Former Bates College men’s cross country coach Al Fereshetian follows the action during the Bates Invitational race at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester in September 2019. Assistant coach Art Feeley is in the foreground. Phyllis Graber Jensen photo for Bates College

Al Fereshetian noticed his pace slowing down.

When a runner can no longer keep up on the track, he or she knows it’s probably time to call it quits. But the longtime head coach of the Bates College men’s track track and field and cross country programs is viewing his recent decision to step down in different track terms.

Curtis Johnson, left, has been named the new head coach of the Bates College men’s track and field and cross country programs, replacing Al Fereshetian, center. Johnson previously was the associate men’s and women’s track coach, working under Fereshetian and women’s track and cross country coach Jay Hartshorn, right. Phyllis Graber Jensen photo for Bates College

“I kind of look at this transition in the analogy of a relay. You know, you want to pass that baton,” Fereshetian, who led the Bobcats for 26 years, said. “Sometimes a relay leg will tire out a little bit too much and then you almost are stumbling to pass that exchange, and that doesn’t make for a very exciting relay — or very successful relay, for that matter. So, I feel like I’ve been able to maintain a good pace up to this point, but I can see if I hung in there too much longer I’d probably be hitting that point where I wouldn’t be able to keep moving that baton the way I want to and the way it needs to for the team to be successful.”

Fereshetian said the secret to a good relay is how fast the baton moves through the exchange zone. The Bates men’s track and cross country baton was exchanged in no time.

Less than two weeks after Fereshetian’s retirement was announced, one of his assistants, Curtis Johnson, was named the new head coach of both programs. Fereshetian said Johnson is “ready to go,” but building on the relay analogy, he warned Johnson during a joint Zoom interview with the Sun Journal, “don’t start too fast because it is a long race and … you want to be able to extend yourself out there pretty good.”

“I think the timing is great right now, and I do feel like, in my life, I feel like I’m having a harder time keeping up the pace, so this is a good time to get rid of the baton and pass it, and I couldn’t be passing it off to a better guy than Curtis,” Fereshetian said. “So really excited to see where we’re going to go in the future.”

Fereshetian’s work leading up to the present has been pretty good. During his tenure, 48 Bates athletes accumulated a combined 101 All-America honors. His track teams won the 2012 NCAA Division III New England indoor title and the 2013 New England outdoor title, and the cross country team qualified for the NCAA Division III championship seven times.

Johnson, who grew up in New Jersey, was a three-time Division II All-American at American International College. He also competed at the Division II national championships in the 800-meter run, relays and in cross country. He joined the Bates men’s and women’s track teams as an assistant in 2016 and was promoted to associate head coach of both teams in 2019.

“I got to be honest, I’m still processing it. And I think that speaks to the magnitude of this opportunity,” Johnson, who earned All-America honors in relays and also ran said. “You know, when you dream of your opportunity, similar to a real dream, you don’t have a place yet, you don’t know what campus or what group of student-athletes you’re going to work with, or what staff, but you just know, ‘OK, I can see myself being a great coach and making a difference with student-athletes.’

“So to transition into this role at a place that I’ve already grown to love, and coaches that I’ve been able to learn from, and Al, who has literally marked half of the history of the program, it’s a blessing.”

Johnson’s love of track and field helped bring him to Bates. So, too, did Fereshetian’s instinct when he received an email from Johnson, who was moving to Maine, inquiring about any coaching opportunity. There wasn’t a position available at that time, but Fereshetian didn’t shut the door on Johnson.

“I could just tell by the sincerity of — you know, you read an email and you can tell if this is just a bogus, ‘I’m sending this out to 27 people,’ or if this is something sincere and genuine — and in Curtis’s case I knew it was. I had done some real quick research on him and knew that he was a pretty good person,” Fereshetian said.

A position opened up a couple weeks later and Johnson has been part of the program ever since. He earned the trust of both Fereshetian and women’s coach Jay Hartshorn, which granted him the freedom to coach his events on his own and learn what works and what doesn’t.

“One of my principal philosophies has always been consistency over time, and the fact that Curtis is here and going to be able to take the program in his direction, there’s still a lot of stability there within the program, and I think that’s going to pay dividends. It will pay dividends immediately, right off the bat, but it’s also going to pay dividends down the road because of that consistency and that flow,” Fereshetian said.

Johnson said he and Fereshetian both enjoy the process of growth and improvement during a season. They also both deeply care about the athletes.

“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care, and I think one of the things (the athletes are) going to figure out really quickly about Curtis is that he cares,” Fereshetian said. “And I think we’re going to see some great things moving forward. It is going to be fun for me to be able to sit back and watch.”

Bates College men’s cross country head coach Al Fereshetian, left, discusses the Bates Invitational meet with assistants Curtis Johnson, second from left, Art Feeley, second from right, and women’s head coach Jay Hartshorn, right, at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester on Sept. 14, 2019. Phyllis Graber Jensen photo for Bates College

What wasn’t fun, Fereshetian said, was telling the current team that he was stepping down. He said there’s never a good time to make that decision, and he felt like he was letting the team down. Johnson’s readiness helped the decision, and so did the fact that the pandemic has created an opportunity to kind of hit the reset button on the program. Fereshetian is grateful that during his final season he was able to see some of his athletes, such as All-American thrower John Rex, participate in the NCAA Division III outdoor national championships, especially after outdoor nationals were canceled in 2020 and the indoor nationals were axed for 2020 and 2021.

“This is great for Curtis to be able to hopefully start the next year of Bates track and field and cross country under what we hope and expect to be a little bit more normal conditions,” Fereshetian said.

First on the agenda for Johnson is cross country this fall. He said that the season, in his mind, started yesterday, and that he and assistant Jacob Ellis have already started discussing what Johnson called a “redemption season” for a team that made it to nationals in 2019.

“I’m pretty hopeful that everybody’s going to come in fired up because we have lost so much due to COVID,” Johnson said.


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