When it comes to building a distance-running powerhouse, there may not be an architect in Snohomish County history with a better track record than Dan Parker.
Over the past 32 years, Parker has had a multitude of success coaching in the Snohomish School District between Snohomish and Glacier Peak high schools. Cross country and track and field teams led by Parker have combined for 11 state titles — nine in cross country and two in track and field — and numerous district and league championships.
Year in and year out, trips to the top of podium have become especially commonplace for his girls squads, which have accounted for all 11 of those team state titles.
“I tell people all the time I think he’s the best girls cross country coach in the history of Washington,” said longtime Jackson cross country and track and field coach Eric Hruschka, whose Timberwolves squads have had countless battles with Parker-led teams over the years in Wesco. “… At the end of the season, we always said, ‘If you’re running close to Dan Parker’s teams, you’re gonna have a shot at going to state.’”
Hruschka’s teams won’t have to worry about facing a Parker-led squad anymore. After a lengthy and impressive tenure, the decorated distance-running coach is calling it a career.
“I never really set out to be as successful as we were,” Parker said. “My goal probably in the beginning of coaching was probably to be just successful enough that other coaches as I got older would ask me how I did it. You know, what I was doing to have my runners be successful. That did happen in the end. That was gratifying.”
When Parker, a 1970 Snohomish graduate, took up distance running, there was no middle school cross country team in Snohomish.
Instead, Parker and others his age interested in the sport would get the opportunity to run with the high school team coached by Washington State Coaches Association Cross Country Hall of Fame member Keith Gilbertson Sr.
By the time Parker made it to high school, Gilbertson had moved to the football program. The new cross county coach was Larry Eason, who would also go on to join Gilbertson as a Hall of Fame member.
Between his time around two legendary leaders, Parker was able to pick up some coaching philosophies that would help shape his future career.
Parker said he and his teammates would “run 100 miles a week sometimes” under the guidance of Eason, a proponent of long, slow distance running.
That training technique didn’t necessarily stick with Parker as a coach. But the interval-mile training Eason implemented was one that stuck with Parker.
“We’d run five interval miles back-to-back,” Parker said. “You’d have 3 or 4 minutes to rest, and he would cut the amount of rest down throughout the season. So it would get tougher and tougher.”
Parker called Gilbertson “the father of cross country.”
“I knew Keith Gilbertson Sr. really well,” Parker said. “When I was coaching, I would go over and talk to him. He only lived two doors away from Snohomish High School. So I got a lot of ideas from him as well.
“… One of the things he taught me is that you coach the people that are there. You don’t worry about who’s not there, which was kind of big. If you’re always spending your time (worrying) about who’s not showing up for practice, it’s a hassle.”
When Parker got his start in coaching, it was Eason who opened the door for him, bringing in his former runner as the distance-running coach for the Snohomish track and field team.
After Eason passed in 1987 from a brain tumor, the cross country coaching job opened up. Parker wasn’t the first in line for the job, though. It was given to another former runner of Eason’s that taught at the school. After two weeks, he left the job and Parker took over.
“When I first took the job, it was a challenge,” Parker said. “By that time, the team had deteriorated quite a bit. They weren’t running like they had.”
In his first year, Parker said he had just four girls runners turn out for the team. They found a fifth runner so they could qualify for team scoring at meets.
“I was tough on them,” Parker said. “In the end, they came to respect it. I don’t think I lost anyone in that first year because what we were doing was too tough. Although, it was (tough). It was a shock to the system. That’s for sure.”
It didn’t take long for distance runners at Snohomish to find success.
In just seven years, the girls cross country team at Snohomish went from barely having enough runners qualify for a team score at meets to Class 3A state champions in 1995. The boys team earned a top-10 finish that year as well.
Then, the girls won a state title again in 1996, with the boys continuing to contend after a fifth-place finish.
Parker credited the quick rise to “kids buying into the program and doing more than anyone else did.”
“When we went to the line, those kids knew they had done more work than the people they were running against,” he said. “Throughout my tenure there, when we ran a race, the opponents, the kids from opposing teams, they knew it was not going to be a slack day. They knew they were going to have to compete because we ran seriously, every race we ran.”
Both squads would continue to be perennial state contenders each season. The distance-running teams combined for seven top-six finishes at state from 1997-2001.
In 2002, the girls squad helped Parker earn his third state title. The boys finished fourth.
In 2003, the Snohomish girls cross country team delivered what is still the most dominant performance at a state meet at the 4A level. The Panthers’ five scoring runners finished in fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and ninth places, earning a record-low team score of 31 points on their way to a second straight state championship. That record score has yet to be beaten.
“We were deep that year and we had girls that could simply kick butt,” Parker said.
Parker also helped coach Snohomish’s girls track and field team to back-to-back state titles in 2001 and 2002, part of a short stint as the head track and field coach.
“I really enjoyed just coaching distance rather than being the head coach in track, which is a lot of paperwork and a lot of headache,” he said.
A new challenge at a new school arose for Parker in 2008. He was one of several teachers slotted to make the move to Glacier Peak when it opened in 2008. It wasn’t necessarily Parker’s choice to make the move, but it was one he was willing to embrace.
“I thought about fighting that, but in the end I didn’t,” Parker said of the move. “I just went out to Glacier Peak. I kind of wanted to see if I could make the magic happen again. I felt bad about leaving the kids behind in Snohomish, particularly the individuals that were going to be seniors. But at the same time, it was a new adventure.”
The new adventure proved to be plenty fruitful.
A handful of key runners from Snohomish were set to join Parker at Glacier Peak, and distance-running phenom Amy-Eloise Neale and fellow star Katelyn Bianchini would be entering the program the next year. In just three seasons, the Glacier Peak girls earned the 2010 3A state championship. The team went on to win four more state titles from 2012-2018.
For Parker’s runners, success wasn’t just a goal. It was an expectation. Cross country training can be grueling, especially when a state title is seemingly always a reachable goal, but Parker’s runners said their coach still knew how to balance that hard work with some fun.
“He is very a good coach and he’s someone who knows how to work his athletes in the right way,” said Maddy Watkins, a 2020 Glacier Peak graduate. “He’s also super fun to be around. It was a really good balance of discipline and also fun. That was really cool.”
Watkins and her teammate, Aviry Stratton, — both runners for Parker’s final state-title winning team in 2018 — recalled some of the most fun coming during the many trips the Glacier Peak cross country teams would take together.
Whether it was a summer camp trip to the San Juan Islands or a trip to a big-time meet in Hawaii, Parker’s athletes were able to come home with experiences they’ll remember for a lifetime.
Some nights included trivia battles between players and coaches, and often times Parker would show off his culinary skills and prepare meals for his athletes that both Watkins and Stratton agreed were top-notch.
“Those trips are some of my favorite memories,” Stratton said. “… You just have so much fun with everyone. It’s not only about the race. The whole trip is just so memorable.”
In all, both said they were grateful to spend their four years running in high school with Parker as their coach.
“I’m just super thankful that I got to learn from him throughout the years,” Watkins said, “because he has taught me so many lessons that have shaped me not only as an athlete and runner, but also as a person. I’m confident that the stuff I’ve learned from him will help carry me throughout the rest of my future and who I am today.
“I’m very thankful to be a part of the legacy he created.”