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The Tower

by Dan DiFonzo September 15, 2014 at 11:46 am 0

Jim Vollmer celebrates when he learns his Poolesville girls cross country team won the 2013 divisional title. Photo: Melanie

Jim Vollmer celebrates when he learns his Poolesville girls cross country team won the 2013 divisional title. Photo: Melanie Psaltakis

When he last set foot on a track, all was right in Jim Vollmer’s world. He was at the Maryland state track and field championships over Memorial Day weekend, working as a race official and silently cheering on his Poolesville High School runners, whom he coached in cross country.

He left the meet with genuine excitement and a feeling of satisfaction for the achievement of his runners on this sunny spring day. Senior Chase Weaverling capped a sensational senior year by winning the state title in the boys’ 3200 meter race. And the girls’ and boys’ 4×800 meter squads ran spirited efforts to finish third and fourth, respectively.

“He was so proud of all of his runners that day,” said senior Matt Psaltakis. “He took a lot of pride in knowing that we were there.”

Vollmer passed away suddenly at home May 26, setting off a shock wave of emotions for everyone in the Poolesville running community. He left behind a loving wife, Sandy, and two daughters. He was 60.

He had been building the cross country program at Poolesville for more than two decades. Over the last 24 years he had worked with hundreds of students and coaches — many of whom had kept in touch with him throughout the years. This was apparent at his funeral service, when scores of runners from the past and present came to pay their last respects to their charismatic coach.

For Presad Gerard, it was a beneficial partnership. Gerard, a chemistry teacher at Poolesville, reached out to Vollmer six years ago about joining the team as an assistant. At that time, Poolesville already had an assistant coach, but Gerard convinced Vollmer that he’d be an asset and joined the team as a volunteer coach.

“The [existing] assistant coach left after that season and I was elevated into the position of assistant,” Gerard said. “Over time, my role shifted from assistant to more of an equal. Jim and I have been co-coaches ever since.”

Vollmer and Gerard’s team-coaching approach has been successful despite two clearly different training philosophies. Vollmer, a former collegiate 400 meter specialist and track athlete has been characterized as the motivational coach. Gerard, an experienced ultra-marathoner and distance runner, is described as the more cerebral, strategic planner of the two.

“Because Coach Vollmer knew how to race, and due to his history with the program, he was the primary motivator,” said Poolesville senior co-captain Denise Larson.  “Coach Gerard knew a little more about how to train young runners and—while he’s also a great motivator — his strength is in prescribing a pace-based scientific training plan. He’s more of a logistics and numbers guy than Coach Vollmer, who was all about getting the most from runners by motivating them to work their hardest.”

Each fall, on the first day of cross country season, Vollmer gave an impassioned speech during which he would point toward the Poolesville water tower that looms large over the school’s track, calling every day at practice “another step up that tower” and “at the top of the water tower is a state championship.” He explained how the goal for each and every runner should be to get to the top of that water tower.

“When I was a freshman, I thought we actually got to climb to the top of the water tower,” Larson confessed.  “I was so excited to do that, and this past fall we came so close to making it to the top, coming in second in the states.  Anyone who has ever run cross country for coach Vollmer will tell you that the goal each year is to get to the top of that water tower.”

One of the challenges for any cross country program is finding and recruiting runners. In many schools, some of the best runners are lost to conflicting sports like soccer and football.  At Poolesville, the exact opposite has occurred. It’s not unusual to find a handful of skilled soccer players making the shift to cross country. Perhaps this is because Poolesville cross country has a reputation for being tight-knit and inclusive. In fact, if you ask any Poolesville runner what makes cross country so special they will all tell you the same thing,  “We’re like a family.”

“Coach Vollmer came to my last cross country meet in middle school when I was in eighth grade to talk about Poolesville cross country,” Larson said. “He must have mentioned the idea of ‘family’ at least a half dozen times. He preached the family message and that ‘family’ was the glue. That’s how this team was built.  When I think of family, I think of Vollmer.”

Vollmer had a way to make the simple, special. Larson recalled one of his special traditions:

“It was that same day, Coach Vollmer was the official starter for my final middle school cross country race. He fired the starting gun and we took off. I won the race and afterward Coach Vollmer gave me the spent shell from the starting gun. I still have it. It meant so much to me and all of the kids who received this memento from Coach Vollmer. He loved it and this was his way of supporting the future of Poolesville cross country. I knew that day I wanted to run cross country in high school.”

Word of mouth has helped grow Poolesville cross country. Larson said that as a ninth-grader she was the only freshman girl on the team. The entire team was 14 people.  By talking it up and letting people know about the tight family bond that the team had, they were able to grow the team to 40 members for her sophomore year. Last year, the numbers swelled to near 70 runners—the largest team yet.

For Gerard, that sense of family has a lot to do with Vollmer’s style. Described by those who knew him as goofy, fun-loving and slightly eccentric, these qualities allowed Vollmer to connect with the kids and get the most out of them.

Larson fondly recalls Vollmer driving his gold pick-up truck alongside runners as they trained — bluegrass music blaring from the windows, a jug of water in the back for the thirsty.

“He would be talking in your ear, encouraging you, even yelling at you while you ran,” she said. “He knew how to push you, but he also knew how to have fun with it, too.”

So where does Poolesville cross country go from here? Gerard acknowledges that there will be a void moving forward, but is confident they will thrive because of the cohesiveness of the team.

“We’ve hired a new assistant coach who has worked with Jim in the past,” Gerard said. “She has a very positive energy that will be good for the team. The students have created their own support group, working together and encouraging each other to progress whether it’s in school or from one race to another.”

For Larson, she believes that it’s up to her and her teammates to help create a lasting legacy by perpetuating Vollmer’s ideals and commitment to hard work and family.  “That’s what Coach Vollmer was to Poolesville cross country, and there’s no way we want that to end.”  In the fall, they will dedicate their season to Coach Vollmer and, with any luck, take that last step to the top of the Poolesville water tower as state champions.

 

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