By Wil Crews
Photo submitted by Daniel Chesser.
Last week, the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) named Auburn High School track & field and cross country coach, Olivia Tofani, the 2020 High School Cross Country Coach of the Year for the state of Alabama.
“This recognition is incredibly special for me because it represents a season that required each of my runners and me to navigate the unknown together as a unified team,” Tofani said. “Despite many factors that could have proven to be detrimental to our team, my girls’ success at the championship race is a true reflection of the hard work, diligence and trust they put forth this season.”
Tofani and other state-by-state winners were selected based on their teams’ performances throughout the 2020 cross country season. Among the factors taken into consideration were team score and placement at the state championships, margin of victory, performance against rankings if available, individual championships and how their teams’ performances stacked up to previous years.
The AHS Cross County girls team has won the AHSAA Class 7A state title the past four years in a row, 2019 and 2020 under Tofani’s leadership. After losing five seniors from last year’s team – all of whom are competing at the Division 1 level now – and the added reality of training and competing during a global pandemic, Tofani credits this season’s success to her runners’ dedication.
“We knew this season would have its challenges with the change in team dynamics and the new set of obstacles COVID-19 presented,” Tofani said. “However, my girls approached each challenge with gratitude, so happy to even have the opportunity to run and race this season. Going into the state meet, half of my team was competing in their first ever championship race, but I was so impressed by the way those younger runners confidently stepped up to this level of competition guided by the leadership of their more seasoned teammates. They trusted their training and raced for one another throughout the season but truly exemplified this dedication at the state meet.
“Most people assumed this would be a ‘rebuilding year’ for our team, and for most of the season, my girls were not in the conversation of being a team that could win the state meet,” Tofani added. “Racing is as much of a mental feat as it is a physical one, and instead of counting themselves out, the girls on my team stepped up confidently. I give all the credit to my girls.”
Tofani, an accomplished high school track & field athlete herself, knows the sacrifices an athlete has to make in the name of competition. However, Tofani said this season was especially challenging, and that she was most proud of the pandemic-related sacrifices that her runners made in order to compete at the highest level.
“Training in a pandemic was challenging for a variety of reasons, but asking teenagers to make social sacrifices was an area I know many coaches were concerned about,” Tofani said. “However, the passion my girls have for the sport and the willingness to put their team before self was astonishing. They each had to think through decisions they made outside of practice and how those could impact the team, especially if they were to put themselves in a situation of possible exposure. They made those sacrifices and kept in mind the big picture for the team, of making it to the state meet together.”
Tofani will receive a trophy from USTFCCCA recognizing her achievements, and the winners from each state are in consideration for the association’s National High School Cross Country Coach of the Year award. A winner for boys coach and girls coach will be selected by a panel of experts and announced in the coming weeks.
As for how Tofani plans to build on her success … it all starts with relationships.
“I’ve learned that more than anything, in both teaching and coaching, relationships are necessary for success,” Tofani said. “Building relationships with each of my runners establishes trust, and giving my athletes opportunities to build relationships with one another creates loyalty. Together, these relationships not only allow me to encourage and motivate my runners, but they empower my runners take ownership of their team and lift one another up at each practice and meet. I watched girls at the state championship meet go above and beyond what they ever imagined at the beginning of the season. They are the hardest working group of athletes, but more than that, their success is in large part due to their friendships and desire to push one another to be their best.”