Eastern Mennonite University has announced Bob Hepler as the head coach for cross country and track & field.
Hepler will start in Harrisonburg early this summer, upon completion of his 14th season in a similar role at the University of Texas at Tyler.
After a very successful tenure at UT-Tyler, Hepler was excited to step into the recent era of growth at EMU.
“I am impressed with EMU’s commitment to cross country and track & field,” Hepler said. “I will get to put together a quality staff and see the development of first class facilities. On top of that, the leadership at EMU have a strong desire to see me become an important part of the EMU community. That means that I’ll have the opportunity to impact students away from the sport. That opens up so many unknown possibilities. That’s very exciting to me. I can’t wait to get started.”
Under Hepler, UT-Tyler cross country and track & field teams have won 22 conference titles, including the men’s cross country team taking 12 of the past 13 American Southwest Conference Championships. He started the Patriots’ track & field program in 2008, accounting for six of his ASC titles. Over the past four years, his program has produced All-Americans in 14 events, including four individual champions.
Director of Athletics Dave King said Eastern Mennonite is very fortunate to have found someone with the breadth of experience that Hepler brings with him.
“This is truly an exciting time for our cross country and track & field program,” explained King. “Bob is the perfect fit for EMU and the right person to lead the growth of our running program. He understands EMU and his values and philosophy align well with the university.”
Hepler said that seeing the potential of EMU’s cross country and track & field program, as well as the quality and philosophy of the university as a whole, was vital for him to even entertain leaving UT-Tyler.
“EMU would have to be truly amazing to take me away from a school and people I cherish,” he said. “After meeting with key staff and faculty, and especially after meeting with members of the cross country and track & field program, I recognized the unusually deep affection that the people have for EMU. I concluded that EMU will challenge me and make me grow.”
The ability to focus solely on coaching drew in Hepler, who is also the director of UT-Tyler’s large recreational sports program and facility.
“I am so excited to see how good of a coach that I can become,” he explained. “At EMU, that means so much more than just winning and developing athletes. I get to play a key role in developing students’ desires to serve God and others. Working at EMU will be fulfilling and fun. How could I possibly run away from an opportunity like that?”
With Hepler finishing out the track & field season with the D-III Patriots, EMU has hired Ken L. Nafziger as the interim track and field coach.
As part of the interim hire, the five current assistant coaches will increase their responsibilities to cover the positional coaching of the student-athletes.
Jeremy Heizer is the most tenured of the five assistants, in his second season as the throwing coach. Joanna Friesen will focus on the distance runners after also assisting the cross country teams this fall.
Michael Allen will coach the jumpers, Richard Robinson the hurdles, and recent Broadway star Tim Miller the pole vaulters.
“While interim coaching arrangements are challenging, I can’t say enough about the assistant coaches who agreed to increase their time and Ken for his willingness to provide leadership this season and prepare for Bob coming this summer,” King said. “Ken’s past coaching experiences, his familiarity with EMU and his passion for EMU track & field make him a good fit to bridge the gap between changes of the past year and the stability of a new coaching staff.”
Nafziger, who had been EMU’s Vice President for Student Life for 14 years before leaving recently to pursue opportunities as a psychologist, has seven years of experience as a high school cross country and track & field coach, coaching at Broadway (Va.) High School as well as Mandera Government Boy’s Secondary School in Kenya.
“I appreciate this opportunity to coach track & field at EMU,” commented Nafziger. “Having met Bob, I can wholeheartedly prepare the current athletes and recruit new ones who will benefit from such an accomplished and caring coach.”
Heizer, a 2016 alum who went to Nationals in the shot put, was excited to take another step in his coaching career.
“It means a lot that I will get to connect to younger athletes and share experiences I’ve been through (as well as) what they go through,” he explained.
Hepler’s coaching philosophy fits well with EMU’s goal to do more than just produce good athletes.
“I always tell my athletes that they should put three things in front of their commitment to the sport: 1. Serving God and Others – because that’s why we are on this planet; 2. Love of Family – while you don’t get to miss a practice to go home for Aunt Betsy’s birthday, honoring your family through your actions and words reflects who you are at your core; 3. School – students are at EMU to get an education. Additionally, students and their families are making financial sacrifices to pay for this education so study habits must be strong. School is always more important than the sport.”
Jim Smucker, Vice President for Enrollment & Student Life, thought Hepler’s commitment and success with the well-rounded NCAA D-III philosophy made him stand out among the pool of candidates.
“I believe Bob is an outstanding match not only for our cross country and track & field program but for the larger EMU community,” said Smucker. “He resonates deeply with our mission and values. Bob brings a track record of holistic student development including player excellence on the field, in the classroom, and in community service.”
Before his time at UT-Tyler, Hepler served as the athletic director at the University of Maine at Machias. He also had a background in student life.
Eastern Mennonite will next turn their attention to the hiring of an associate track & field coach.
EMU’s track & field teams pick up the indoor season in earnest at the Finn Pincus Invitational hosted by Roanoke College on Jan. 26 and 27.