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Benefield: Track named after Courtemarche, a coaching ‘unicorn’

Doug Courtemarche has long been fond of telling his Santa Rosa High School athletes that once they pass under the orange and black arch leading to the track, they can leave everything else behind.

Their bad day, leave it at the gate. Their friend troubles, leave it at the gate. Their homework load, leave it at the gate.

When students are on that track they are safe. They are welcomed. They are home.

“You walk through that Panther Territory sign and leave everything behind, this is your safe place,” he said. “Start the day all over again.”

And that home has a new name: Courtemarche Track.

The honor, long-known but officially unveiled in a ceremony at Santa Rosa High’s Big Cat Invitational track and field meet Saturday, was nearly 40 years in the making.

‘The easiest decision you are ever going to have to make’

Hired at Santa Rosa High in 1992 after about 10 years of coaching a local youth club, Courtemarche, 74, officially retired after the 2019 track season.

Never mind that he still shows up every day to help with the hurdlers and long jumpers and whoever else needs a hand. He’s no longer in charge, but he can’t seem to stay away.

He loves this.

But the moment he officially retired, Carrie Joseph, a longtime co-coach with Courtemarche, knew immediately that something had to be done to honor a colleague who means so much to so many.

“It was something I had been thinking about for awhile,” she said. “We need to have some sort of mark, some legacy or stamp from him because of his importance to so many people, not just at Santa Rosa but the running community in general.”

While the field will remain Nevers Field in honor of Pro Football Hall of Famer Ernie Nevers, the track will bear Courtemarche’s name.

But there were hurdles — pun intended.

There was a post-retirement waiting period as required by the Santa Rosa City School District’s facilities naming protocols.

When that period passed, we were smack dab in the middle of the pandemic.

Add to that, a change in district rules for naming facilities, which meant Joseph had to essentially begin anew.

Joseph kept the effort moving, but clearly district officials had a few other issues on their collective plate during the pandemic.

But this fall, the boxes were starting to be ticked: School site approval, community committee approval. Even Courtemarche had to give his approval.

And on Jan. 26, so too, did the board of trustees. About three years after the idea was first officially floated, the name change was approved.

Joseph assured board members and district officials that naming the track after Doug Courtemarche would be the least controversial topic they would tackle in some time.

“I said, ‘Trust me, this decision is the easiest one you are ever going to have to make,’” she said.

‘They gotta want to be there’

Though his athletes and peers praise him up and down for his positivity, his optimism and his general kindness, please don’t mistake Courtemarche for a guy who doesn’t like to win.

In 27 seasons at the helm, his boys’ teams took first or second in the North Bay League 13 times. The girls? 18 times.

The boys have had winning seasons 25 out of 27 years. The girls: 26 out of 27.

He won the North Coast Section Honor Coach Award in 2002 for track. He’s also won it in cross country.

He’s coached national champs and state qualifiers. He’s coached athletes to athletic scholarships.

But he’s also coached the 8-minute milers. And to hear Joseph tell it, he treats the state-bound athlete and the slowest kid on the team with the same care.

“One of his core philosophies is that everybody matters and nobody is more important than someone else,” she said. “If you strive to improve you have a place on the team. That’s really all that matters.”

When asked why he has stayed with it so long, Courtemarche didn’t have a number of wins he wanted to reach, or title chase he wants to be part of, it’s the little things he can’t quite let go of.

Tiny, unseen moments that don’t show up in the stat sheets.

“Maybe it’s just getting one part of the long jump correct. One part,” he said. “For them it’s an epiphany, but for me it’s a coaching moment. More than anything, that is what kept me coming back. Those are a big deal. That’s an accomplishment and they can go home feeling good.”

That is another of Courtemarche’s credos:

“We have to send the kids home happy,’ he said. “They gotta want to be there.”

And that’s no easy feat in a sport as demanding as track and field. But Courtemarche tried to inject good humor and a fair dose of goofiness into every workout.

“I did my best to convince them ‘You can do this and this is fun,’” he said.

‘Selfless dedication’

Every day might not have been all fun, but clearly every day had meaning. Just read some of the testimonials Joseph received in support of the renaming.

“Doug is basically a unicorn among coaches; SRHS consistently fields competitive teams with great intensity, but somehow also produces the MOST FUN teams at the same time. Never overbearing, always supportive, Doug taught me to work hard, and have a great time doing it.” Silas Stafford

“Doug taught me that hard work isn’t nearly as hard with a smile on your face- a lesson that still serves me daily as a teacher myself.” Claire Bartlett

“He remembers the little things, your best races, your times, your jokes at practice, the fact you don’t like vegetables, and always has a big smile.” Emilie Cates

“Doug instills a sense of self worth in each of his athletes and his encouragement is endless. His love for the sport and the athletes is immeasurable.” Lindsy Johnson

“Doug isn’t just a legend to SRHS athletes, but is also admired by coaches, parents, and athletes from all over the state of California.” Toni Noonan

“Doug is one of the greatest representations of what selfless dedication looks like, and he will always be one of the biggest reasons I fell in love with this sport.” Cristian Nazarek

Athletes and parents didn’t write about the times they ran or the medals they won, they wrote about how Courtemarche made them feel as athletes and as people.

‘We love you, Doug’

At Saturday’s ceremony, longtime track and field coach Mike Grace remembered knowing immediately upon seeing Courtemarche in action with the Santa Rosa Express youth team 40 years ago that he had what it took to be a great coach.

He saw the fundamentals being taught, he saw discipline being shown and he saw kids giving their best.

But more: “He had a smile on his face every day and so did the kids.”

After the temporary banner was unfurled at the south end of the infield Saturday, Courtemarche took the mic.

Never one to shy away from showing his emotions, he faced scores of athletes, alums and parents, and tried to put into words what decades of coaching in this spot means to him.

He doled out thanks.

But when it came time to directly address the student athletes, his student athletes, and tell them what they have meant to him, he choked up. He struggled to finish.

And in that moment, students became teachers.

Instead of Courtemarche urging on an athlete who is struggling to finish, it was his athletes and alums who cheered him on, telling him he could do it.

“We love you, Doug.”

He regripped the mic, composed himself and finished.

He was crying, but he was smiling, too.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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