Benefield: Longtime Empire coaches Doug Courtemarche, Danny Aldridge a pair like no other

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For three decades, Doug Courtemarche and Danny Aldridge have led cross country and track and field programs in Sonoma County, coaching state and national champs and developing in thousands of student-athletes a love of running.

They have been co-coaches and competitors over the years and are nearly without peer in their longevity and scope of influence.

Courtemarche took over the track and cross country programs at Santa Rosa High in 1992 and is retiring at the end of this track season. After stints at Cal Poly, Sonoma State, Santa Rosa High, Maria Carrillo and now Sonoma Academy, Aldridge, too, is pondering his future.

For their unparalleled impact on the sport and dedication to thousands of student athletes, The Press Democrat honored Courtemarche and Aldridge last week as the All-Empire 2019 Coaches of the Year.

Longtime peers in the track and field and cross country worlds, Courtemarche and Aldridge worked side-by-side from 1993-1997 when Courtemarche invited Aldridge to join Santa Rosa’s coaching staff to help guide a young phenom by the name of Julia Stamps (now Julia Stamps Mallon).

Aldridge, a Petaluma High grad and one of the greatest runners ever to come from Sonoma County, had the know-how and background both men felt would benefit a runner with the natural abilities of Stamps. And in Courtemarche, Aldridge had a partner in philosophy: Make it fun, keep kids coming back and give those who are motivated a way to get better.

“Doug made it so much fun,” Aldridge said. “He coached the right way.”

And together, they gave Stamps the foundation from which to take flight.

Aldridge, who as a runner was a six-time NCAA All-American, a national champ twice, a national team champ four times and a two-time Olympic trials competitor, crafted workouts for Stamps while Courtemarche would help guide her at meets. Under their partnership, Stamps became a Foot Locker Cross Country champion, won eight state and four national track championship titles and competed at Stanford.

And perhaps most importantly, Stamps Mallon, 40, said she still loves running.

“They became more than just coaches,” she said. “They were really just influential, pivotal individuals in (my) life. Literally, I can look back and I can think I may have been a good runner, but I would not have been the same runner without their guidance and support.

“I owe them everything,” she said. “I owe them my whole career.”

As a kid growing up in Long Beach, Courtemarche remembers saving up for a coveted piece of sports equipment. It wasn’t a mitt or a ball or cleats.

“It was a stopwatch,” he said. “I saved up and saved up. I finally got enough to buy a stopwatch.”

He lined up the neighborhood kids and set them to racing. The start line was in the Courtemarche kitchen. So was the finish line. The route was out the door, through the gate, around the block and back into the house.

It seems he was born for this coaching thing.

His co-head coach for the past two decades, Carrie Joseph, said Courtemarche is part Yoda, part Gandalf and part Dumbledore — a guy with innate wisdom and a gift for imparting it to every kid in the way they need. And it’s an apt description in another way, she said, because Courtemarche is an avid reader who can geek out with the best of them when it comes to the fantasy genre.

He connects with people, Joseph said.

“There is a power and magic to him,” she said. “It’s a force. That can rub off on a lot of people and allow them to rise to the occasion.”

And not just athletes. At every step in his coaching career, Courtemarche has opened the doors to up-and-coming coaches, at times readily acknowledging that others might have more or different knowledge. His athletes’ growth came first, not his ego.

When Joseph joined the Santa Rosa High coaching roster in 1997, she was relatively fresh off a record-setting career at the University of Michigan. Courtemarche gave her the green light to write workouts and guide runners. It’s an openness that can be rare in coaching.

“He’s very generous in that respect,” she said.

Courtemarche is giving and almost without ego. And yet he’s a competitor.

“Doug does a good job of balancing the heavy with the light,” Joseph said. “He is really competitive. As easygoing and lighthearted and optimistic as he is, he hates to lose. That is one reason I think we have gotten along so well.”

When Aldridge left Santa Rosa High for Maria Carrillo, it wasn’t to compete with Courtemarche — it was to coach his daughter, Jenny, and later his son, Ryan.

And where Aldridge goes, success follows. Jenny became a state champ in the 1,600 meters. At Carrillo he coached Jake Arnold, an NCAA decathlon champ. He coached Alia Gray, an athlete who came to running her junior year because her friends ran and went on to be named the California Collegiate Athletic Association cross country runner of the year at Chico State. She now runs professionally.

Aldridge was never a taskmaster. His gifts were creating an environment where motivated athletes wanted to work hard.

Gray described Aldridge’s “complete, genuine excitement when you performed or even worked out well.”

It fed on itself. For athletes who wanted to push themselves, he was there to instruct and encourage. For those who just wanted to run for the heck of it, he gave them a safe place to try it, she said.

Plus, he was fun.

“He wasn’t super intense. He’s really goofy,” she said.

There is a picture of Gray and middle-distance ace Leanne Fogg just having peppered their coach in the face with cake. It’s all Danny, Gray said.

