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They ran; they conquered 50 years ago

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

1969 Ward Melville cross country team. Front row (left to right) Craig Macdonald, John Hebert, John Brubaker, Ken Robinson. Top row: Coach Stephen Goodwin, John Regan, Steve Ivy, Jeff Davison, Joe Rees, Michael Hankes.
Ward Melville 1969 cross country team. Front row (left to right): Craig Macdonald, Russ Hebert, John Brubaker, Kenny Robinson. Back row: Coach Stephen Goodwin, John Regan, Steve Ivy, Jeff Davison, Joe Rees, Michael Hankes.

By Jim Irish

Fifty years ago, Craig Macdonald and John Regan, the top cross country runners for Ward Melville High School, had the right stuff.

With straight blond hair, Macdonald, the team captain, was clearly the team’s No. 1 runner. Born in Queens, New York City, he moved to East Setauket on Long Island with his family at two years old. He started running in middle school under the tutelage of Stephen Goodwin, a physical education teacher at North Country Elementary School and former collegiate cross country runner at SUNY Cortland.

“He was quiet, reserved, but not really shy,” Goodwin says about Macdonald. “He was easy to work with and, of course, very talented. He was looked up to by the other runners…”

Macdonald displayed promise early; he doesn’t remember losing a cross country race on the freshman team. By his senior year in 1969, he stood 5-foot-11, weighed 125 pounds, and was so thin that he was tagged with the nickname Spider by friends at college.

“Craig was the nicest of all of us, soft spoken and quietly confident,” teammate Steve Ivy says.

Regan transferred to Ward Melville from nearby Centereach for his sophomore year. The Regan family owned a funeral home, and he was required to work in the business as a teenager.

Regan, 5-foot-7 and muscular with wavy brown hair, was never at a loss for words.

“He was pretty loud, very talkative,” Macdonald remembers. “He was a risk taker in a way. He was a little bit on the wild side.”

Both Macdonald and Ivy recall an incident involving Regan testing the limits on a bus ride to Sunken Meadow State Park in Kings Park for a dual meet in 1969. In front of his home on Route 25A near the Stony Brook train station, Regan shouted to Goodwin, “Coach, wait, wait. You gotta stop the bus. I forgot my shorts.”

Regan returned with his gym bag in which he had stashed a bottle of Four Roses, Ivy says. On the return bus ride to school after the meet, he shared it with his teammates.

“He was not a quiet, laid-back individual by any means,” Goodwin says about Regan.

Personalities aside, Macdonald and Regan were both passionate about cross country. Like yin and yang, they complemented each other. Macdonald was the most talented, but Regan was dogged in his pursuit of excellence.

“As a runner, (Regan) was an asset, very competitive and a hard worker,” Goodwin says.

Regan never suspected that his relatively carefree adolescence would change forever in a few years.

Obstacles at a new high school

Suffolk County’s population exploded 68 percent in the 1960s. Ward Melville, named after a philanthropist and founder of Thom McAn shoes, was a new high school with its first senior class graduating in 1969. The growth created challenges. Residents rejected the proposed Three Village school district budget in 1968. Under an austerity budget, the cross country team went without new uniforms.

"To make a point, Goodwin told us to dress ragtag to dual meets. We dressed in anything we wanted.... God, it was funny. You didn't need money to be a good cross country team."

-- Steve Ivy

“To make a point, Goodwin told us to dress ragtag to dual meets,” Ivy says. “We dressed in anything we wanted. He wanted us to look shitty. He was pissed about it. We had to wear green tops but not matching shorts. God, it was funny. You didn’t need money to be a good cross country team.”

In 1967, Ward Melville had won the Suffolk County cross country meet and advanced to the New York state meet in Buffalo with only sophomores and juniors. Considering their youth and inexperience, the fourth-place finish was astonishing. A year later, the team’s season stalled at the county meet on their home turf at Sunken Meadow, finishing a disappointing second behind Sayville. Only the winning team advanced to the state meet.

