DANVERS — With the squad’s first official practice on Monday, Rob O’Chander, a longtime Eagles’ coach and 2004 alumnus of St. John’s Prep, officially became the new head coach of the cross country program.
The Malden resident, 37, becomes only the third coach to lead the program since 1975. He also follows an icon. Retired head coach John Boyle, a longtime chemistry teacher at the Prep, was inducted into the Massachusetts State Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2020.
“One benefit is, this will be my 16th year coaching here and I’ve coached with both of the guys who preceded me (including Ray Carey ’67, who donated the school’s current fieldhouse along with his wife, Diane),” says O’Chander, a native of Billerica and an English teacher at St. John’s. “I’ve certainly learned a lot from them as well as from [10th-year head track coach] Zach Lankow ’07. I have a lot of material and philosophies that I can draw upon. We’ve also had a lot of success in the past few years and over the past three decades in cross country, so there’s not a whole lot to do differently. At the same time, coaching is always evolving, and I want to adapt with the sport.”
Success has indeed been a hallmark of Prep cross country in recent memory. The program has won five All-State team titles since 1991—only Gloucester High has won more—including crowns in 2018 and 2021. O’Chander was a senior on the team that won the state championship in the fall of 2003. The school has won six overall.
“He surely has big shoes to fill, but we’re more than confident Rob is up to the task,” said St. John’s Prep Athletic Director Jameson Pelkey, a Groveland resident now in his fifth year in charge. “He coached all three seasons of running here for a decade before focusing on cross country. He’s a thoughtful leader with a very intentional approach, which are traits the sport lends itself to. Championships don’t come easy, but we’re hopeful our great distance-running tradition here won’t skip a beat.”
O’Chander is keenly attuned to the fact that his team can’t rely solely on the top-flight talent that the program has featured the last 10 years. The leadership of elite runners like 2017-18 Gatorade Cross Country Player of the Year Tristan Shelgren (Boxford), Reading’s Steven Jackson ’20 (who became the first Boston College runner in history to clock a sub-four-minute mile earlier this year), and Lynnfield’s Nathan Lopez, the 2022-23 Gatorade Boys Track & Field Player of the Year, has been central to St. John’s winning ways. But depth has allowed the Eagles to compete for hardware.
“In cross country, you need five guys to contribute,” O’Chander said. “We’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of depth, especially over the last 10 or 15 years. My first season coaching cross country here, we had five guys run under 17 minutes, and we had one guy run under 16 minutes at Franklin Park (3.1 miles). So, I do think we’ve had a bit of luck there. And, as we all know, success tends to breed success.”
Historically, the Eagles’ distance squads have been anything but top-heavy. Only three runners in program history—Shelgren, Lopez and Dan Foley ‘83—have qualified for the national championships as individuals. Meanwhile, in The Prep’s state title run two years ago, the top four Eagles finishers crossed the line in third, fourth, 39th and 41st at the All-State Meet, building an insurmountable lead. The 2018 championship team placed its top four finishers in fourth, 14th, 22nd and 35th.
O’Chander will be supported at the varsity level by Lankow, longtime assistant coach John Klein, and Alexandra Piatelli. That braintrust will benefit from some talented senior returnees, including Peabody’s Will Pechinsky, Marblehead’s Elliot Adams, Salem’s Nick Griffin and Tyler Navarro of Danvers, along with juniors Daniel Padley of South Hamilton and Joey Scherkenbach of Gloucester.
“I’m hoping I can balance all of the wonderful strategies my forebearers have used while continuing to learn about what works with today’s athletes and teams,” O’Chander said. “I do want to make my own footprint when it’s appropriate, so I’ll be figuring it out during my first year.”