Hunter Russell has been coaching cross country on the Lufkin High School campus for only three months and already has his team heading to state this weekend. This will be the first time since 1995 that the Panthers have headed to state competition in cross country and only the second time in school history.

Although this summer is the first time Coach Russell stepped onto the campus as a cross country coach, he is very familiar with the Panther Way since he was born and raised right here in Lufkin, Texas. He even met his future wife, Kirstie, in sixth grade in Ms. Young’s class. Even though he says she broke his heart after only “dating” for a couple of months.

He said, “In 7th grade, I didn’t make the track team. In 8th grade I tried cross country. I wasn’t big enough to play football, so I played baseball mainly on select teams. Then in high school I found running. I started doing cross country and track. My fastest mile was a 4.20 and 15.30 in the 5K.”

Still to this day, the mile competition is his favorite.

Some of the coaches who were at Lufkin High School when he left are still there today. One of which was Girls Athletic Director Jerri Kay Boyd who had a big impact on his life.

He said, “She was my coach, now my boss, and I’m the coach, which is funny.”

Before leaving Lufkin High School and heading off to college, he told Coach Boyd that if Coach Stover (the head cross country coach) ever left, to give him a call. He’s not sure if she remembers that conversation or not, but it was very meaningful to him. That’s why when Coach Boyd called him last summer to see if he was interested in the position as head cross country coach, he knew he was keeping a commitment. Coach Russell was on his way to an athletic event competition in Virginia when Coach Boyd called about the position.

“She had kept in touch with me over the years. I could tell by her voice on the phone that something was up. She said that Coach Stover was leaving and would love for me to be a part of the program. I had three days to decide. I left on Wednesday, came back on Friday and had until Sunday to decide. I did horrible on that race. I came in 22nd,” he said.

At the time, Coach Russell had a dream job. He was working at Comal Active in San Antonio. He and a friend started sports performance programs and worked with five different schools with 300 to 400 students. At this time, he had clients who would pay extra for his services, so he was in a good place.

Coach Russell said, “I had the best job ever. I went to work when I wanted. I was salary. I took as many vacations as I wanted, trained whomever I wanted to train. At that point, I had to give up that job to come here. The biggest reason I came back is because of Coach Boyd and Coach Stover. They are my biggest role models as far as coaches and as good human beings. They affected me as a young person, and I want to do the same for young athletes as well.”

That is exactly what Coach Russell is doing for Lufkin ISD students. He went on to describe running and the caliber of students we have that will be in the state competition on Saturday.

He said, “Any sport is mental. You have to be intrinsically motivated, if you want to be good. If you’re going to be a runner, you have to learn to hurt. No one really enjoys running. People like to be successful. You know, running is used for punishments for most sports. To be a good runner you have to push the envelope every day. These students I have are the biggest mental giants on the campus. If you put them through a boot camp or some competition, I would take my kids over any others any day. They know how to push each other.”

Even though Coach Russell never made it to state himself in a running competition, he did make it to regionals and travelled to state to watch a teammate run.

He said, “It’s amazing in that I never got to go to state. I went my Freshman year to watch Rich Warner run in cross country. It’s the same course in Round Rock – Settlers Park. As a coach, I’m more excited in sharing this moment with twelve other kids. I tell them this sport could change your life. You are the writer of your own destiny, and you are 100% in charge of your life. How bad do you want it?”

Coach Russell wakes up every day between 5 and 6 a.m. in time for a 6:30 a.m. practice with the girls cross country team. The boys begin their practice at 7:30 a.m. He and his assistant, Ashley Dominguez, work the students two days on a hard workout, two days on strength workouts, and during the season day five is used for mileage and stride.

He said, “On days they need to be pushed, I run with them. On days we work intervals or specific pace, I coach. I make sure they’re on task.”

His coaching style comes from a mix of all of his experiences as a student athlete, college athlete, professional runner, and sports performance trainer. He graduated from Lufkin in 2008 and went for two years to the University of Louisiana Monroe on a running scholarship.

“I ran and had a scholarship. I noticed the team and coaching staff didn’t have running as their top priority but college life. I wasn’t living up to my full potential. I knew SFA had a great program and coach and went there without a scholarship. I wanted to invest in myself and my future,” he said.

During college he caught the eye of past head cross country coach from the Woodlands who was working for Adidas. He asked Coach Russell to run professionally. During that time he was losing love for the sport.

He said, “He sought me out at SFA because I beat his teammates that were All American. It wasn’t for the love of the sport. It was a job. Plus, it didn’t pay much, it was a stipend and free Adidas clothes. I still had to have a second and third job.”

After he worked for Adidas for a year and half, he quit running altogether. It was also during this time that he was diagnosed with a heart condition.

“It would happen during a hard workout when my heart would be pumping 180 and then it would crash to 120 not pumping proper oxygen to my body. At the time, the doctor told me I needed surgery or to not have any sports activities. I didn’t want to have surgery, I was only 24 so I stopped running for awhile,” he said.

But that didn’t stop Coach Russell. He decided to get back into the sports that he loved and began training athletes on sports performance training.

He said, “I could die at any minute. Would you rather die doing something you love like climbing a mountain or would you rather die sitting on your couch?”

“I worked in cross fitness at Southlake doing sports performance with athletes like professional baseball player Josh Hamilton, Austin Jackson from Detroit Tigers, LaDainian Thomlinson, DeMarcus Ware to name a few,” he said.

He did that for five or six years until he went to San Antonio to work in medical sales. It was during the time that he was in Dallas that he met back up with his 6th grade crush, Kirstie.

He said, “We didn’t talk during college. She went to Texas State, I went off and did my running thing. I was in Dallas and she was in Oklahoma City. She was passing through on a whim and called and said ‘hey would you like to get breakfast?’ We dated ever since and got married in February.”

Kirstie also works at Lufkin High School as the head cheerleading coach and teaches Math Models. Both sets of their family live here and actually live only a mile from each other. Kirstie and Coach Russell both enjoy competing in high intensity running and obstacle course competitions, as well as hiking and mountain climbing.

It’s always a mystery what runners think about when they’re competing.

Coach Russell said, “I’ve been asked that question a lot. You think about a lot of things and then afterwards you forget it all. When racing, it’s a different story. You’re thinking about tactics. How to get out in front, good kick, strategies, knowing your opponent, pick apart your opponents, when to pick up the pace, sit behind some, try not to get boxed in, taking tactical cues. Every step you’re making decisions.”

Being such a young first-time coach, Coach Russell has personal plans for himself. For fun he competes in Obstacle Course Racing where he’s even won some of the races. He’s certainly not done with what all he wants to accomplish.

He said, “I love sports in general. The biggest thing is that before I die, I want to see how good of an athlete I can be. I want to get the best ability out of myself, every ounce of athletic ability.”

It’s that inspiration and motivation that will enable our students to do their very best and perform at a higher level. Thanks, Coach Russell, for setting the bar high your first year at Lufkin High School.