Javier Ramirez, a star on the first CIF-State boys cross country title team at Nordhoff for Coach Ken Reeves (right), says Reeves pushed him to not only be a better athlete, but a better student. (Photo courtesy of Javier Ramirez)
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Ken Reeves had a skill for picking out diamonds in the rough.
The cross country coach and physical education teacher at Nordhoff High School could cull talent, and a kid named Javier Ramirez was on his radar.
Ramirez didn't know running was a sport. An undocumented immigrant newly arrived from Mexico, Ramirez loved soccer and running in P.E. class was just something fun to do.
"The only thing I was able to do well at school was running, I didn't speak the language," Ramirez recalls. "I didn't even know there was a sport of running, all I wanted was to play soccer."
But his budding running talent put him on the radar of Reeves, who was at the start of building what would become one of the most successful programs in the Southern Section at Nordhoff. Ramirez looked like a promising addition to the budding team.
Reeves coached his Nordhoff teams to a staggering record of 46 league, 14 CIF-Southern Section and 11 CIF-State cross country titles over the course of his career at the school. Over the course of his near 40-year coaching career at multiple schools, his teams captured a total of 18 CIF-Southern Section titles and 15 CIF-State championships.
But before all of that, he didn't know how to score a cross country meet.
"I didn't know how to score a XC meet, didn't know how the premise worked, but I had students on the team," said Reeves. "I was lucky enough to have great people around me, and a lot of my college friends were runners or on the cross-country team so I reached out to them also."
Reeves' original foray into coaching was in soccer, and coaching cross country wasn't a consideration until he arrived at Nordhoff in 1981. The head cross country coach at the time told Reeves he was retiring and was looking for a replacement. He convinced Reeves to become his assistant that season when he became a teacher at the school.
Nordhoff's athletic director was skeptical and didn't want to hire him. Reeves persisted and became the head coach in 1985. In 1990, the Nordhoff girls won their first state championship in the newly created Division IV.
In the summer of 1991 before his freshman year a friend convinced young Ramirez to show up to a cross-country workout. The workout was a 2-mile time trial, and Ramirez started out slow and then finished third behind two senior varsity runners.
"Between my friends and Ken's philosophy that it would make a better soccer player, I decided to try it," said Ramirez. Reeves was a former soccer player himself, who walked onto the UC Santa Barbara soccer team after someone told him he wouldn't make the team.
For Ramirez, joining the cross-country team opened up doors he didn't know existed. He earned an all-state performance freshman year, leading his team to their first state championships in the fall of 1991. Reeves pushed him to not only be a better athlete, but a better student.
"I lived in a tool shed with my family when I joined the team, and he gave me athletic hope and he worried about me academically," said Ramirez. "He kept raising the bar for me academically and pushed me to get out of ESL classes and into college prep classes."
"Nobody outworked Ken in coaching - he outworked every coach I have ever known in coaching, regardless of sport."- Bill Tokar, longtime Ventura HS coach
The city of Ojai is a unique community and Nordhoff High School had a wide range of socio-economic layers and mixed ethnicities, said Bill Tokar, the former longtime coach of nearby Ventura High School.
"The Nordhoff cross country teams reflected that diversity," Tokar said. "His teams at Nordhoff included athletes from those living in mansions, those the children of hippies living up remote canyons, and those who were homeless living in the orchards."
Ramirez finished in 8th at his first CIF-State Championships in 1991, leading his team to the state title as a freshman and earning All-State honors. His academic pursuits continued as well, and he now serves as a principal at a high school within the Ojai Unified School District.
"We would tell them it was time to be serious (at practice), time to be fun (coming home on the bus) and time to have serious fun (racing)," said Reeves.
Ken Reeves, left with Tim O'Rourke, is a familiar voice on the mic at meets in California.
One of Reeves' favorite coaching experiences at Nordhoff was with Tommy Smith, a kid who had never run before and who had some developmental disabilities. Reeves was worried upon their arrival to cross-country camp, after Smith ran 100 yards, took a spin and then fell.
"By the end of the week, his teammates had gotten him to run three miles and it wasn't long before he was the 'Running Man in Ojai," said Reeves. "He'd be waiting for me at practice to say hello."
