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By her own admission, Cheryl Gardner is a little apprehensive as she faces her first assignment as a high school cross-country coach after two successful seasons coaching the sport at Elm City Middle.
“I don’t know, I’m nervous,” she said with a smile that belied whatever she trepidation she has at taking over the cross-country program at Fike High. “It’s going to take a little bit of adjusting to get started.”
Gardner will replace Greg Yarbrough, who coached the Fike boys and girls the last two seasons and four of the past five years. Yarbrough, who works for BB&T, was unable to continue his coaching duties because his job changed, new Fike athletic director Tom Nelson said.
So Nelson reached out to Gardner, who led the Elm City boys and girls to county titles in each of her two seasons there in the spring of 2016 and 2017.
“He left a message and said the position was open and he knew I was successful at Elm City and just wanted to see if I was interested,” Gardner said. “I had no plans to coach high school. I know it’s a big difference from middle school.”
Gardner, a native of San Diego and a graduate of San Diego State University, taught math for five years at Elm City Middle before moving over to Hearne Elementary this past year. She will teach at Forest Hills Middle this year as well as coach the Bucks and Lady Bucks cross-country teams in the spring.
Gardner smiled at the notion that she will be the head coach for the feeder school for Fike’s rival, Hunt. However, she pointed out that growing the sport at the middle school level supersedes athletic rivalries.
“It’s a county thing,” she said. “We hope we keep running and going in the county and middle schools are just kind of getting bigger at it, you know? They weren’t huge.”
Gardner inherits a boys team that won the Wilson County Championship last fall and a Lady Demons squad with many runners expected to return, including rising sophomore Parker Barnes, who was a two-time county girls champion at Elm City under Gardner. The Demons feature rising junior Amando Robles, who placed third in the 3-A Big East Conference meet in 2017 and was the county boys champion at Elm City in 2016.
“I’m lucky,” Gardner said. “I’m following in Coach Yarbrough’s steps because he has a good foundation built here that I’m hoping just to follow on. I’m fortunate that most of the kids who are still running are who I coached at Elm City, so I think that we have a good relationship. I’m just going to inspire them. I’m not one that’s going to hound to improve times — obviously we need to improve times — but I want them to have fun and I want to instill a love of running. It’s a great sport that you can do your whole life.”
Gardner said that she hopes to attract a sizable number of runners for each team, noting that she had 27 kids on both Elm City teams.
She said that she hoped to continue the Fike Night Relays, a massive early season meet at night that was started by former Fike coach Tom Griffith and continued by Yarbrough. However, there’s no date yet and she said she’s going to need some help to pull it off.
Still, she was encouraged by a recent talk with Griffith, who said she will be fine coaching at the high school level.
“His words that will stick with me are: ‘Success wasn’t an accident,’” Gardner said. “So you just use your same philosophy, just in a different setting.”