Former State College track coach dies

Former State College Area High School cross country and track and field coach Jackson Horner.
Former State College Area High School cross country and track and field coach Jackson Horner.

State College and central Pennsylvania have lost one well-respected, successful and dedicated coach.

Jackson Horner, who retired as State College High School’s track & field and cross country coach in 1993, died March 12 at his winter residence in Sarasota, Fla. His teams dominated both sports at the District 6 level and fared quite well in PIAA competition. He was inducted into the National Scholastic Coaches Hall of Fame in 1994 and a year later was inducted into the Pennsylvania Track & Field Coaches Association’s first Hall of Fame Class.

The Johnstown native lettered in both cross country and outdoor track at Penn State when Chic Werner coached the Nittany Lions.

Horner, who from early on had been committed to coaching at the high school level, replaced Yib Bolton, who also coached both State College programs in the mid 1950s.

What a career Horner established over 38 seasons as track & field coach and 37 years in cross country. Amazingly, in 28 track seasons and in 29 cross country seasons his teams were unbeaten in dual meets. His athletes combined for 12 individual state titles and his 1965 boys’ two-mile relay squad set a national record in the PIAA meet at Penn State.

The Little Lion boys’ cross country team won numerous district titles — both as a team and individuals — in qualifying for the PIAA championships. At the state level, State College captured five team titles — 1963, 1976, 1978 and 1986 at Penn State and 1984 at Lehigh University. Steve Gentry won the individual title in 1963 (10:36) and 1964 (10:25). Eric Holmboe (15:06) took the crown in 1976 and Gary Black (15:09) followed suit a year later.

State College’s outdoor individual gold medalists started with Ron Jenks in the high jump (6 feet, 4 inches) in 1962. Gentry took the mile crown (4:12.4) in 1965 at Penn State and Dave Felice won the mile (4:13.2) at Shippensburg University in 1976. Two years later, Black won the mile (4:12.38).

Hombloe was a double PIAA winner, winning the two-mile in 1976 (9:11.4) and 1977 (9:12.6). His winning time in 1976 is retired as a state record since the PIAA changed from yards to meters in 1979.

Drew Sanders won the 3,200 meters with a time of 9:19.67 in 1988.

Ron Dickerson won the PIAA triple jump in 1989 at Shippensburg with a distance of 48-10 1/4 to become the second Little Lion to win gold in a field event during the Horner regime.

Gentry, who also finished second in the 880 in 1965, later served as as an assistant coach for a number of years under Horner before moving over to coaching the school’s highly successful girls’ teams.

Gentry became part of history in 1965 in the 4x880 relay, an event that was good for Horner & Company over the years. Jim Dixon, Jerry Miller, Jack Walmer and Gentry held the national record for a very short period when they were clocked at 7:48.8.

“The 4x880 was considered to be an exhibition event in those days,” Gentry said. “But, because of the time we turned in, proper steps were taken and papers were filed with meet officials in order to qualify for national recognition. But it turned out our record didn’t last long because of the time-zone difference. That same day, however, Jim Ryun a standout runner from Kansas (and the first scholastic runner to break the 4-minute mile) helped his team top our 4x880 time.”

In 1969, the State College 4x880 team of Dick Fortman, Tim Herschberger, Steve McAlexander and Chris Klotz ran 7:52.2 to win PIAA gold in front of the home folks. Two years later, State College won with Bill Kvashay, Dave Batt, Steve White and Lincoln Gotts passing the baton (7:58.4). In 1985, Ken Frazier, Mike Clark, Chuck Eisenstein and Matt Colton turned in another gold-meal performance in the 4x800 meter relay in 7:48.77.

Ten years later with Horner in his second year of retirement, runners he helped train — Ezra Fritz, Sean Dixon, Jason Dixon and Greg Hettche — won another 3,200 meter relay title in 7:50.56.

As fate would have it just last May at Shippensburg, the Little Lions came through again in the event, winning with an impressive time of 7:41.99.

Rusty McCrae, who has led the Little Lions for four seasons, coached that gold-medal winner.

“I’ve heard lots of great things about Jackson Horner in my short time here,” said McCrae just a few days after his 4x800 indoor team placed third in the Pennsylvania Track & Field Coaches Association Championships at Penn State. “We have talked consistently about the tradition that this school has and wanting to get the program back into top form. The success of the middle distance program here though is primarily the outcome of my distance/middle distance coach Steve Shisler. He has done a great job elevating the success of the program in a very short time.”

Shisler, not a product of the State College relay pipeline to the Penn State track and field community, did exchange the baton with numerous ex-Little Lion runners (Chris Mills. Randy Moore and Bob Hudson), especially at the Penn Relays and Tenneseee Dogwood Relays. Hudson and Shisler were half of the team which broke 15 minutes to set an American record for 4x1,500, one year after Shisler, Mills and Moore ran a blistering 7:11.17 in the 4x800 at Franklin Field.

Horner was fortunate to have outstanding assistant coaches, including Tom Wallace, Phil Klaus, Bob Baumbach and Gentry along the way. Baumbach also served as State College’s head coach for a number of years. Felice is now the Little Lions’ cross country coach.

Gentry, who can’t believe 50 years have passed since his running days here, said part of Horner’s success was his dedication to the sport.

“He certainly was dedicated and he expected each runner to have the same dedication level,” Gentry said. “He never missed a practice. If you were a good athlete he wanted you to compete against the best. He’d take us to the Mansfield (Ohio) Relays. I know I ran in the famous New York Armory.

“I never competed in the William & Mary Relays, but he has taken some teams to Williamsburg. We’d also go to the Penn Relays. In 1965, we ran the distance medley relay at Franklin Field and finished second. He wanted us to get good competition.”

A graveside service will be held at Sarasota National Cemetery on March 26 at 10:30 a.m. A memorial service will be held at a later date in State College.