2017 was a year of accolades for the Kearney Girls track and field team. The Bearcats were Class A State Runners-Up that spring, carrying the famous Nebraska-shaped trophy out of Omaha Burke’s stadium, and head coach Pat McFadden was named the NCA Hudl Girls Track and Field Coach of the Year.
McFadden immediately sent notes to his coaches and athletes.
“This is an award that speaks more about them than it necessarily speaks about me,” McFadden said.
During the summer, McFadden sat in his office as his athletes trickled in to pick up their silver state medals. Upon visiting, a Kearney pole vaulter congratulated McFadden on his Coach of the Year award.
“And I [told her] that the reason I got this award is because of her,” McFadden said. “[It’s] because of all of the hard work she put in and then, of course, the success that comes from what she’s done and contributed. It certainly reflects well on their old coach.”
Each spring, the Kearney girls team boasts 85 to 100 athletes--impressive numbers even for a Class A high school. Despite the size of the roster, the Bearcats maintain a close-knit community--a community comprised equally of athletes, coaches, and parents.
A lifelong commitment to track and field started in McFadden’s middle school years; he began running track and cross country at Irving in Lincoln. McFadden then continued to run at Lincoln Southeast High School and Nebraska Wesleyan University.
In 1988, McFadden returned to Southeast to student-teach and coach track, working alongside his high school coach, Roy Churchill. When McFadden ran for the Knights, Churchill had coached the distance events, but when he returned to his alma mater, McFadden noticed that Churchill had switched to the sprints and hurdles.
McFadden was eager to become a distance coach, but Churchill had something else in mind: You need to broaden your horizons a little bit, McFadden remembered Churchill saying. You’re going to help out with the sprints and hurdles.
To McFadden, everything “worked out quite nicely”; his sprint/hurdle coaching experience at Southeast aided his role as current head girls coach at Kearney. By broadening his horizons, McFadden became familiar with all track and field events--which is essential to being a head coach.
McFadden used this diverse knowledge--an understanding of all events--to build what is now a cornerstone of Kearney track and field: a strong community.
Every practice starts in the Kearney High gym. The entire girls team--sprinters, distance runners, and field event athletes alike--stretches and warms up together as McFadden blasts music. McFadden believes that this ritual exemplifies his team’s strong community.
“I think oftentimes in track and field, we get situations where each event area gets separated, and you do your workouts and then you go home,” McFadden said. “It’s important, for all athletes to get the chance to build a community and relationships with one another outside of their events.”
While building a strong community, the girls are deeply committed to the team’s success; they often show up to the track on their “off-days” to improve their fitness, speed, and strength. After summer morning runs, the girls stick around for workouts, led by McFadden, in Kearney’s new indoor pool.
But, the athletes aren’t the only people committed to the team.
At every track meet, McFadden looks up into the bleachers with gratitude, as he sees the Kearney parents, donning the Bearcat blue and white, cheering on their athletes. No matter the weather, no matter the location of the meet, the parents always show up.
Even if their support requires a five hour drive.
Last spring, the Bearcats traveled all the way to Scottsbluff for the GNAC championships. Such a long drive to a track meet is rare for the Kearney team, but the mileage certainly did not intimidate the parents.
“I may have a little bias, but it looked like there were more Kearney fans up there than any other school,” McFadden said. “That’s just a testament to what parents will do in terms of supporting their athletes.”
Additionally, the parents maintain a financial presence on the team, raising money for mid-meet snacks, such as bagels, fruit, and chocolate milk. Thanks to the parents’ donations, hour-long trips to HyVee and Walmart the day before meets become a ritual for McFadden.
“I don’t have problems getting [the athletes’] food,” McFadden said. “It’s not like I [can’t buy] a bundle of bananas because I don’t have enough money to do it. I always have plenty.”
Fans of high school track and field know the Kearney girls for their accolades: a momentous dive into the sand, the ascent and descent of a shot put, a shiny state runner-up trophy, an NCA Hudl coach of the year. But, McFadden knows that programs of great value, and certainly programs with strong communities, are founded on time--what he refers to as the “unseen hours.”
“It’s the unseen hours in preparation,” McFadden said. “It’s the unseen hours in conditioning during the summer. It’s the unseen hours going to the grocery store and getting food--It’s the unseen hours.”