Johnson excited about taking over Mitchell XC program

Chad Johnson is and always will be a Norwich Free Academy Wildcat.

He ran cross country and track at the academy, graduated from there, and coached the boys' cross country program for 13 years as well as working with the indoor and outdoor track teams. He also teaches there.

So electing to break away and take his first college coaching job was a gut-wrenching call.

"It was a very, very, very difficult decision because my loyalty to the boys has always been really strong," Johnson said.

Always up for a challenge, Johnson, 43, recently accepted the job of running the Mitchell College men's and women's cross country programs.

He's excited about his new journey but admits that it will be strange when he heads to Mitchell instead of NFA for his first fall practice. The Mariners begin workouts on Sept. 4 and hold their first meet on Sept. 14.

His decision was made easier by the fact the NFA boys' cross country team is now the capable hands of Jackie Sullivan, one of his former runners. He expects a smooth transition for the Wildcats.

But it will be a shock to his system.

"At first, you question whether you made the right move," said Johnson, who'll continue to teach in the science department at NFA and also do a part-time administrative internship. "But now that the dust has settled and I know the NFA boys are in good hands, it's nice for me to break out of my comfort zone and take a risk. I think it will in the long run make me a better coach and better professionally as well."

Johnson, a two-time State Open champion in high school, built an impressive coaching resume at NFA, guiding the Wildcats to nine Eastern Connecticut Conference cross country championships and a dual meet record of 123-6 in 13 seasons.

He wasn't actively looking for a new coaching job.

While taking classes pursuing his administrative certificate for teaching through Sacred Heart University, he began to think about his future.

"It just got me to start thinking a little bit about changing things up and trying to open up more opportunities," Johnson said. "When I saw (the Mitchell job) was available, I thought I'd go ahead and apply and see what it is all about."

Johnson liked what he heard and accepted the job at the Division III school.

He hasn't completely broken away from his NFA running family just yet. He's doing training runs with the NFA boys this summer and helping with conditioning.

Perhaps his first challenge at Mitchell will be building a solid foundation.

The turnout has traditionally been low for both the men's and women's cross country teams, which had eight and six runners on the roster, respectively, last season. David Still of New London, the New England Collegiate Conference runner of the year last season, will not return.

Johnson took notice of a successful model already in place at Mitchell College. Travis Beausoleil has developed a highly-successful baseball program by recruiting local talent.

"I looked at what Travis has done with the baseball program there, bringing in kids mostly from southeastern Connecticut, going after those kids who really enjoyed their high school experience and wanted to continue to live in southeastern Connecticut and build on that experience.

"I think that's a good model to follow. Knowing that he's had some success with that model, I thought that maybe I could have success in cross country."

Given the timing of his hire, Johnson had little time to recruit for the upcoming season. He will have two familiar runners joining him. Former NFA runner Evan Carney is heading to Mitchell as is New London's John Mateo who competes for the Mohegan Striders Running Club's junior Olympic team that Johnson coaches.

Johnson plans on spreading the word about the program.

"I don't think a lot of people in southeastern Connecticut in terms of being around ECC athletes have considered Mitchell as a place where they could go to continue their running career. My goal is to try to change that."

g.keefe@theday.com

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