“Nobody ran well,” Macdonald recalls.

Not quite true. Macdonald ran well enough over the two-and-a-half-mile course to qualify for state as an individual. But he finished a lackluster 24th at state at Sunken Meadow.

“I ran really poor, and I loved that course,” Macdonald says. “I didn’t feel very good. I was always a team runner. I was by myself. I guess I was not motivated.”

The runners understood that they had to work to regain their mojo. And Goodwin was just the coach to exhort them forward. At the old high school, they had run a five- to seven-mile loop through Oldfield, up Old Town Road, a right to Hill Shopping Center, and around the Catholic church on Route 25A before returning. Behind the new high school in East Setauket in 1969, they ran the hot, dusty trail along the power lines.

Neither the old nor the new high school had a track. The team ran intervals along a yellow line spray painted on the grass around the school. Goodwin also liked hill work, but hills were not plentiful.

Goodwin has high expectations of his athletes

“He was soft spoken but pretty demanding,” Macdonald says about Goodwin. “He wasn’t a rah-rah coach. He was fairly calm.

“He knew what he was doing. We tapered a little bit (before races). He relied on running meets. A good meet is a good workout. If you don’t run a meet hard -- the whole race -- then it’s not going to do you much good.”

Ivy concurs with Macdonald about Goodwin’s taxing practices.

"... He would murder us early in the year. ...We ran 18 half miles. I almost passed out."

-- Steve Ivy, describing Stephen Goodwin

“We ran some really hard speed workouts,” he says. “He would murder us early in the year. I remember a workout junior year. We ran 18 half miles. I almost passed out.”

Ward Melville held its dual meets at Sunken Meadow, half an hour from the school. With a view of Long Island Sound from the crest, the Sunken Meadow course was both beautiful and challenging with a long wooden bridge at the half-mile mark, followed by hills, steep Suicide Hill at the mile, and a flat half mile to the finish line. To this day, it remains one of the top-rated high school courses in the Northeast.

On the bus ride to meets at Sunken Meadow, Goodwin wouldn’t allow his runners to talk.

“You need to think about your races and get keyed up for that,” Macdonald remembers Goodwin announcing. “Looking back, that’s pretty good strategy.”

Yet, Goodwin displayed a lighter side. Ivy says they weren’t required to call him Mr. Goodwin. They gave him the nickname Chico.

“You could joke with him,” Ivy remembers. “You felt like he was more your generation, an older version.”

Goodwin invited his runners to his home and introduced them to eclectic music. Ivy says Pink Floyd’s song “Careful With that Axe, Eugene” stood out.

Goodwin didn’t emphasize a summer running schedule. He left it up to the discretion of the runners. The summer before the 1969 season, Macdonald says that he ran only between 20 and 25 miles a week. Instead, he spent almost every day on the water in his 14-foot runabout with a 40-horsepower Evinrude engine.

“I was never big on summer running; I just enjoyed the summer,” Macdonald says.

The summer of 1969 makes history

Two historical events that summer -- Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon on July 20 and the Woodstock Festival, attracting an estimated 400,000 young music fans only a few hours away in Bethel, N.Y., on August 15-18 -- dominated the news. Macdonald recalls watching the “memorable” moon walk with his family on television but not paying attention to Woodstock.

On Goodwin’s recommendation, the entire team attended the week-long Blue Mountain Cross Country Camp in the Pocono Mountains in Poyntelle, Pa., in August. It apparently was a bonding experience for the team. Ivy says the daily routine consisted of an easy run in the morning and speed work in the afternoon. Macdonald says they ran five to eight miles on trails each day.

“That camp probably helped a lot,” Macdonald says. “You had a lot of good runners up there.”

John Regan competes at Sunken Meadow in 1969

Macdonald remembers one coach at the camp criticizing him for running with his hands brushing across his chest.

“Quit running like that; you’re titty scratching,” the coach barked at Macdonald.

