Lauren Nakaso (left) competed on a championship team for Coach Stephanie Bambury (right) before joining her staff at Dougherty Valley (NC). Nakaso took over the program after Bambury stepped away following a successful 15-year run. (Contributed photo)
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It was a cow that once stopped Stephanie Bambury in her tracks.
The former Dougherty Valley High coach was leading a practice with her varsity boys in the hills above the high school where cows grazed, and one day a cow decided to charge her.
"I was so surprised, I stepped backwards into a whole pile of cow poop and fell," Bambury said. "The cow was so surprised it shockingly stopped, while my entire varsity boys team was sprinting away from me in fear of this cow."
Embarrassed, but undeterred, Bambury calmly wiped off of her hands and called her athletic director.
"I just thought she should hear it from me instead of hearing from my varsity boys," Bambury said laughing. "I was almost killed by a cow."
Bambury did receive instructions from her AD to avoid practicing near cows going forward.
Stephanie Bambury got her start as an assistant coach at her alma mater -- Lynbrook High School of Central Coast Section. Bambury was one of the first female coaches for the program at the San Jose school.
"A lot of coaches in our area are mostly men, and I'm just not crazy about that because the gender shouldn't matter -- it's the knowledge behind the head that matters," said Lynbrook head coach Hank Lawson, whom Bambury started out coaching with. "Women are just an important aspect of coaching."
A Tucker Center for Girls & Women in Sport report gives cross country and track an "F" for the number of female head coaches for NCAA D-I women's teams, with only 18 percent of positions held by women. It's a staggering statistic that plagues high school programs even more, but it's one that's never daunted Bambury.
"Stephanie dealt with (difficult) coaches with grace and really gets to the heart of the matter," said Erika Gardner-Schmitz, who served as the head coach at Foothill High in the North Coast Section for many years. "She's one of those people who could deal with anyone."
After leaving Lynbrook for a move to the East Bay Area, Bambury watched what would become the Dougherty Valley campus being built across the street from her house in San Ramon. An inquiry about the head coaching job led to her taking the position and the birth of the Dougherty Valley cross country and track programs.
"I didn't know she had also hired me to be the track coach until we were on the football field being introduced to the new Dougherty Valley parents at the school's first pep rally," said Bambury. "Then they announced me as both the new head cross country and track & field coach!"
Bambury's success speaks for itself.
Dougherty Valley started out in Division V, and 15 years later is one of the leading Division I programs in the North Coast Section. The program has won four North Coast Section titles in multiple divisions, as their student body numbers have steadily increased since their origination as a school.
"East Bay Athletic League is one of the most competitive leagues in the state and her runners are always consistent," said Gardner-Schmitz. "She's also just a badass."
Dougherty Valley's first NCS title was for the varsity girls in 2009 in Division IV (photo below) when they beat the school now known as Archie Williams (formerly Sir Francis Drake) by just three points.
"She was able to develop me as someone who (was) totally new to the sport," said former athlete Lauren Nakaso, who was part of the first Dougherty Valley section championship-winning team in 2009.
Their first NCS win is one of Bambury's favorite coaching moments.
Her number one girl went up the final hill on the NCS Hayward course and then disappeared. Down came her No. 2, No. 3 (Nakaso), No. 4, and No. 5.
Bambury couldn't find her No. 1.
Moments later, her No. 1 came wobbling down the hill as their No. 5 that day and collapsed at the finish line.
Unable to get out of the med tent, she was inconsolable thinking she'd lost the title for her team -- until Bambury returned with the news that they had indeed won by those three points.
"I told her 'We won because of you!' " Bambury said. "We had to get together the next week to take nice pictures under the fall leaves with our medals, because that day three of the girls had barfed on themselves and three of them couldn't even stand up at the award ceremony to get their medals -- they had run their hearts out."
Their second NCS championship was the boys in 2016 where they chartered a commanding 36-point lead over runner-up Castro Valley.
"It's a really tough sport in that way," said Bambury. "You have to perform on the day you have to perform, so you have to teach kids how to be mentally strong."
But their crown jewel -- a double boys and girls NCS championship in 2017 -- Bambury had to miss.
"Both of my (young) kids and my former husband were in a family wedding in Hawaii and when is it scheduled? On the day of NCS Championships," she said. "I spent the wedding on the beach facetiming my team at Hayward after they won!"
Bambury acknowledges the balance of motherhood and coaching is difficult, but for Nakaso it was an inspiration.
"We were walking the course at Mt. SAC to get ready for Foot Locker (West Regional) and she was seven or eight months pregnant walking the hills with us," said Nakaso. "She even ran with us while she was pregnant."
Nakaso began assisting Bambury in 2016, and has now taken the helm at Dougherty Valley and has the team poised for a State Meet run.
Bambury chose to step down from the program this year after a 15-year tenure to move herself and her kids to Southern California after a divorce.
"I didn't want to miss out on this time in my kid's life and their weekend sports games because I was coaching other people's kids on the weekends," Bambury said.
Her twins, a boy and a girl who are both 10 years old, are active in swimming, water polo and soccer.
"I think female coaches are the ones that have families and kids and are the ones who spend a lot of time with mom guilt," said Bambury. "When I was younger I was the only female coach, it was my first head coaching job and I wasn't always taken as seriously. It's also tricky for women to be taken as seriously and some cultures don't value women as much as men."
Coaching is still on the radar -- it's a hiatus not a retirement, she says. For now, Bambury is enjoying working and supporting her children, and is always cheering on Dougherty Valley.
Nakaso is grateful to keep in touch.
"I still reach out to her to get advice and feedback," she said. "I so appreciate now all the background work she did that I didn't know about until I took over as a head coach."
For Bambury, staying connected to coaching is important, even if it is for now just in a mentorship role.
"One of the most important things to remember is to not let it get you down when kids aren't ready to be motivated," said Bambury. "Don't take it personally, focus on the kids who are working hard and just do your best to motivate the ones who aren't motivating themselves.
"And always remember to have fun."
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Bambury's Tips For Young Coaches
● Publish your team budget: "If parents see where the money is going, they are more confident in your responsible management and more likely to donate to your program."
● Call your AD about everything: "Even if it means telling them about charging cows."
● Explain to kids the difference between soreness and injury pain: "Teach them how to handle pain, what is the "wrong" pain vs. the "right" pain?"
● Have shoes on hand to donate to low-income athletes: "It matters knowing what's going on at home, whether it's tough financially or emotionally."
● Develop thick skin: "Too many parents think their child is the next Olympian."
● Avoid burnout: "Divide and conquer tasks between your coaching staff, don't feel like you need to be at everything and don't over-schedule yourself because it's the fastest way for a coach to get burnt out."
Melody Karpinski is a Northern California-based coach, a freelance writer, and a regular contributor to MileSplit
Photos courtesy of Stephanie Bambury