Monument Mountain girls cross-country team remembers late coach

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GREAT BARRINGTON — When the girls of Monument Mountain cross-country pass the first mile-marker on their home course this afternoon, there may be a hollow feeling inside them.

That pit won't be from excitement, or concern of the upcoming hills during their first home meet of the season. It will be because the man that has been standing at that marker — and almost every one after that — for the entirety of their running careers, won't be there.

The Spartans will host cross-country teams from Mount Greylock, Lenox, Lee and Mount Everett in the team's first home meet since long-time coach Chris Unsworth passed away in late July after a battle with cancer. He was 48.

"He used to always stand right at the first mile and he'd hear us running up, and we'd hear three claps through the woods. I think that's what I remember most," said Monument senior Grace Phair.

Classmate Sydni Viola, and others remembered similarly.

"It didn't really hit me until the end of our first race, when Uns would be at every single mile-marker and clapping," Viola said on Tuesday afternoon. "He was always really with us throughout the entire race. It's been hard."

Phair is one of Berkshire County's elite runners. Viola had never run before joining up as a freshman. What the Spartans remember most is how Unsworth treated everyone on an even field.

"I was really new to it. But coming in with him as coach was awesome. He was really understanding, it didn't matter what level we were at," said Viola. "His passing was really hard. He's been with me the last three years of high school. As a senior, not having him here this year is really difficult.

"He'll always be with us. He'll always be a part of my life. Every time I run now, I know I'm running for him."

Another senior, Elena Brown had a similar tale.

"He really didn't care if you were a good runner or not. He was competitive, but he always cared about how we were doing," said Brown. "He'd always wait, even if it took you an hour to run a mile, he'd be there waiting for you. He was dedicated to the team."

Monument raced at Hoosac Valley last week, but today will be the first time the Spartans tackle their familiar home course without Unsworth's guidance.

In his stead, coach Scott Annand has stepped in to lead the program, along with boys coach — and longtime friend of Unsworth — Ted Collins.

"It's been incredibly difficult. He was my best friend for 40 years," said Collins, while watching his boys run the Monument track. "He didn't say a lot when he was sick, but he had a lot of integrity. It's been very difficult, but those girls are working hard. It's what he would've wanted them to do."

For Annand, Day 1 of practice this fall was a unique situation.

"We had an influx of totally new, young gals, who didn't know me or coach Unsworth, and then the returning girls all wondering what was going to happen," he said. "All of a sudden, with sweat and working out, they got to know that we have to be in shape for cross-country season.

"We said that all of our runs will be in respect to Uns. And that we will stay together and remember that we are promised today. He would've wanted us to move forward. These young people are resilient."

The Spartans were scattered around the high school on Tuesday. Brown and fellow senior Megan Mulvey were out marking the course with paint.

"We didn't start as good runners. Didn't do it for a love of running, we just heard the team was fun and that Uns was a good coach. So we joined and liked it, and stuck with it," said Mulvey, as the two pointed out a spray-painted tree that bore the name 'Uns.' "It was weird, kind of sad, that first practice with him not being there and saying what he would always say."

Aurora Maldonado, another senior, was wrapping up a jog with a group of underclassmen.

"I think the biggest thing is just the things we did as a team. To him, the team was the most important thing," she said. "We used to go into the woods to our favorite spot on the course and think about how we wanted to feel at that part of the race. And what we wanted for the season.

"Cross-country feels completely different without him"

The team started to realize something was wrong late last season, when Unsworth was unable to make it down a steep hill to their warmup area. Though he never missed a beat coaching the team, his condition was deteriorating. At a meeting in the spring to discuss the coming fall season, Phair remembers him not looking very good. But, she assumed he'd be fine after starting another round of treatments.

"I had been emailing with him, giving him training updates over the summer. But then there was a day when the emails just stopped. I figured he was just busy, but then coach Collins told us he was in hospice and that was a huge shock," said Phair. "That's when I realized he wasn't getting better."

The team was called together for a captain's practice a few days later, but Unsworth passed away the night before. Phair heard from former teammate Kayla Dillon, and most of the team found out at the practice. They remember meeting and going out for a run, but little else.

"It's been a big change for all of us. The first meet was really hard in the beginning. One of the Pittsfield coaches came over to us to express her condolences. We had our game-faces on, but that kind of brought it all back up," said Phair, who met Unsworth while in the eighth grade during a recruiting trip to the middle school. "I think we're a lot tighter because of it, though.

"I feel like I have a cause for running now, because of him."

The Spartans took on today's home meet as an extra to help Greylock's construction situation. There are plans to honor Unsworth at senior day during the next home meet, on Oct. 3.

Mike Walsh can be reached at mwalsh@berkshireeagle.com, at @CLNS_Walsh on Twitter and 413-496-6240.


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