“It takes a certain person to be a good sport when a teenager smashes cake in your face,” she said.

Around 2006, Aldridge had decided to step back from coaching after his son graduated. Members of the Pumas’ squad had other ideas. A runner had written a poem that in part sang his praises and in part begged him to stay.

“It was unbelievable,” he said. “She came to my house personally and delivered it to me. I couldn’t say no to that … it just made me feel like, you know, maybe what I do affects people.”

Courtemarche was working at the IRS when he started coaching in Santa Rosa. The government agency, keen to soften its image and perhaps gain a little positive PR, was flexible in its work hours to encourage employees to get out into the community. Courtemarche didn’t have to be asked twice.

He was coaching with the youth team — Santa Rosa Express — using the track at Santa Rosa High and sometimes staying late to help with the Panthers’ squad under coach Ken Goetzel. Then Goetzel announced his retirement.

“It wasn’t anything I’d ever planned on,” Courtemarche said of taking over the top spot. “At best, I thought I’d just be a longtime assistant coach.”

In 27 seasons, Doug’s boys teams have finished first or second in the North Bay League 13 times and had winning seasons 25 times. His girls teams have come in first or second in league 18 times and had 26 winning seasons.

The number of athletes he has coached into the CIF state track and field meet counts in the dozens. He’s coached a national champ, state champs, high school record-holders and college record-holders. He’s been a North Coast Section Honor Coach award winner twice.

These aren’t things you’d learn in talking to Courtemarche. He’s more likely to tell you about the kid who finally nails his hurdle form or the personal record achieved by a long-suffering sprinter. Track and field is a no-cut sport; these coaches take all comers. And they coach and guide them all.

When Stamps Mallon sees Courtemarche these days, the sporting conversation generally veers in the same direction.

“Every year, it’s not, ‘How fast are your kids?’ It’s, ‘We had 150 kids show up,’” she said. “Not only are they getting the fast kids out there, they are getting all the kids out there.”

Aldridge coached briefly after graduation at his alma mater Cal Poly, then at Sonoma State until the university folded the program. But at every turn, when Aldridge tries to pull away, people who understand his gifts try to lure him back in.

At Carrillo alone, Aldridge sent at least 16 kids on to run in college. The Pumas developed into the running power they remain today under his guidance.

So when he left Carrillo and was out of the coaching game, it only made sense that he’d be sought out to take over another program. Again.

This time it was Sonoma Academy athletic director Chris Ziemer who came calling. Aldridge at first said no. Repeatedly.

“He said, ‘OK, I’m going to come back and ask you pretty much every year,’” Aldridge said.

In 2010, Aldridge relented. At Sonoma Academy he coached current Duke University student-athlete Rylee Bowen to three state cross country titles and added a fourth when senior Andre Williams won the Division 5 race last fall. Williams will run at Columbia University next year.

“Two things have always followed Danny at every stop. It doesn’t matter the school, the level, the gender — his athletes improve and have success,” Ziemer said. “He is equally comfortable and inspirational with the top athletes in the area and athletes brand new to the sport. He loves and lives running and that rubs off on everyone around him. I don’t have many athletic regrets in life, but one of them is that I was never coached by Danny.”

In more than two decades of working side-by-side with Courtemarche, Joseph has found that one of his greatest gifts is his outlook.

“It’s his relentless optimism. He is the firmest believer in what kids can do out there,” she said. “We all need people to believe in us. Life is usually better when we are surrounded by people who believe in us. To a lot of kids and colleagues, Doug plays that role.”

He played that role for Aimee Holland.

Holland was a gifted, competitive soccer player when she was suddenly barred from her sport after sustaining at least two serious concussions about six years ago. Her recovery had been rough. She was in the middle of it when she bumped into Courtemarche on campus.

“He just came up and we started talking and all of a sudden I found myself telling him everything and I didn’t even know him very well,” she told me a couple of years ago. “He was my first lifeline, whether he knew it or not.”

Holland went on to become a top-tier 800-meter runner, team captain many times over and a leader for the Panthers. She graduated in 2016 and is running in college now.

Courtemarche’s belief in the ability and gifts of others is his own gift, Joseph said.

Plus, that smile.

“His infectious smile,” Joseph said. “That grin — it really just lights him up, lights people up and brings a lot of light into the world of teenagers, which can be dark.”

To speak with Courtemarche and Aldridge, it’s the joy of working with teenagers that kept them coming back season after season.

Thousands of kids have gone through a Courtemarche or Aldridge program. The vast majority were never state champs or college athletes or even league champs. But they got to be teammates and they got a taste of competition and they were part of an athletic family.

Joseph calls track and field the biggest tent in all of sports — everyone is welcome. And it takes a special kind of person and coach to be a ringleader in that tent year after year.

“To hang around for 35 years like Doug and I have, first of all you have got to love it,” Aldridge said. “Not like it, love it. And you’ve got to like kids and everything they bring, good and bad. You’ve got to like it all.

“And you’ve got to laugh a lot.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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