Bad luck resulted in injuries. Injuries resulted in a small roster shrinking dangerously slim. But when things could have hurriedly gone south, a southerner rose to keep Ignacio High School’s second-year reborn girls cross-country program afloat and on course toward Colorado Springs and the 2019 CHSAA Class 2A State Cross-Country Championships.
With just two runners remaining at season’s end but both qualifying for the grand finale, Alabama-raised Daniel Holley was a unanimous choice for San Juan Basin League Coach of the Year.
“After the conference meet, all the coaches gathered and just looked at the data, looked at who had the most all-conference runners – and I had two of the five,” Holley recalled at the team’s awards banquet. “It almost felt undeserved. You know, it’s my first year, and I’m still working out the kinks, still learning how to create a schedule, how to schedule a bus to take us, when should my kids run, what time of the day should my kids run, all those things about running.”
Such humility was bred in humidity. Born in Macon, Georgia, Holley’s apparent westward life path also had early stops in Tennessee and Mississippi before his family settled in Alabama in Bay Minette. He hit his own running stride at Baldwin County High School.
After attending nearby Faulkner State Community College – now Coastal Alabama – Holley’s still-developing knack for long-range loping took him to the University of Mobile, where as a senior in 2014, he’d help the Rams rank seventh at the Southern States Athletic Conference Championships.
He’d go on to conclude his two-year Ram stint a two-time Daktronics NAIA Scholar-Athlete, and also earn All-Academic SSAC status in 2014.
Entering the world of academia – he currently teaches third grade at Ignacio Elementary – Holley found out helming a squad wasn’t as easy as his own mentors made it seem.
“It was almost like I had to create a little disconnect from that college-running aspect to high school,” he said. “In college, you live, breathe, eat and sleep running. You’re almost like a paid athlete at that point. In high school, you’re still learning to develop ... almost learning to fall in love with the run versus where you’re just learning to beat yourself up every day until you get faster. Athletic ability creates a different situation there.
“I just took away the aspect of, ‘You’ve got to live like a clock – same thing, same time every day. My girls just bought in to a system that I created, and it worked out. It was really cool to see that success pay off.”
Having first shown talent under Marissa Duffey, who was tasked with restarting the long-dormant sport at IHS in 2018, sophomore Avaleena Nanaeto earned herself All-SJBL status and a second state trip in 2019 under Holley.
“It was a pleasure working with Avi,” he said. “She completed every single meet, came to every single event we had, and she came to almost every single practice. She only missed one for getting braces, you can’t knock her for that.”
By season’s end, first-year sophomore D’Vondra Garcia had gradually chopped an estimated 10 minutes off her first race time at Dolores’ inaugural Boggy Draw Bear Chase but was a late-season casualty unable to compete at the 2A-Region IV Championships in Delta.
“She wasn’t able to complete the season, but for her efforts, she’s getting her first letter from Ignacio, her first letter for athletic abilities and also her first cross-country pin to go with that,” Holley stated to all attending Wednesday’s dinner. “It’s a huge accomplishment, something that she put a lot of time and effort into.”
Crew members in 2018 Vanessa Gonzales and Jayden Brunson elected to pursue volleyball. Brunson received Ignacio’s JV Most Valuable Player, and first-year sophomore Lexy Young also shifted from off-road to hardwood after recovering from a knee injury.
An early-season foot problem also claimed senior Brianna Henderson, another 2018 runner, shortly after the Chase, leaving Holley with only Charlize Valdez to pair with Nanaeto for the postseason push.
But the first-year junior, already known for exploits in basketball plus track and field, proved a fast study from Day 1 in August and emerged as the leading Bobcat victorious at the Chase, later runner-up at the regional (Nanaeto placed 14th), clinching SJBL Girls’ Runner of the Year distinction, then ultimately 26th at state (Nanaeto finished 52nd).
“She had some interest in it after track,” Holley recalled. “So, I told her it would help her with endurance and all sorts of things she participates in. So, we got her to come run, and because of her work in the classroom – which is a really big deal – she’s earned Academic All-State First Team. I really appreciate that as a coach; I don’t have to worry about checking grades.
“And I’d like to give a huge shout-out to the parents and everyone that’s been involved. All those early mornings and crazy afternoons, dealing with summer weather up to the fall cold snaps, we couldn’t have done it without you. I look forward to next season.”