Smith had a small stutter when he spoke and so when Reeves would ask him how he was that day he would respond "I'm SSSSSSuper coach!"
"If Tommy could be super, then I could be super too," said Reeves. "But he never stuttered when he sang, and he won our team lip sync battle and even got sideburns one year for something we called the Elvis Mile."
The team atmosphere was key to Nordhoff, said Tokar.
"It was one of the hallmarks of his coaching, to take anyone no matter their background, no matter their physical ability, and make them well rounded young adults who loved being a part of a team," said Tokar.
Reeves brought a strong work ethic to the team and led by example, said Bronwen Cull-Michels, who ran for Reeves with Ramirez at Nordhoff in the early 1990s. Cull-Michels went on to serve as an assistant track and field coach for Nordhoff under Reeves and became the head track and field coach for the program in 2004.
"His incredible work ethic rubbed off on the kids," said Cull-Michels. "He made you want to do what he did for you for him."
"Nobody outworked Ken in coaching -- he outworked every coach I have ever known in coaching, regardless of sport," said Tokar. "To give you an idea of his discipline, the last few years at Nordhoff he commuted by bicycle 18 miles from Ventura every day, leaving his house at 4:00 a.m. in order to be at Nordhoff for his "prep" time from 5:15 - 6:30 before his zero period class began."
Cull-Michels noted one hallmark of Reeves' coaching was his ability to make each athlete feel like the most important athlete on the team.
"What was so magical was that he got to know every athlete and how they ticked," said Cull-Michels. "He'd have a conversation with every single kid every single day to make them feel seen and valued, and go over their performance or their race -- regardless of whether they were JV or varsity."
Pictured (from left) Coach Reeves, Victor Ochoa, Javier Ramirez, Mason Moore. (Photo courtesy of Javier Ramirez)
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In 2002, Reeves was inducted into the Ventura County Sports Hall of Fame for his contributions to the county's championship teams. After 20 years at the helm of Nordhoff, Reeves retired from coaching their program.
Less than a year later, he began assistant coaching at Ventura High School with Tokar, which coincidentally was across the street from his house. Reeves coached with Tokar at Ventura from 2005-2013.
In 2013, both Tokar and Reeves became co-recipients of the Coaches Service Award, presented at the Arcadia Invitational.
Following Ventura, he became the coach of Foothill Tech High School from 2015-2019. In 2016, his boys' and girls' teams each won a CIF-State D-IV titles, and the boys' team repeated in 2019.
1991, 1997, 1998 1993, 1994, 1995
Foothill Tech (2)
1990, 1991, 1996, 1998, 1995
Foothill Tech (2)
In addition to coaching, Reeves began serving as the announcer of the Clovis Cross Country Invitational and the Mt. SAC Cross Country Invitational. He also became an awards presenter at the CIF-State Cross Country Championships, and is now a familiar face in the awards tent at the event.
"Going to the State Meet is like going home," said Reeves. "Everyone is willing to share ideas."
For his 70th birthday, Reeves' sons got together about 70 or 80 of his athletes to celebrate. But for all of his former athletes, the stamp he has left on their lives is remarkable.
"He is without question the single most impactful person in my life besides my parents," said Cull-Michels, who now serves as a counselor and activities director at Nordhoff.
"Coach (Reeves) changed my life," said Ramirez. "I am who I am because of him."
SIDEBAR: Reeves' Top Tips
- "Keep notes on everything you do. Have an eraser, I always wanted to make a season long plan, but we know that doesn't work. There's no magical workout."
- "Enjoy the experience. Have them enjoy the experience. It's supposed to be fun."
- "Always treat the State Meet as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Use Clovis as a dress rehearsal, get the same hotel, go to the same place for dinner."
- "Let the kids be the kids, let them warm-up on their own. Don't be posturing to get attention as a coach. The money is in the bank, and you make the withdrawal at the State Meet."
- "Go watch someone else's practice, go talk to other coaches, come up with what works for you."
- "Avoid table talk -- many races are lost at the dinner table (by) the family. Ask them to let you do the coaching and they do the parenting. It would be better to have the student-athletes upset with the coaches rather than his/her parents."
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Melody Karpinski is a cross country and track and field head coach in Marin County and a regular contributor to MileSplit.