At the dawn of the 1969 season, Ward Melville had reason for optimism. In addition to Macdonald, Ivy, and Regan, seniors Jeff Davison and Michael Hankes returned. Joe Rees, a junior, and Kenny Robinson, a sophomore, were newcomers.

“I think we were pretty excited, everyone back plus some younger runners coming in,” Macdonald says.

In that era, cross country teams competed in dual meets before shifting to the championship races. Ward Melville won all eight of its dual meets to stretch its unbeaten streak to 28 over three years. Macdonald missed one of the dual meets because he ran alone and won the NYU meet at Van Cortlandt Park in New York City, considered the mecca for cross country events. He went two-for-two at Van Cortlandt that season, also winning the St. John’s University meet.

Macdonald recalls with humor the first dual meet against Patchoque at the ski slope at Bald Hill, one of the highest elevations on Long Island at 331 feet.

“When we got off the bus, (Patchoque runners) were chanting,” Macdonald says. “We just kinda ignored it. It was an up-and-down course. We ended up taking the first seven places. We smeared them.”

Macdonald is almost unbeatable

Macdonald captured first place in 12 of 13 meets that season, but the only one he lost -- the Hauppauge Invitational at Sunken Meadow -- is seared in his memory. He was first to the wooden bridge at a half mile.

“I remember flashing the victory sign…,” Macdonald says. “I still had two miles to go. I went out way too hard.”

Bellport’s star runner, Justin Gubbins, sped by a breathless Macdonald in the final 100 yards to win.

"I hyperventilated, couldn't open my eyes. It was embarrassing. ..."

-- Craig Macdonald

“I hyperventilated, couldn’t open my eyes,” says Macdonald, who hung on for second. “It was embarrassing. I was a jerk. Don’t get overconfident.”

After the dual meets, Ward Melville won its third consecutive League 11 title, easily beating Sachem at Sunken Meadow. Macdonald won the individual title in 12 minutes, 49 seconds.

The Suffolk County meet was far more competitive. Port Jefferson had knocked Ward Melville off its pedestal at the Hauppauge Invitational earlier that season.

Ivy’s father ran up to him not long after the finish and said he had counted the runners as they crossed.

“You won,” he exclaimed to Ivy.

He was right. Ward Melville prevailed with 57 points to Port Jeff’s 66.

“The hardest meet we had was the county,” Ivy says. “Port Jeff was really good that year.”

Macdonald ran even faster at Sunken Meadow at the county meet, covering the course in 12:35.3. Davison finished seventh in 13:17, followed by Ivy, 15th in 13:40; Robinson, 16th in 13:42; and Regan, 18th in about 13:45.

Davison had surpassed Regan and become the team’s No. 2 runner that season.

“(Regan) was way less consistent by then,” Ivy says. “Jeff was a better runner. John was really our No. 3 guy most of the year.”

Nine days later, Ward Melville arrived for the public school Class B state meet on the campus of SUNY at Albany. Ivy remembers the team jogging the course on Friday and later watching Liza Minnelli star in the “Sterile Cuckoo” at a movie theater to take their minds off the race.

Compared to Sunken Meadow and Van Cortlandt Park, the Albany course, mostly on grass, was “very flat and nondescript,” Ivy says. “It’s pretty boring running around campus.”

With almost a photographic memory, Ivy recalls the weather on Saturday, Nov. 8, 1969, as “overcast, 50 degrees, not a lot of wind. It was a very comfortable day to run.”

Macdonald expected competition from Gubbins, who had finished third at state the previous year, Carey’s Conrad Zink, Wantagh’s Dan O’Connor, and Sayville’s David Jackson.

“Usually, my strategy was to try to get away from people as fast as I could,” Macdonald says. “At the state meet, I knew it would be hard to run away. Gubbins was there.”

The thrill of victory

The gun sounded. As expected, Macdonald ran in the lead pack and remained there on the fast course. He, Spencerport’s Bill Robinson, and Gubbins eventually pulled away.

