"This is the second article in a three-part series looking at the high school cross country coaching profession in South Carolina. We've asked three coaches and their wives to talk about the rewards and challenges of the coaching profession, how the job impacts them and their families and how they have adjusted to the demands, and how high school coaching has evolved over the years in the state.
First article in series: Young couple takes on the demands of high school coaching
The series will conclude with retired coach Jim Kilbreth.
GREER -- Karen Cummings coached high school girls' cross country in the early stages of her marriage to Eric. That job ended with the birth of their first child, but, 16 years later, cross country remains a big part of the family's life.
Eric is in his 10th year as cross country coach at Riverside High. He has led a program that over the past decade has consistently ranked at or near the top in the state. The Class AAAA boys and girls teams swept the 2014 state championships, the fifth overall for Cummings spanning a 20-year high school coaching career.
Sept. 28 SCTCCCA poll released
The boys' team is currently ranked fifth in the state, while the girls are ranked first heading into the final six weeks of the cross country season.
Cummings doesn't hesitate to point out that over the years he has a great group of athletes and coaches who share in the Warriors' success, including first-year coaches Todd and Daniel Lea, and Stephanie Walton, plus Heather Greene, who has been at Riverside for eight years and has earned three SCTCCCA Assistant Cross Country Coach of the Year honors.
The head coach likes to use the word "family" when talking about his program, which at the start of the season had 174 members.
"We try to include everyone, 15-minute runners and 55-minute runners, into all activities," Cummings said in a pre-season interview with scrunners.com. "We try to make it fun and competitive," he said, which isn't a whole lot different from the way households function.
Eric and Karen first met while both were attending USCS. They were runners and both coached cross
country in the late 90s at Byrnes High. Both are teachers; Eric leads an Honors World Geography class at Riverside, while Karen teaches third grade at Lyman Elementary in Spartanburg District 5.
The couple is raising three young boys, all currently actively involved in after-school athletics -- baseball, soccer and, of course, cross country -- which can present household challenges, especially this time of the year.
"We pretty much get to travel to the meets and watch the races," Karen Cummings said. It's a routine the family has repeated since the boys were old enough to travel.
"Running has grown on the boys," Karen said. "They're so used to being around the team that they now think they're a part of it." The couple's oldest son, Alex, is a member of the boys' cross country team as an eighth-grader.
"I enjoy the fact that Eric is able to do what he loves to do, and that makes me happy," Karen said. "It sort of carries over into everything else that we do."
Scrunners.com asked Eric to chronicle his typical week during the cross country season.
Behind the scenes: Riverside's trip to Eye Opener
On Sundays, after the family attends church, he will spend the afternoon entering times from the previous day's meet; set up team email for the coming week, with day-by-day breakdown and all travel squads and depart times.
Monday: teach five classes, organize weekly bus travel for all sports at Riverside, cross country practice, then normally recreation soccer/baseball with his boys.
Tuesday: teach, practice, Scouts/soccer/baseball.
Wednesday: teach, practice or race, depending on week; church dinner, depending on week.
Thursday: teach, practice, soccer/baseball.
Friday: teach, practice, then either a team dinner or work the football game as school's assistant athletic director.
Saturday: Get up 3-3:30 a.m. for race day.
Mrs. Cummings said it can get "kind of hard" when her husband is away as much as he is during the cross country season.
"He'll miss birthdays and things like that because of races, so it is hard at times, but I've gotten used to it over the years," she said.
Though he loves coaching cross country, Eric said he wasn't totally prepared for the level of
Class AAAA individual rankingscommitment the sport demands to stay in its top tier.
"All the paperwork and the amount of time you actually put in is more than you think it actually is," he said.
One unforeseen consequence of being the wife of a successful cross country program has led Karen to avoid wearing clothing that could identify her as a Cummings.
"Everyone on our team knows I'm Eric's wife, but we don't want other teams to know that, and for them to get upset with me for something," she said.
Mrs. Cummings said she has no current plans to get back into coaching.
Class AAAA team rankings
Catching up with Riverside's Ashley Fallow
"Being a parent is much more relaxing," she said. "I can cheer on my son without crossing that line between being a coach and a parent."
As with other high school sports, the Riverside parents of children involved in cross country assist the coaches during the season, volunteering to provide meals and helping in other ways. Karen qualifies as a team parent simply because Alex is on the team.
"I help when I can, but Eric has lots of parents who do a whole lot more than I do," she said.
Eric served two terms as president of the SCTCCCA, a position that carried additional demands on him and the Cummings family, but also exposed the family to another side of cross country.
"We got to see a side of the sport others don't see," she said, with Eric and the association's involvement in the annual Shrine Bowl Run and other volunteer causes Upstate teams get involved in during the season.
"It's a good experience for the kids to get involved in," she said.
Unlike other high school cross country programs, Riverside doesn't hold organized summer workouts.
Cross country: Looking back at September
"I don't do off-season stuff with my kids, as far as training," Cummings said. "This is the time that both I and the runners need apart."
Summer XC training: Riverside coach Eric Cummings
Summer also gives the Cummings household a needed break.
"This is our down time," Eric said, "summer and winter." Once the cross country season ends in November, Cummings won't pick it back up until track season the following.
For Eric, the payoff for the time and effort he puts into coaching ultimately comes back to the kids.
"I enjoy watching a kid's face when they meet their goal or break a PR; watching a kid move from where they started as a middle-schooler to graduating and growing into a young adult."