“I haven’t run one step in all of these years of coaching,” Schaefer said this past week as the start of the 2017 season quickly approached. “It’s the girls that do all of the work. I give them all of the credit. It’s a rough sport. It’s hard to stay injury free and has gotten more and more competitive throughout the years.”
Schaefer, now 66, is a 1969 New Britain grad. He lives in Hamden.
“When I was in high school, there were no girls sports,” Schaefer said. “I decided I wanted to foster and create more of an accepting atmosphere for girls sports when I got to Cheshire High.”
By the time Schaefer started coaching the Cheshire girls, he had already been coaching the boys for eight seasons.
“I was paid a boys salary, but only was given a small stipend to coach the girls,” Schaefer noted. “My first year coaching both we had 70 boys and seven girls.”
After a few years, the girls program ballooned to 20 girls, with 40 boys. Cheshire needed to hire another coach at that point and Schaefer was given the choice.
“I decided to coach the girls,” Schaefer said. “Maybe because I have two daughters, I thought I was a better coach with the girls. They were my runners because I remember a time when boys were athletes and girls were only cheerleaders.”
Schaefer watched the girls program grow to as many as 60 runners. That was his biggest team.
The veteran coach also said girls cross country has evolved over the years. About a decade ago, the girls went from running 2.5 miles to the boys standard of 3.1.
“I think that was a look at society,” Schaefer said. “An acceptance of girls sports more and more. The girls have had to adjust to that and have to train harder at longer distances. But the same kind of kid comes out every year: Good kids that are intelligent and focused and, more often than not, fun-loving.”
That’s the type of environment Schaefer likes to foster at practices and before meets.
“I always describe my coaching style as a ‘friendly toughness,’” Schaefer said. “I’m not a distant distance coach. I will talk to the girls and find out what’s on their minds and hearts and find out how they are doing in school. I will joke around and try to make practice fun.
“I also try to find time to be serious where the team has to practice and do some miles. On meet day, there’s a nice balance of trying to get the kids to relax and be serious about the race.”
Schaefer ran for 35 years before a partially torn ACL halted his hobby 11 years ago.
With many programs going through peaks and valleys, Schaefer and his Rams, readily recognizable in their candy-cane striped uniforms, have been as steady as they come. Schaefer has never had a losing season. Not only that, he has never lost more than two meets in a season.
“You can tell how dedicated he is and how much he loves this team,” Cheshire senior captain Emi Schwab said. “He has helped me to get to where I am today and I don’t know where I would be without him.”
After 38 years, Schaefer retired two years ago from his post as an English teacher at Cheshire High.
He has no immediate plans to hang up his whistle.
“I retired loving my job and it was a good way for me to go,” Schaefer said. “The big change is I have a little more time. I’m sure many retired people say the same thing. I had no idea how I did everything I did while I was working. It’s a blessing to have more time and to prepare and not be rushing all of the time. It’s a little less stressful.”
In addition to his impressive win-loss record, Schaefer earned state titles in 1994 and 1996.
The 1994 team was second in the State Open and the 1996 squad was third.
“I go into Cheshire High now and into the girls gym and the banners are getting yellow, but still great memories. Class L champs both those years,” Schaefer said. “We’ve also won SCC’s four times and had some Housy titles.
“But what I like hearing now is lot of girls, now women, are still running,” the coach added. “I went to the New Haven Road Race over the weekend and saw a few. I like that Cheshire High cross country was a stepping stone to get people involved with a healthy and wholesome sport.”
Schaefer said he’s thankful for his assistant coaches over the years, including Pam Gunneson, who has been by his side for the last 10 seasons. Schaefer is also currently serving as an assistant for the school’s indoor and outdoor track teams.
“Schaefer is a really awesome coach and makes for a really fun environment,” Cheshire cross country senior captain Lauren Daddi said. “He’s helped us a lot over the years and I’m happy to have him as my coach for all four years.”
The Rams have 35 runners this season. Schaefer said his team makeup is of all levels. His goal for all runners is to have fun.
“Knowing they enjoyed themselves is one of my best accomplishments,” Schaefer said.
His athletes appreciate Schaefer’s dedication.
“He’s just really dedicated and loves what he does,” junior captain Emily Longmore said. “He’s such a great coach and I’m lucky he’s been my coach for my four years. I wouldn’t want to have anyone else.”