A lasting tribute

Photo by Jim PetersNew Prairie's cross country course is being named in honor of former coaches Doug Snyder, left, and Thom Smith. A ceremony will be held prior to the first race of the annual invitational next Saturday morning.

NEW CARLISLE -- New Prairie cross country.

The name of the school is synonymous with the sport throughout Indiana.

"Anywhere you go in the state, the kids go to college and they always come back and say they ran into somebody, they saw my shirt (and said), you went to New Prairie? I love that invite, or I heard you have this big cross country race. It's one or the other," former coach Thom Smith said. "The kids are amazed how people know. It's a cool thing."

Smith and coaching colleague Doug Snyder are two big reasons why, having spent a combined lifetime of years in the sport, making New Prairie the unofficial state capital of high school cross country in the state.

"You think of New Prairie cross country, 'Papa Smi' and Snyder are just legendary," girls coach Julie Jeszenszky said. "(Smith) was my coach. They built it to be what it is today. They made little New Prairie something that's really on the map because of cross country. How wild is that? Not only did they make this is awesome, looking at the talent they created, how many I can't even count, I'm sure there is a list somewhere that is too long, literally pages of all the collegiate athletes and state champions. It's just incredible the things they accomplished."

On Saturday, those accomplishments will be formally recognized. Prior to the first race in the annual invitational, New Prairie's crown jewel, there will be a dedication ceremony at 7:45 a.m. on the hill above the start line, honoring the pair with the naming of the course after them.

"For years, we've had names to components of this course," said boys coach John Arndt, who ran for Snyder as a senior. "Essentially it got to the point where it's been running in my mind for about eight years, why don't we have part of the course named for coach Snyder and coach Smith? They're so nominal to the program and pivotal to its growth, everything about it. I thought about it, why not name the whole course after them?"

Arndt pitched the idea to Ben Bachmann when he came to New Prairie last school year, and the Athletics Director gave it an immediate thumbs up. School board approval followed and Arndt went to work on having a sign made.

"There's a group I meet with, a faith group and I mentioned it," he said. "They said, hey, let's build this. It's some guys out of La Porte. They're Slicers through and through. They said, just so you know, we're doing this for you, we're not doing it for New Prairie."

The large wooden sign was hauled out to the course, where school maintenance sunk it into the ground, a lasting tribute to the men who made New Prairie cross country what it is.

"It's pretty good," Arndt said. "I wish I could have made it bigger, but it's solid."

"Anything but the Smith-Snyder, Snyder-Smith course, wouldn't have been enough," Jeszenszky added.

Smith has spent his entire 42-year career at New Prairie, coaching for 40, and is still teaching there. Best known as a Math teacher, he now does Health and P.E. He had been with the school at the middle school when, in 1982, Snyder was chosen to succeed Blaine Gamble. He came from South Bend Adams, where he was a victim of Reduction in Force and wasn't foreign to the area. Snyder's brother Ron ran for Gamble at New Carlisle, but after consolidation, Doug wound up at LaSalle.

"It was a blessing in disguise. (New Prairie) was a lot better situation," Snyder said. "I was applying for jobs like crazy and I got it three weeks before school started. When I got it, I figured I'd be out in a couple years, then after two years, I really liked it. I wasn't going back to South Bend. It's nice that it worked out so well."

Snyder had come to the NP Invite while at Adams. One of his top priorities when he took over the Cougars program was to expand the meet, just for boys at the time, into one of the best events in the state, which it long since has been.

"It's an honor to be able to host that meet," he said. "I saw such huge potential for it.  It was 37 schools at the time and we got it to 111 one year. The meet made $21,000. The biggest challenge was to figure out where to park 150 buses."

Snyder spent 35 years in coaching, starting at South Bend's Edison Middle School. He took on track assistant duties at Notre Dame in 1986, at which time Smith was brought up to the high school.

"We were already communicating with each other," Smith said. "We had a good working relationship all the time. He was always receptive to ideas. We fed off each other back and forth. That part of it was really good. I can't tell you the number of hours we poured into that. He poured in a lot more than I did. He was on the phones trying to get coaches to bring their kids, getting workers. We put a lot of years and a lot of sweat in out here. We were painting the course, mowing the course, setting up the course every day, doing it all. It was crazy. We wouldn't be able to do that now. We were much younger then. It's been a great thing to be a part of."

Snyder joked how he once told 'Smitty' that he spent more time with him than he did with his wife.

"There were a lot of late nights, working on the course, trimming in the woods, the weekend trips to meets," he said. "We were two, three doors down at school, so we were talking all the time."

An Indiana Track and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Famer, Snyder led the Cougars to a combined 19 sectional titles, four regionals, a semi-state and state runner-up finish in 1994. Eight boys teams and three girls teams qualified for the state meet during his career.

"They had one girl running before I got there," Snyder said. 

Just a handful of years later, he helped coach Carol Gray to back-to-back state titles (1985-86) and Amanda Vanwanzeele was atop the podium in 2000. Mike McClaren was a two-time state runner-up in 1989-90, among 16 Cougars runners named to the all-state team during Snyder's tenure, which ended in 2007. He retired eight years ago.

"I desperately wanted coach Snyder to coach my boys," said Arndt, whose brother Glenn ran for him. "He would've gotten more out of them than their coach dad. It's a good culture. I love what this does for people long-term, for adulthood."

No coach gets into a sport for accolades, but both men are deeply appreciative of the recognition.

"It's pretty important," Smith said. "I never really gave it any thought. It's not something you expect. I really appreciate John and the other coaches grabbing that and taking that to the school board. The fact they were willing to do that was a nice thing. We had a lot of kids, a lot parents who helped along the way. You get to know a lot of good people through the sport. A lot of the kids we had, their kids are running now. They're going to look up there and see that sign and are going to say, mom and dad, who are those clowns? We still have a few people around who can tell them who those clowns are, who actually remember who we are."

Still a regular at football games and cross country and track meets, Snyder actually first heard about the honor at a retirement breakfast.

"I was like, what, I didn't have to die first?" he said. "It was 29 years being a part of that. It's just the frosting on the cake."

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