It was a memorable year for Cal State Fullerton women’s cross-country, with the team winning its first conference championship in program history.
At the helm of it all was John Elders, the coach of the university’s cross-country, and track and field teams, and the Big West Women’s Cross Country Coach of the Year.
Elders competed for CSUF in cross-country, and track and field in 1984 after transferring from Santa Ana College. He would stay involved with the program after graduation, coming on as an assistant coach in 1985.
Elders was promoted to the head position in 1988, beginning a coaching tenure that has spanned several decades and seen hundreds of runners pass through.
For Elders, a conference championship is the proud culmination of a long journey.
“I came here in 1984 as a student-athlete and the program wasn’t funded very well. It was just something that immediately was a desire in my heart, to help contribute to winning a cross-country championship, and so to have that come to fruition is really special,” Elders said.
What also made the conference championship so satisfying for Elders was seeing the efforts of long-time runners, such as Samantha Huerta and Sandra Flores, be rewarded.
“I’m especially excited for the group of gals that did it. One of the things that is kind of cool about this is the freshman class from four years ago. They finished fourth their first year, third their second year, second their third and first their fourth year,” Elders said. “It just shows the progression of the foundation that those girls started.”
The conclusion of the 2019 season marked Elders’ 32nd season serving as head coach for the cross-country and track programs. However, the years have not dulled the coach’s enthusiasm and energy, which still match that of a newcomer.
“I typically get up about 5:15 in the morning, and that’s just my routine. You know the old saying: ‘Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,’” Elders said.
Elders’ fondness and passion for guiding his athletes has helped him avoid the burnout that can come from years of coaching.
“I get to work with young people, and that keeps me young and energetic,” Elders said. “To have the opportunity to mentor them and help them through the process, because it’s not easy being an 18 to 22 year old and all the different things you deal with. An opportunity to be a part of that is really awesome.”
The desire to help shape young people was inspired by Elders’ own experiences as a student-athlete.
“I think part of the psychology of John Elders, in terms of my passion for coaching, is I didn’t really do it the right way when I was 18 to 23 years old,” Elders said.
On the track, Elders is a tactician with a keen eye for crafting and managing his teams. It is a formula that has seen several championships and countless individual honors.
“He’s very structured. He knows what he wants to do. He’s just very meticulous on how to put together championship teams,” said Marques Barosso, associate head coach of the track and field program.
Perhaps just as important as Elders’ coaching on the track is his guidance off of it.
“If I’m going through something, he makes sure that he’s available and that I’m able to reach out to him,” said Huerta, the Big West Women’s Track Athlete of the Year.
Mixing on-field coaching with off-field counseling is a balance Elders has struck, and it forms a well-rounded development.
“He’s kind of been a mentor, helping me out in my personal life as well as in the track,” said Erick Juarez, a member of the cross-country, and outdoor track and field teams.
Beyond the detail-oriented coaching and mentoring, runners often get to see the humorous side of Elders.
“I love hearing his dad jokes. He always comes up to us and tells us the random joke, and you know, it really brings the team together,” Juarez said.
With the intense and fast-paced nature of cross-country, and track and field, Elders recognizes the need for moments of brevity.
“He says the same joke every Halloween. He thinks it’s funny every single time, and so being a senior, I’ve heard it like four times,” Huerta said.
All of it comes together for the cross-country, and track and field programs, which have recently achieved heights never before accomplished in their history.
Elders is quick to note the success of the cross-country, and track and field programs extends beyond his efforts.
“I’m such a small part of it, because there’s a lot of work being done for me and on behalf of me,” Elders said.
For the longest-tenured coach at CSUF, the latest achievement from women’s cross-country is one that many have had a hand in.
“Winning coaches awards or championships, it’s really all about them, and I just happen to be the guy that gets the title,” Elders said.