ITHACA, N.Y.—The Ithaca City School District’s Board of Education approved the coaching team for the Ithaca High School cross country team Thursday, putting to rest the concerns of parents and students that the team would not exist in the fall.
The fate of the team was called into question for students and parents when they learned in June that the team’s head coach, Chris McClure, would not be rehired for the 2023 fall cross country team season.
McClure had coached the cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field teams for the past two years. This year, McClure was named ESPN-Ithaca Indoor Track and Field Coach of the Year. That season, the indoor track and field team sent nine athletes to the state championship — a program record for the team.
On Thursday, July 6, the Ithaca City School District Board of Education approved the coaching and staff appointments for fall athletics, including those for the cross country team. The coaching staff is appointed by the Ithaca Athletic Department.
Leann Young, a school counselor at DeWitt Middle School who previously served as the modified 7th and 8th-grade boys cross country head coach, was appointed as head coach of the team with five assistant coaches.
The new coaching staff has already sent out an encouraging message to students and families ahead of the upcoming season, according to Amanda Shaw, a parent of two cross country athletes and a booster of the Ithaca Cross Country Booster Club.
The team is set to begin its fall season with an experienced six-person coaching staff, more than last year’s four-person coaching staff. But McClure was not included, leaving students and parents alike searching for answers.
A letter sent to the Board of Education on June 20 and June 26 on behalf of student-athletes, parents, and community members alleged that when a prospective cross country parent recently called the Athletic Department office to request details about the team, an unnamed staff member stated that McClure would not return this upcoming fall.
Additionally, the unnamed staff member is purported to have said that if the district was unable to fill vacancies for coaches of fall sports, some fall sports may not be offered. In the district, coaches frequently work on one-year contracts, meaning they have to be renewed every year to continue working, with contracts renewed. That provoked concern in parents and student-athletes, who promptly organized a petition and showed up to the district’s Board of Education meeting on June 27.
As of the morning of Thursday, July 6, 81 parents, families, and supporters of Ithaca Cross Country were listed as signatories on the letter.
The petition was written under the impression the team would falter without a coach. It argued that the cross country team is uniquely accessible, in terms of school sports programs, due to traditionally having no cuts and low barriers to entry and stated that the vacant coaching position unnecessarily “jeopardizes a program that supports the wellbeing and personal development of upwards of 70 student-athletes each year.”
Parents were surprised to hear that the Athletic Department was considering not rehiring McClure, positing that he is “qualified and experienced” and the team had already experienced success with him at the helm. Also, considering the challenge of recruiting, hiring, and retaining a new coach, parents described that it seemed illogical to end McClure’s employment without an identified new coach, which there had not been at the time.
“I want them to find the joy of running, and to make it a healthy, lifelong sport,” McClure told The Ithaca Times last year.
At the Board meeting, student-athletes and parents urged the board to support the teams by pressuring the athletics departments to promptly fill the coaching vacancy. Many of them were very complimentary of McClure, who did not comment for this story.
Paul Nadasdy, a parent of two sons on the cross country and winter and spring track teams, said having no cross country and track teams the following school year would be a disservice to the educational mission of the district. He called the situation “baffling,” arguing that McClure was willing and capable of the team and would be a source of stabilty.
Other community members, like Jay Hubisz, parent of an athlete on the cross country and winter and spring track teams, described how a consistent coaching staff facilitates stability and community for team members.
Hubisz explained that he is astounded by the turnover rate for Ithaca athletic leaders and what he sees as “a failure to give necessary support and training to well-qualified, engaged individuals generously giving their time and energy to our youth for marginal pay.”
In response to the students’ and parents’ vocal concerns, Board of Education President Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell stated that board members have read and paid attention to the emails they have received from community members prior to the June 27 Board of Education meeting.
While Bradwell noted that some information remains confidential, “Folks are paying attention to the process [and] fully look forward to having a cross country season this coming fall.”
ICSD’s media communications team did not answer several requests for comment or clarification on the status of the team before the coaches were appointed. ICSD Athletics Director Samantha Little, ICSD Athletics Daily Administrator Mac Knight, and McClure himself all declined to comment on the record.
Shaw, the booster club leader, reaffirmed her support for the team in a written statement provided to The Ithaca Voice.
“The Ithaca Cross Country program prides itself on being an inclusive and welcoming community, where every student is encouraged to do their best,” Shaw said. “It provides an opportunity for all students to compete and to potentially develop a lifelong love of running.
Shaw also described that the community vocally supported the rehiring of McClure and that she is grateful for his contributions.
“As expressed in our outreach to the Athletics Department, District leadership, and the Board of Education, many students and families recognized that Coach Chris McClure played a large part in boosting that culture as head coach last year and an assistant coach in years prior, while he also helped students excel in competition at our section and state levels and beyond,” Shaw wrote. “While Coach McClure’s contributions will be missed, he leaves a strong foundation for students and families to work with the incoming coaching staff to make the fall 2023 season one of our best yet.”
Julia Senzon is a reporter from The Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at The Ithaca Voice.