important to him."

Q: Are there any memories with Stookey that stand out above the rest?

A: "There's so many. I don't know if I would have a favorite moment because we had so many of them together. I think just the fact that he was always there meant the most to me. It didn't have to be a big, special, crazy moment; we just kind of did life together as coaches, and that was good.

"I have four kids, and my two boys were kind of around coach Stookey when they were younger, and now they're both in middle school in running. My oldest daughter is also in middle school and she's into running, and just seeing him interact with them, caring about them, wanting to know their times — he always talked about how he was hoping to be around when they got to high school to see them run and coach them. That was always special to me, too, just seeing him with my kids. He just kept doing it one generation after the other."

DOUG SLABAUGH

Slabaugh ran on the Wawasee boys cross country teams from 2003-06, advancing to the state meet with his teammates in his senior year while Stookey was an assistant coach and Stoffel his head coach. He has now been the Wawasee girls cross country head coach for the last nine seasons.

Q: What first comes to mind when you think of Dave Stookey?

A: "A helper. Someone who was a selfless person. He was going to do whatever he could to help an individual. I remember a little bit of what he did as an athlete; I don't think you see the full picture, though, until you become a coach. From the coaching side, if a kid came up at a practice or a meet and said their calf was hurting them or their knee, he'd talk to them, get some more info and then go home that night and stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning doing research, looking through his injury books. The next day, that kid better be ready when they come to practice because he'd have a packet of information."

Q: What are some things you learned from Stookey that helped you become a better coach?

A: "He's 100% an example of what it means to be a coach. ... He didn't care if he got paid. It was just a selfless job for him. Here he was, not making money. Obviously, we need money to survive, but it didn't matter for him. He'd still be there, doing whatever he needed for the kids. It was just humbling, the heart that he had and seeing that. He just loved the kids. He wanted the best for the kids.

"I remember there was a kid who struggled with her grades, and Dave's wife, Linda — she was a school teacher as well — they would come up and work with her after practice on her schoolwork. Yeah, they wanted her to be able to run, but it was about the big picture of, 'You need to learn these concepts so that you can graduate.' We want our kids to run fast and win, of course, and Dave was just as competitive as everyone else. But if we could make a healthy environment and help a kid out, that's what we're there for."

Q: Are there any memories with Stookey that stand out above the rest?

A: "In cross country, he would come with posters. He'd write up these big sheets; 'Hey, here's what the Northridge kids ran, here's what we can do, here's what the research is' and he'd give big pep speeches. I remember my senior year, that was the last boys cross country team Wawasee had advance to state. That tournament run, every week his speech was, 'I'm going to leave my tank empty out there running around, doing everything I can to cheer you on. And that's what my question is going to be to you at the end: is your tank empty?'

"There's nobody that bleeds the green and gold thicker than Dave. Talking to people at the viewing (Wednesday), they were like, 'yeah, he'd show up at a middle school swim meet!' Even the freshman now on the cross country team, they never had him as a coach, but they're like, 'Oh yeah, we knew who Stookey was.' He wanted to do everything he could to make Wawasee a better place.

"His passion and heart are unmatched. How many coaches in our area are going to last 58 years? That speaks of his true heart and his desire."

SCOTT LANCASTER

Lancaster is one of the coaches who's spent the most time around Stookey, as the latter was an assistant coach for 17 of Lancaster's 18 years as Wawasee's head boys track and field coach from 2001-2018.

Q: What first comes to mind when you think of Dave Stookey?

A: "Just so many things come to mind. Probably the first thing is passion for the sports that he coached and the kids that he was coaching. He had a genuine interest in everything that they did; not just in sports and academics, but other things that they did, like 4-H or anything like that. He wanted to know all he could about each one of the kids.

"He was very thorough in everything he did. He would literally leave no stone unturned to figure out how to make someone better, from training techniques to solutions for ailments like shin splints. Literally, he would research everything he could about everything to make anybody a better athlete. He was absolutely thorough. He was a student of the sport unlike most anybody I've seen."

Q: What are some things you learned from Stookey that helped you become a better coach?

A: "He and I were a lot alike. We were a partnership. I trusted Dave with the distance guys. If you're a smart head track coach, you let your distance coach work with the distance kids. And so, that's what I did with Dave, and he just ran with it.

"There's lots that I learned from Dave. We were a partnership. We bounced ideas off of each other, and some we used and some we didn't. We knew that it was always an open line of communication. We'd have practice, and then we'd be talking on the telephone an hour later."

Q: Are there any memories with Stookey that stand out above the rest?

A: "In 2003, he tried to retire. We're coming back from the state track meet, and we kind of have to pass his house on the way home. I'm driving the mini bus, and he's sitting in the front seat. And all he says is, 'All I want you to do is stop the bus at my house, open the door, don't say anything and let me out.' And I did, and he walked off the bus. And you could tell when he was talking to me, his voice was quivering because that was tough on him.

"He walked away, and then he stayed away and only occasionally talked to me because I knew how tough it was on him. I told Dave that the door was always open for him to come back, and that year came and that year went. He was a huge fan of Coke, and I told him, 'I'll buy you a Coke if you want to go talk,' and he said, 'I need to come back.' And I said, 'Well that's fine, because we'd love to have you back.' And I don't know who was more thrilled, me or the kids. I got my buddy back, and the kids got their coach back."

Q: Anything else about Stookey that you'll remember?

A: "Dave hated Warsaw. I mean, with a passion. But he always respected their kids, and he always respected their coaches. Matt Thacker — I coach with him on the football team at Fairfield, and he and I were talking (Tuesday) about Dave. He turned to me and said, 'Man, I never met anybody that hated Warsaw as much as he did. But he always talked to me, picking my brain for information on this or that. I really liked Dave.' ... And that was Dave."

Austin Hough can be reached at austin.hough@goshennews.com or at 574-538-2360. Follow him on Twitter at @AustinHoughTGN.