Jen McDowell always envisioned herself serving the Southern End community. She did not initially expect it would come in a coaching capacity.
"When I was in high school I never imagined I'd ever be a coach," said McDowell, a 1992 Solanco grad.
She was wrong.
Following a long career which included a stint as an assistant and head coaching positions with the Mules' junior high track and cross country teams, McDowell has earned the opportunity to take over Solanco's varsity track and field program.
"I thought it was a natural progression," McDowell said. "The Junior High program has gone from 32 kids to a successful program. I saw a need for change to the high school program and I have a coaching relationship with lots of the athletes already."
After graduating from Lock Haven and beginning her teaching career at Southampton Middle School in Harford County, Maryland, McDowell got a call from legendary Solanco coach Art Harrington, who was seeking an assistant for the jumping events.
Her ties to the Solanco community and the Mules' track and field program made the offer appealing. McDowell's brother was entering his senior year and her mother was still a member of the booster club.
One problem. McDowell had been a sprinter and hurdler in high school and had no experience with the jumping events.
"Coach Harrington handed me a bag of VHS tapes and told me to go learn," McDowell recalls. "That got me hooked."
Two years later, in 1997, McDowell became the head coach of Solanco's first Junior High team. She held that position for nine years before stepping down to spend more time with her young children. McDowell returned to coaching after being away for three years and has done it ever since.
She finds it rewarding and an ideal complement to teaching. "I like communicating with the kids outside of the classroom because it gives you the chance to make much more of an impact," said McDowell, who is in her 19th year teaching math at Smith Middle School. "The kids see you in a different light but they know my expectations of them are still really high."
Although McDowell's first teaching job came south of the Mason-Dixon line, there was never a doubt where she ultimately belonged. In addition to coaching the junior high cross country team, McDowell also plays a big role in organizing the annual Kevin Regan Memorial Run.
"I've always wanted to give back to the community," said McDowell, who was also a Mules' cheerleader and majorette in the band. "I never saw myself anywhere else."
Under McDowell's leadership, Solanco's junior high track program grew to 140 participants last year and has averaged 100 the last four seasons.
Rules do now permit junior high and high school athletes to compete against one another in practice, but McDowell plans to encourage members of the high school team to mentor the junior high athletes and build camaraderie.
She expects her athletes to be dedicated. "One of our big things this year is commitment," said McDowell. "In the last few years I think track has become kind of a secondary sport for some of these athletes, which I understand. At the same time, I don't think athletes realize the importance of track and field. If you want to get faster, if you want to get stronger, if you want to get quicker, track and field is going to get you there. The explosiveness out of the blocks, the explosiveness of throwing shot put, the explosiveness of jumping, the speed of running, and the endurance of the distance runs, you need that for all those other fall and winter sports that they do. There are numerous studies out there that show that. For me, it's showing the kids that this is something that's going to benefit you. If your number one sport is football, that's great, but I can get you even stronger. You're still going to be in the weight room. You're going to turn around and be faster off the line. You're going to be more explosive. I do get a lot of those athletes out. I'm even getting more out this year. The other coaches have been extremely supportive of that. I feel like if kids aren't out for softball or baseball, we will find something for them to do in track. The athletes need to realize they need to be well-rounded. I think there's still some of that mentality of, 'I have to do one sport year-round'. No. You don't."
The ultimate goal is the same as for any other Solanco sport – win.
"The commitment is something the assistants and I are really going to be working on and emphasizing," McDowell said. "This is just as important as when you are playing your fall and winter sport. I want to win section titles. I want to take a busload to districts and not just a vanload. I know there's a lot of talent coming up. My boys and girls teams at junior high last year, we finished second and fourth at the league meet at the end of the year. If we didn't have two boys that were injured, we would've won the league meet. So I know the talent's there."
McDowell promises to show the same commitment she demands from the team. "I've had numerous conversations with [former coach] Ivan Haines," said McDowell. "I've worked with him for multiple years. We've been coaching together since I started coaching cross country. He knew the changes, too. He basically said he knew it was time. The time and energy needed to put in changes into the program, he knew he didn't have and some of that connection with the school. I'm excited about it. I'm pumped up about it. I am also extremely excited about my coaching staff."
The Mules' varsity staff includes Solanco grad Pat Opinaldo, Alie Armstrong, Craig Ausel, and Scott Aspril.
Ethan Martin, who was an assistant to McDowell, takes over the junior high program. He will be helped by Solanco alums Kandi Sharp and Traci Kut as well as Laura Groves, who was a volunteer assistant last year.
Whitney Hawkins, a former thrower for the Mules and the school's current field hockey coach, will also help the teams a few days a week.