Back in 1998, Rob Schaefer recalls facing a crossroads in his cross country experience at Cheshire High School. Schaefer had coached boys and girls for 12 years, but with the team having 60 athletes, he felt that the job had grown to be too much work for one person.
“One day, I said that this is nuts. I have all the responsibility as just one coach,” explained Schaefer, who also taught English for 38 years at CHS. “I spoke with the athletic director (Wayne Candela) at the time about getting two coaches. From there, I was given the chance to work with either girls or boys.”
In reflecting on his life experiences, he felt a calling to coach girls and empower them.
“I have (two) daughters. Watching them grow up, I wanted to be a force of some sort in the world of females and help to make them understand that they are just as important as men,” recalled Schaefer. “Looking back as a member of the New Britain Class of 1969, there were no girls’ sports at my high school. I wanted to make things equal.”
Over 34 seasons, he has coached girls to multiple championships and helped them develop a passion for running.
“I’m so happy that I’ve been a small part of these girls’ lives,” said Schaefer.
To start the fall season on Sept. 8, his runners were excited to help their coach hit a milestone at Wharton Brook State Park in North Haven. In sweeping North Haven (16-47), Foran (24-38), and Lauralton Hall (15-50), Schaefer eclipsed the 300-wins milestone.
His overall girls’ record is 302-39.
“I feel extremely happy for the girls,” stated Schaefer. “They deserve the credit for the wins. I’m not taking steps in the races.”
Juniors Alexa Ciccone (19:30) and Mia Vientos (21:35) were the top finishers in the opener. On the suggestion of Schaefer, both girls joined the team last year.
“It is exciting for him to reach 300 wins,” said Ciccone. “He does a lot for us, so it is good to celebrate him.”
After the meet, the Rams had a party for Schaefer.
“It feels amazing to be on the team for this (milestone),” said Sam Mudry, a senior tri-captain with Alex Palladino and Megan Rossi. “He deserves the recognition.”
For CHS athletics, Schaefer was originally hired to succeed Ron McReavy. His title was boys’ cross country coach, but he was paid a stipend to coach girls, too.
“At the time, girls’ cross country was an afterthought, but with Title IX coming along, things were happening for the better,” recalled Schaefer. “Women were making progress for their gender.”
Schaefer looked up to McReavy, but he also wanted to develop his own coaching style.
“Ron was a legend in coaching. He was admired and respected,” said Schaefer, who compiled a 115-24 record with Cheshire boys’ cross country. “Filling his shoes wasn’t even a thought.”
Some coaches follow one structure, but Schaefer found that being flexible fit him best.
“I like to keep our program upbeat and independent,” stated Schaefer.
Starting out, he wanted to create an atmosphere receptive to athletes of all abilities.
“No matter if you are first, last, or anywhere in between, the girls support each other,” explained Schaefer. “Everywhere we run, everyone gets to compete. You don’t see that in all sports.”
Under Schaefer, Cheshire girls have claimed 12 division titles and four Southern Connecticut Conference crowns (1994, 1996, 2009, 2016). The team has never had a losing record in dual meets.
In 1994 and 1996, CHS won the Class L crown. Those squads placed second and third, respectively, in the State Open at Wickham Park in Manchester.
“I was relatively new at that time,” recalled Schaefer. “I’ve learned so much since then.”
In one of his favorite memories, his 1994 team was recognized on stage at the State Open award ceremony at East Catholic High School.
“I’ll never forget looking out at the crowd and seeing the best of the best that year,” said Schaefer. “The success of that team came from hard work.”
Every year, he sets a team goal of making the State Open.
“When you start with 150 teams in the state, it is great to say that you have made the top 20. In a small state, there is a special feeling to know that your team is there,” explained Schaefer, whose teams have made 19 statewide appearances.
Over the years, he has enjoyed forming friendships with his assistant running coaches.
“Every one of my assistants have been female,” reflected Schaefer. “As the coach of a girls’ team, I thought that I needed a role model and someone who had another viewpoint of working with girls.”
English Teacher Sarah Redford is his current assistant. She took the position when Pam Gunneson became the boys’ cross country head coach in 2018.
“It has been a great experience working with her,” said Schaefer. “Sarah runs all the time with the girls.”
Before retiring from teaching, he liked watching runners develop in the classroom, as well as on the trails.
“I worked one and a half jobs,” recalled Schaefer. “Cross country is time consuming, but I was able to manage my teaching and coaching careers.”
He feels that saying goodbye to seniors is the hardest part of coaching.
“It is bittersweet,” said Schaefer. “When you have a kid for four years, you rely on them. You form a bond with the kids and want them on your team for a lot of years, but you are also happy for them to move onto the next step of their lives.”
Schaefer likes hearing that his runners had a great experience at CHS. He stays in contact with multiple grads, many of whom have run in college.
“There is nothing better than to know that cross country was a stepping stone to productive and happy lives,” Schaefer said.
Schaefer has led a lot of deep teams, but insists that his favorite is always the one he is currently coaching. With a young team this fall, he believes that the leadership of Mudry, Palladino, and Rossi has been key, so far.
“The captains are respected by everyone,” said Schaefer. “They love cross country, and that passion is filtering down to the people who are running it for the first time.”
He feels that coaching has kept him young in spirit.
“I get such a kick out of these kids,” reflected Schaefer. “I’m lucky that I still have sports in my life.”
Along with running, Schaefer is proud of how his team has given back to their community. For the last 25 years, Cheshire girls’ cross country has run a cleanup fundraiser and donated over $7,500 to charity.
The girls take a day to pick up trash on the CHS campus and, every year, the team gives money to the Cheshire Community Food Pantry, along with other causes.
“I came up with the idea that a good team is good in a lot of ways,” recalled Schaefer. “It is a great thing for these girls to know they are on a sports team and thinking of others.”
For team projects and races, he is appreciative of the support he has received from the CHS Athletic Department.
“I have to thank Wayne Candela for hiring me,” reflected Schaefer. “Today, I don’t think that you can be a better athletic director than Steve Trifone. I think Steve does a superb job of working with athletes, coaches, parents, and the public.”
While he leads the girls’ cross country program, Schaefer also enjoys being able to assist with the girls’ indoor and outdoor track and field teams. Many of his runners have competed for all three squads.
“I enjoy the different challenges of cross country and track. I appreciate working with (Coaches) Allen Dvarskas and Barbara Hedden because they have run before and understand the sport,” stated Schaefer. “Coaching three seasons is a lot of planning, but it is fun to work with the kids.”
Schaefer has retired from teaching, but he still enjoys coaching to this day.
“I live in the moment. Right now, the moments are good,” said Schaefer. “The girls are responding well to my coaching. My health is good, so I might as well keep going.”