Cross-country coach returns to hometown in Washington for meet

By Christopher Kennedy

Jake Stewart is returning home. Born and raised in Kelso, Washington, he grew up as much at his home as he did at Tam O’Shara Park, where the Kelso High School Hilanders’ cross-country course lies. He spent hours on long bus rides through the Cascades to the Washington State Meet and on runs after dark through wintry Kelso with a flashlight in hand. 

Jake was raised on the sport of cross-country. Today, he’s the head coach for the Illini men’s cross-country team. He’s been on the path to be a coach his entire life. This weekend, Jake returns to Kelso, coaching his team against the No. 7 Portland Flyers.

Kelso is an old lumber town on the banks of the Cowlitz River, 30 miles from Mount St. Helens. 

“It was a place where you grew up and you worked hard,” Jake said. “It’s an industrial-driven town, it’s a lumber town.”

The man who was able to take the town’s hard-working culture and turn it into cross-country success was Jake’s father, Joe Stewart.

“It wasn’t a running town. Kids started running because my dad got them out and he developed them,” Jake said.

Joe is a legend in Kelso. He coached the Kelso High’s cross-country and track teams for 30 years. He’s a Washington high school hall of fame coach for both sports. His record speaks for itself: He holds a dual meet record of 339-15, and 60 of his runners went on to run in college. Joe has been in Kelso forever. Jake says his parents’ current home, the same one he grew up in, is less than a mile from where Joe grew up.

“Suburbia is where so many great runners and athletes come from, but this is not a suburban town,” Joe said. “It’s amazing, really, what has occurred here.”

Out of all the great runners who have come through Joe’s program at Kelso, he’s most proud of Jake.

“Any memory at this point in my life that I can remember, I’m associated with the team,” Jake said.

Jake was around the team his whole life. Since he was 3 years old, Joe said that Jake would make the trip with the team across the mountains to the state cross-country meet. The Stewart home in Washington features a picture of a young Jake at the state meet wearing his Kelso stocking cap.  

“I was never forced to go on these trips or do anything like that, but I wanted to,” Jake said. “I wanted to be a part of it.”

After a childhood of riding the bus with the team, holding the finishing string and handing out place cards at meets, Jake finally got an opportunity to run for his dad in cross-country and track from 1997-2001.

“My last race was probably one of the saddest experiences of my life,” Jake said. “I loved running for Kelso, I loved representing Kelso and running for my dad.”

There were times in high school where Joe said that Jake willed the team onward. 

“I just felt like he put so much into it. The other guys put a lot into it, but Jake grew up with it,” Joe said.  

One of Jake’s final home meets at Kelso was a district championship his senior year against that same Battle Ground team that had beaten them the year before. He laid it all on the line, finishing as the Hilander’s fifth man and outkicking Battle Ground’s five to tie the meet. Kelso’s sixth man beat Battle Ground’s sixth and Jake went out with a win at home.

Joe recalled Jake’s team his senior year as “mediocre,” with Jake the driving force behind it.

“It was his will that got us to the state meet that year,” Joe said.

With that will came absolute dedication to the sport he had been surrounded by his whole life. Jake also played basketball in high school, but he didn’t let it get in the way of his running.

“They played basketball games on Friday night,” Joe said. “He would get done, he’d take off his basketball suit and then go run on the dike in the dark. That’s the only time he could fit that in.”

The qualities Jake displayed in high school confirmed what Joe had thought ever since Jake was young.

“He was destined to coach,” Joe said. 

Jake knew he wanted to coach. He said he never felt extra pressure from being the son of such a successful one. On the contrary, Joe thinks Jake has already surpassed him as a coach.

“I think he’s actually a much better coach than I was,” Joe said. “He has the right temperament for it, he’s very patient.”

And another Stewart is starting on the same path. Griffin Joseph Stewart will be 10 months old next week. Jake says he’s already out at practices and known by all the Illini runners. 

“You just know that’s going to happen, he’s going to be on the bus with him,” Joe said. 

Thirteen years after graduating from Kelso and leaving his father’s program behind, Stewart will be back on the course where he grew up. The dual meet with Portland will also be the first event held at Kelso’s newly resurfaced Joe Stewart Track. 

It will be special for all the Stewarts, especially as Joe said he’s never had the chance to see Jake coach. Last year, he and his wife attempted to make a road trip to see Jake in Illinois, but their trip was prematurely ended by heavy snow.

Now they will get a chance to see Jake’s runners compete. He’s made it as a Division I coach at Illinois and is ready to return to the town and the course where he was raised.

“I’m sure there will be parts of it that will be unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” Jake said. “For our family, and for a family that appreciates the sport as much as we do, it’ll be a really neat thing.”

Chris can be reached at [email protected]