Being the women’s cross country and track head coach at Gonzaga is going to be Jake Stewart’s last job.
That’s what he told his team last year, an odd thing to say for someone in their 30s who’s recently started his own family and is only one year into a new position in a new city.
“He told us that this is where he wants to retire,” junior Ally Legard said. “He said that he’s super committed to growing this program, making it a national powerhouse and that he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.”
It’s a big thing for a coach to say that he intends to turn a school into a powerhouse immediately after arriving there, and to put those words into action is a monumental challenge.
But in the spirit of the sport, Stewart hit the ground running the moment he arrived on campus last fall to replace former head coach Patty Ley.
It appeared to be a rocky start for Stewart last season, as the team faltered during cross country and placed ninth in the West Coast Conference. This was an unusual spot for a program that finished in the top five the previous eight years, including a WCC championship in 2015.
“The sudden transition from one coach to another with a completely different energy and coaching regimen is not an easy one to make,” senior Claire Manley said. “We didn’t know what he was going to be like and he didn’t know our mentalities yet, so that will naturally take some time to figure out.”
Before coming to GU, Stewart was the head cross country coach at the University of Illinois for six seasons. In 2016, he took the men’s team to its first NCAA Championships in 30 years.
GU, however, is not such a drastic case. Stewart sees tangible evidence that success can be had here because it happened previously, and he constantly reiterates that to his team everyday.
“I kept reminding the team that we’re not a program that’s scraping for success, we’ve had success before,” Stewart said. “But I want my girls to know that it’s OK to continue to improve and look for even more success.”
Constantly searching for more success is what propelled the team to a track season where it thrived.
Throughout last year’s indoor and outdoor track season, the runners on the women’s team set 93 personal records, as well as 22 times in various events that broke into the top 10 in GU history.
“We just worked hard and we celebrated people’s successes while not being flashy in any way,” Stewart said. “Track and cross country are hard sports, but as one of my girls said, ‘You have to enjoy when you do well and succeed’. ”
A lot of the success that Stewart’s had with the team has come from how he impacts his runners away from the course and track.
“He’s just super easy to approach,” Legard said. “His door is always open and he wants us to come in and not just talk about how the race went or the upcoming workout, but he wants to get to know us as people.”
Stewart said that he doesn’t want his team to be a bunch of “running robots;” he wants them to be improved people, too. He encourages them to be well-rounded human beings, while simultaneously ensuring that they don’t stretch themselves too thin and are able to concentrate on the sport in which they compete.
He also said he feels that it’s important that if his runners are opening up about their lives, then they should be well-acquainted with him as well.
“At first, it was harder for him to open up to us about his life, his family and be a real person around us and not just a running coach,” Legard said. “But once he was open about the person he is outside of running, we were really able to understand him and buy into his plan.”
Stewart has his top athletes averaging 80 miles of running per week, with others at 75 miles and many of the younger runners at 65 miles. For many of them, this is uncharted territory.
If the team has any questions about the training regimen, Stewart is completely transparent when explaining his reasoning.
Earlier in the year, Stewart had Manley, one of the runners on the team averaging 80 mile weeks, doing a workout at a slower pace than she thought necessary. Confused, she asked him why, and he told her it was to act as a pacing workout to get her acquainted with her rhythm before they moved back into faster-paced training.
“He gave me a solid answer, and he wasn’t trying to undermine me with it,” Manley said. “Coach Stewart really believes in his training, which helps us believe in it way more, too, and that goes on to help us believe in ourselves. ... If we’re doing these workouts that he has so much faith in, then we can be confident in the outcomes.”
Stewart carries that belief in his system and his love for the sport to the recruiting stage, where he has thrived in the past year, securing solid freshman and transfer runners.
This year’s freshman class — who were all recruited to some extent by Stewart — has already proved itself. In the first race of the fall, the top four Zag finishers were all freshman, with Emily Phelps leading the way in a fourth-place overall finish.
“He has just maximized his potential with this [freshman class],” Manley said. “This group is really one of the most talented coming into GU in a while and that’s because coach Stewart is such an aggressive recruiter.”
Legard said Stewart’s passion for the sport stands out.
“This is definitely the most deep our team has ever been, and that’s because coach [Stewart] has a way of getting people excited about the sport,” Legard said. “He brought that spirit into recruiting and showing people that he cares, which I feel is something that’s pretty rare with coaches.”
To make a more immediate impact this season, Stewart also brought in two transfer athletes.
Liz Hogan is a sophomore transfer from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo who specializes in the 3,200-meter race.
The other is senior graduate transfer Natasha Bernal, a standout cross country and steeplechase runner from the University of New Mexico who projects to make a positive impact this upcoming season.
A big reason for both of those transfers deciding to become a Zag besides the school itself was Stewart.
“Before committing here, Liz called me to ask that if I was a transfer and [if] Gonzaga asked me to run there, would I have chosen the school?” Manley said. “And I said, that in large part because of coach Stewart, absolutely.”
Given how much his team trusts in him, Stewart’s dreams of making the Bulldogs a national powerhouse could be closer in reach than previously envisioned.
“We’re better this week than we were last week, and we’ll be better next week than we are this week, and that’s exactly what I’m asking for,” Stewart said.
If that trend keeps up, it’s not hard to imagine GU becoming Stewart’s final home.