Near the finish line, Gubbins dropped off slightly. Macdonald and Robinson dueled down the stretch, with Macdonald winning by a mere half of a second in 12:17.4. Robinson was timed in 12:18. Gubbins was third in 12:25. Zink, who became an elite half-miler at Georgetown, grabbed fifth in 13:35.

“I outsprinted him the last couple of hundred yards,” Macdonald says about Robinson. “I knew he was close. My kick was pretty good.”

Ivy wasn’t surprised that Macdonald claimed the individual title.

"Deep down, he was an absolute killer during races.... If he was anywhere near the lead, it was all over."

-- Steve Ivy, describing Craig Macdonald

“Deep down, he was an absolute killer during races,” Ivy says. “...If he was anywhere near the lead, it was all over. He would just run guys down.”

Regan, however, shocked everyone, charging to 12th place in 12:46 and finishing as Ward Melville’s No. 2 runner.

“John ran out of his ass,” Ivy says. “His 12th-place finish was only a surprise because he had run so poorly in the county meet. We all knew he was a great runner.”

Counting in the team scoring for Ward Melville were Davison, 40th in 13:13; Ivy, 50th in 13:19; and Kenny Robinson, 60th in 13:26. Rees and Hankes were 83rd and 102nd, respectively, in 13:38 and 13:58.

Ivy says he was just barely over five minutes at the mile, which was “way too fast. I paid the price. I completely folded the final half mile.”

In the days before digital technology, race results took longer to tabulate. When they were announced, Ward Melville won the team title with 164 points, 30 points ahead of Wantagh.

“We were going crazy,” Macdonald says. “We were elated.”

Ivy had predicted the result: “It wasn’t cocky or overconfident. We had proven it during the year. We had buried all of them in earlier meets.”

Goodwin felt a combination of “elation and relief.”

Ward Melville’s state cross country title, conceived by a knowledgeable coach and achieved by a group of resolute athletes in 1969, was the first in any sport at the high school and remains the only one in cross country.

Fifty years later

After graduation, the runners went their separate ways.

Macdonald appeared in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” in December, a month after capturing the state title. He was planning to run in college at Kent State University but struggled with the decision after the shooting deaths of four students protesting the Vietnam War on campus by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970.

Almost at the same time, Macdonald received a recruiting letter from the track and cross country coach at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The coach had seen Macdonald’s photo in Sports Illustrated. Macdonald changed his decision. At Bowling Green, he grew two more inches and enjoyed a stellar career, lowering his time in the mile from 4:29 in high school to 4:04. He also achieved All-American status twice in cross country, finishing 12th in the Division I NCAA meet in 1972. As far as anyone knows, Macdonald was the only member of the Ward Melville team to compete in college.

Inducted into the Bowling Green Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000, he coached cross country and track at two high schools in Fairborn, Ohio, for 35 years. He is retired in Gulf Shores, Ala., and volunteers as a high school cross country coach.

Goodwin, 79, coached cross country for 30 years in the Three Village school district and is retired in Jupiter, Fla.

Ivy worked for Hewlett-Packard for 23 years, retiring in 2003 as a product marketing manager. He lives in Fort Collins, Colo., is an avid golfer, and writes a fan blog for the Colorado State University men’s basketball team.

Regan enlisted in the Army in October of 1970 before completing high school. He was deployed to Vietnam as an E-4 in the 82nd Airborne Division and worked with the 26th Engineers in mine-sweeping operations near the U.S. military base on the central coast at Chu Lai. During a patrol on March 8, 1972, he stepped on an enemy mine that exploded. He lost his right leg and was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Regan’s son, Michael, says his father struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite his physical handicap, Regan sailed, surfed, and golfed. After becoming a Christian, he served as a pastor at non-denominational churches in northeast Florida. He died of lung cancer at age 59 on Dec. 23, 2010 in St. Augustine, Fla.

Jim Irish is a freelance writer living near Austin, Texas. He is a 1970 graduate of Ward Melville.

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