By Marty Gordon
Blacksburg High School has been one of the most successful track and field programs for over 15 years not only in the state of Virginia but maybe the nation. A lot of the success is built upon the framework and foundation laid by the school’s former coach James DeMarco who won 24 state championships and tallied 13 state runner up finishes. He also had three teams ranked in the top-10 in the United States and was named a U.S. Southeast Coach of the year and Virginia Coach of the Year four times.
Friday, the school renamed its new quarter-mile facility as the “James DeMarco Track of Dreams.”
The new facility was built in 2015.
Blacksburg Athletic Director Peter Lyell said it was only fitting the new track on the hillside at the high school is renamed to honor DeMarco who also helped to design the school’s current cross-country course.
DeMarco produced 41 athletes who competed at the collegiate level, three cross-country teams that were ranked among the Top-10 nationally, a 2010 girls distance medley relay team that set a national prep record at the Penn Relays, and a 2014 boys’ 3,200 meter relay team that produced the fifth fastest high school indoor time in the nation.
He took the job as Blacksburg cross country, indoor and outdoor track coach in 2005, after entering the graduate program at Virginia Tech.
Along with dedicated student-athletes, DeMarco believes a big key to Blacksburg’s success was great assistant coaches who believed in the kids and helped them develop, learn and grow. “Thanks to Jack Hencke, Steve Schmitt, Marcia Barrow, Ingrid Burbey, Kathleen Poole, Cliff Dillard, Jackie Nicholson, Mark Hinson, Stephen Howard, Justin Adams, Jon Poole, Kirk Shepherd, Brandon Bear and Chad Cox,” he said during a reception in the Blacksburg High School cafeteria.
“The enthusiastic, positive and hard-working athletes accomplished much. Morning runs, long runs, circuits, incredible workouts, weights, hurdle drills and plyometrics made them “talented.” Consistency day in and day out led to bigger dreams, taught life lessons, gave fond memories and developed friendships for life,” he said.
One of his former athletes, Kendell Wiles, spoke at the dedication. She said there really aren’t many words to describe the impact the former coach had had on the young people of BHS.
“I have never met someone so passionate and driven not only about tack but about the way we treat each other. James has instilled positive life skills, inspired us and motivated us to be the best version of ourselves,” she said.
Wiles, like many of DeMarco’s runners, excelled at Indiana University in cross country and long-distance events and served the Radford University track & field program as a volunteer assistant coach.
While at UI, she established herself as one of the most talented 800-meter runners in the Big Ten Conference. Wiles became a national qualifier in the East Region for the 800m as well as in the 4×400-meter relay. She was the 2018 Big Ten runner-up in the 800m and finished third in the 600-meter at the Indoor Big Ten Championships.
In her time at Blacksburg High School, Wiles set school records in the 200-meter, 300-meter, 400-meter and 500-meter. She became a three-time Virginia state champion with titles in the 400 (2014) and indoor 500 (2013, 2014).
Wiles said DeMarco gave individual and equal attention to every athlete no matter if they were the fastest or slowest racer.
“He was always encouraging and devoting. I am internally grateful that he never gave up on me and pushed me to eventually be the runner that I am today. I can’t think of a better way (to dedicate the BHS track) to represent a coach I will remember for the rest of my life,” she said.
DeMarco also helped jumpstart many of the area’s 5K and half-marathon events and opened the retail store, RunAbout Sports, in 2003.
His running history dates back to growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, where he picked up the sport as a secondary one as he had always played basketball and dreamed of being a professional baseball player. He was cut from his junior high school basketball team and the rest should we say is history.
DeMarco traded in a basketball and his baseball glove for running shoes, and his stock rose on the track. He would earn a scholarship to South Dakota State, where he helped the school win the 1996 NCAA Division II championship.
He spent a short time back in Alaska as a sixth-grade teacher, but then moved to North Carolina where he trained and competed in the U.S. Cross Country Nationals. Then a chance meeting with Ben Thomas, the cross country and distance coach at Virginia Tech, changed his life leading him down the path to the New River Valley.
Initially, his plans were to enroll in the master’s program at Furman University where he would be a volunteer assistant coach.
In 2016, he resigned his coaching post after his wife took a job in Wisconsin. DeMarco said at the time, Blacksburg had a special place in his heart and cherished his time here.
He currently serves as the head girls’ cross-country coach and distance track assistant at Homestead High School in Wisconsin.