Writer Maureen Sollars
Photo above by Loralei Lazurek

[dropcap]D[/dropcap]iana DeReese is Gavilan Peak School’s cross-country coach and revered third grade teacher. This season, her young girls’ team won the district title. All of her teams competed in the Arizona State Middle School Cross-Country Championships, with three runners finishing in the top 50 and one in the top 25. It’s an amazing feat, considering these 41 budding young athletes trained for just nine short weeks.

DeReese has an innate ability to gently push her runners to reach their full potential. She has introduced her athletes to mental strategy, the importance of stretching, hydration, diet and so much more. She’s the full package, someone who provides the type of quality coaching one expects in high school or college, not middle school.

But it’s not a surprise that DeReese is coaching this age group. She started running while in middle school in Kirkland, Ohio, a suburb outside of Cleveland. She credits her start to her then-coach, Ken Raines. Her high school track coach further ignited her passion: Jim Pilewski personally invited her to join his team and introduced her to a coaching style she would one day adopt. DeReese competed in track and cross-country at Ohio Wesleyan University, and graduated with a bachelor’s in elementary education. She later earned a master’s in curriculum and reading instruction from Grand Canyon University.

Post-college, DeReese’s running career is as impressive as her academic pursuits. She has completed four marathons, including the iconic 100th anniversary Boston Marathon in 1996. She has also competed in triathlons of varying lengths, including the coveted Ironman distance (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run) not once, but twice in Florida and Arizona. She continues to run as a member of the Arizona Road Racers, and actively volunteers and competes in local running events.

DeReese met her husband (and best friend), Jeff, while living in San Antonio, Texas. They relocated to Arizona with the USAA so that Jeff could work at the new campus when it opened. They have two children: Julie, a fifth-grade student (named after Diana’s beloved sister), and Jeff, a second-grade student. Both kids conveniently attend Gavilan Peak.

Jeff, the youngest athlete on the team, has worked tirelessly to compete with the older athletes. He happily completed the challenge and is primed for next season. Julie had a remarkable season with a 6 minute, 21 second split-mile pace — she’s one to watch. She broke a course record mid-season, and was the only Gavilan Peak racer to finish in the top 25 at the state championship meet. Her confidence on the course makes your heart beat fast, and her humble demeanor off the course is inspiring.

DeReese’s dedication to her family is apparent. She visits her hometown with Jeff and the kids every summer to make new memories with their close-knit extended family. She also makes a point to visit with the kids (now grown) who she coached during her time there. While she experienced tragedy and heartbreak at a young age when her father passed, her foundational strengths (faith, family, friends and running) have been vital to her success in living a full and happy life.

DeReese was surrounded not only by talented young athletes this season, but also a dedicated support network: Gavilan Peak’s well-known and celebrated principal, Chad Segersten; assistant coaches, Nic Burger and Amie Fowler; athletic directors, Kim Cash and Kelley Newell; along with an abundance of supportive parents and Firebird fans.

Gavilan Peak cross-country student-athletes show amazing character, having learned it firsthand from Diana DeReese, a coach and mentor who truly goes the distance.