It doesn’t take much prying to get Dave O’Hara talking fondly about his old high school track and cross country coach.
His experience nearly 20 years ago at Mt. Lebanon High School in suburban Pittsburgh laid the foundation for his running and coaching career. His coach, Mike Agostinella, has served as his role model.
O’Hara followed his mentor through Slippery Rock University’s track program and into the coaching ranks. O’Hara, 38, is now the boys’ cross country coach at Annandale High School in Annandale, Va. (He has since moved to W.T. Woodson, where his team won the 2018 6A title.)
“Everything I’ve learned about coaching, I learned through Coach Agostinella,” O’Hara said. “It’s just really neat to see me try to apply some of his theories and some of his beliefs.”
So when he received an offer a few years ago to hold a virtual dual meet against his old team, O’Hara didn’t take long to jump on it.
Mt. Lebanon High School’s success in Pennsylvania is something O’Hara eyes for his Annandale Atom runners, a squad that finished seventh in last fall’s district championship.
The rules of the virtual dual meet are simple. The two teams run on the same day in their respective towns, nearly 250 miles apart — both around flat-ish athletic fields with few turns. It scored like a regular meet, with the top five finishers scoring, sixth and seventh displacing, and the low score winning.
“They’re pushing themselves to a race limit as opposed to just a time trial,” O’Hara said. “They might not care as much if somebody else on their team is pushing them or beating them. When they’re thinking about beating another person they’re racing two states away, that motivates them a little bit more than just a regular two-mile time trial.”
Agostinella had never conducted such a meet before, but the concept was fairly common years ago, before the Internet, when coaches would mail results to opposing coaches. Mt. Lebanon, or Lebo, is 2-0 so far, but don’t let O’Hara fool you into thinking it doesn’t mean something to beat his former coach and school.
“We got beat pretty badly both years, so I’m hoping this year we can have a better outcome,” O’Hara said, who has been coaching Annandale since 2009. “I’m trying to build a culture and a history at my high school.”
The Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils went 13 years without a dual-meet loss starting when O’Hara ran there in high school. They have won four district championships, have been runner-up more times than that, and won the 1998 state championship when Agostinella was named coach of the year. But to him, it’s about developing the entire team.
“However that shakes out in terms of winning is fantastic,” Agostinella said.
It’s a culture O’Hara hopes to achieve with his team: doing your best means running faster than other squads.
Runners from the respective teams look at past postal meet results and use it as fuel for training during muggy summer training runs. And as the season wears on, those same runners keep tabs to see how the other runners progress.
“They love looking at the results and the statistics of all the kids they’re running against,” O’Hara said. “It’s just a cool cross-state connection that they can make.”
Despite having nearly 70 boys come out for the cross country team and what O’Hara sees as some gifted runners, Annandale hasn’t had the success the Pittsburgh-area school has.
“What’s missing there is really instilling the belief and having the kids buying into the program,” O’Hara said about his running crew. “That’s one of the things that Coach Agostinella did while I was there. He was able to coach the kids up and have all that positive energy come out and they really believed you could do anything.”
Coach Agostinella stresses the improvements his mid-pack runners achieve.
“My overall philosophy,” Agostinella said, “is to help them develop to their potential to the fullest…That carries on and carries over into all facets of their life, not just running but hopefully it carries on into their adult life and what they do for a living and how they deal with developing their kids and so on.”
“Each kid felt very special,” O’Hara recalled. “When Coach A was talking to you, you knew he really cared for you.”
That mindset was implanted in O’Hara early on in his running days and has carried over into his coaching career.
“He was always a team guy, and in distance running that’s kind of hard to find,” Agostinella said. “Distance runners are such rugged individualists. It’s kind of hard for them to become team orientated.”
During his freshman track season in 1992, O’Hara was a football player running sprints — like any good Western Pennsylvania kid — when he fell into an 800-meter race late in the year.
O’Hara ran so well Agostinella ended up putting him on the 3200-meter relay team for the district championship. From there, the tall, gangly football player was hooked. He dropped football and by the end of his sophomore cross country season was one of the top three runners.
“It was exciting to see him go on and do some great things and then go into health and phys ed and continue working in the sport,” Agostinella said.
O’Hara still runs competitively in Washington, D.C. with the Georgetown Running Club, known as “Dave O” to his teammates. He even fits a few cross country races into his schedule.
The two coaches talk several times a year, exchanging ideas and catching up. What started out as Agostinella helping O’Hara in coaching has turned into two coaches exchanging ideas.
“That’s part of the long-range excitement of having been a coach, some of these kids that go on and continue the sport and continue their interest in helping other young people,” Agostinella said.
This year, O’Hara hopes to have a deeper, more well-rounded squad. In year’s past, stars like Ahmed Bile – who now runs for Georgetown University – have led the pack for Annandale. He has tried unsuccessfully to get his top boys up to Pittsburgh for a race against Mt. Lebanon. Inter-state sanctioning stood in the way, so for now, this postal meet will have to do.