See how this Alabama high school coach used cross country to transform his rural community

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Lawrence County High School Cross Country Coach Stanley Johnson, National Girls’ Cross Country Coach of the Year for 2021 by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). (Jacob Blankenship/The Bama Buzz)

When it comes to sports, the state of Alabama is known for football. In Kentucky, basketball is king. But what about the distance running sport of high school cross country?

Try Lawrence County, Alabama.

Bet you didn’t see that one coming!

Our Village

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Lawrence County High School Cross Country team warms-up at the Oakville Indian Mounds Park and Museum, site of the 2022 AHSAA Cross Country Championships. (Jacob Blankenship/The Bama Buzz)

Earlier this year, veteran Lawrence County High School Cross Country Coach Stanley Johnson was announced as the National Girls’ Cross Country Coach of the Year for 2021 by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). His girls’ team had won back-to-back 5A State Titles, but he was quick to give credit for the honor to the people in the Lawrence County community of Moulton he has worked with for three decades. He calls them “our village.”

“God surrounded me with a lot of good people,” Coach Johnson, a lifelong resident and  Lawrence County educator, told The Bama Buzz.  “We started in 1991. A lot of people have been involved in our village. I give them the credit for all of our success, not only in the races, which are some of the largest ones in the Southeast, but also our championships. In Lawrence County, we have a passion for the sport of cross country.”

Thanks to Coach Johnson and his Village, this rural county becomes the epicenter for the sport every fall in Alabama. 

This coming November 5, Lawrence County and its partners in the community will host for the 22nd consecutive year the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) State Cross Country Championships at the Oakville Indian Mounds Park and Museum, a venue less than a mile from the birthplace of Jesse Owens, one of America’s greatest and most beloved Olympians. The course the participants run is named for Alabama’s Olympic Gold Medalist.

How Coach Johnson Got Started

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Lawrence County High School Cross Country Coach Stanley Johnson, National Girls’ Cross Country Coach of the Year for 2021 by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). (Jacob Blankenship/The Bama Buzz)

According to Johnson, DeWayne Key, his mentor, got him into running and asked him to start coaching cross country at Lawrence County High School during the 1991-92 school year. By his second season in 1992, the school had won a state championship.

“He (DeWayne Key) is the one that brought running to Lawrence County. He was the one that asked me to coach, and as of today if you go to the AHSAA state championship, he is the meet director.”

Over the years, Johnson’s Lawrence County Red Devils and Lady Red Devils  have won a total of 14 titles. 

The boys won state championships in 2015, 2014, 2004, 2003, 1996, 1995, 1993 and 1992.

The girls won titles in 2021, 2020, 2015, 2014, 2007 and 2003.

He also won championships at Speake High School.

Bringing the Nation to Lawrence County

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Oakville Indian Mounds Park and Museum, site of the 2022 AHSAA Cross Country Championships. (Jacob Blankenship/The Bama Buzz)

1999 was a turning point for cross country in Lawrence County.  It was that year the local schools and county organized the first Jesse Owens Classic on the grounds of the Jesse Owens Museum. It was successful, attracting more than 450 runners.

Both Johnson and Key then presented the idea to hold races at the nearby Oakville Indian Mounds Park and Museum where there was more space for trails and parking.

“I remember vaguely saying, if you allow us to come, we will bring the nation to you. It did. In 2008 we hosted the AAU Nationals and again in 2015,” Johnson explained. 

Today, four major high school races are managed by Johnson each fall, including the AHSAA State Championships. The Jesse Owens Classic — which is held in early October — has drawn up to 5,600 runners, making it one of the largest high school cross country competitions in the South.

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Jesse Owens Museum (Jacob Blankenship / Bama Buzz)

In Lawrence County, these large races bring in much-needed revenue. Everyone benefits from cross country.

“The school and the community are so proud of these events,” stated Sonya Kilpatrick, principal of Lawrence County High School. “I am from here. I live here, my kids graduated here. It gives us so much pride in Lawrence County to host these events.”

Building a Village

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Lawrence County High School Cross Country team warms-up at the Oakville Indian Mounds Park and Museum, site of the 2022 AHSAA Cross Country Championships. (Jacob Blankenship/The Bama Buzz)

Another secret to Lawrence County’s success is building a village? Everyone can get involved with cross country, including boosters, parents, local churches, local businesses and many more

Cross country is often popular with high schools in the suburbs and communities that are well-to-do.

Poverty is not a barrier to being able to participate on the team, Kilpatrick said about the Lawrence County High School program.

“I’ve known Coach Johnson my entire life. He’s one of those fixtures in the community, a man of character. He builds character in these kids. He will take a kid that may not run well, but he will keep them on the team because he wants to instill in those students values and show them that there are people there that care about them and love them. And those kids will work hard.”

What Does High School Cross Country Mean

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Lawrence County High School Cross Country team warms-up at the Oakville Indian Mounds Park and Museum. (Jacob Blankenship/The Bama Buzz)

When we ended our interview with Coach Johnson, we asked him: What does cross country mean to you?

“There is a passion within me. I like to see kids succeed and adults succeed. I like to take someone that people may not believe in and I believe in them. My motto is ‘not no, but how.’ I see where God took this thing we call cross country and He saw where the people around me can succeed. I think that’s what we’ve done. Has it been easy? No, but nothing’s easy. Has it been fun, at times. Have I shed tears and sweat over it? Absolutely. Are there times that I want to walk away? Absolutely.

It’s about relationships. And I’ve had more than one person tell me that this is my mission. And that means a lot to me.”

Watch the Championship

Want to watch Coach Stanley Johnson’s Lawrence County’s cross country village in action? Come see the AHSAA Cross Country Championship on November 5th at the Oakville Indian Mounds.

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Pat Byington
Pat Byington
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