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Tornado dips into Pelican waters

Mason-Johnson tabbed to lead North cross country program

Marnie Mason-Johnson, who is considered one of the top high school distance running coaches in Oregon, will become the head cross country coach at North Medford High today, Athletic Director Mike Kay confirmed Wednesday night.

Mason-Johnson led the Klamath Union High boys to a top-three finish in each of her three seasons as the Pelicans head coach - finishing second in 1998, first in 1999 and third in 2000.

She also coached Liz Lindgren to an individual girls cross country title last fall.

Mason-Johnson, 34, will also coach the distance runners for the Black Tornado track team and will teach special education classes at North.

"We're ecstatic to have someone of Marnie's caliber join our staff," Kay said. "No. 1, she's a great person. No. 2, she's a phenomenal teacher and thirdly, she's a wonderful coach whose record speaks for itself."

Mason-Johnson, a standout runner at Klamath Union in the mid-1980s - she won the 1,500 meters, 3,000 meters and 300-meter intermediate hurdles at the 1985 Southern Oregon Conference district meet and added the state championship in the 3,000 - faces a big challenge at North Medford. The Black Tornado had only 16 runners out for cross country last fall and both its boys and girls teams finished last at the district meet.

"We're going to revive that program," said Mason-Johnson, who was scheduled to meet with the Tornado runners at noon today before huddling with runners at Hedrick Middle School. "They've had a good distance program there in the past and it can certainly happen again.

"It's just a matter of getting kids enthused about running and having some success."

Mason-Johnson, who can be seen with a clipboard, stopwatch and tape recorder at the edge of the oval during track meets, incorporates a lot of speed work into her workouts and her runners always seem to peak for the big meets.

At the Class 4A state track meet last weekend, one of her top runners - Jacob Gomez - won the state title in the 3,000 and finished third in the 1,500. Another - Lauren Jespersen - took second in the 800.

"There really aren't any secrets," Mason-Johnson said of her coaching style. "It's a matter of getting kids out, getting them on a training schedule and letting them know how much you care about them.

"And I think the kids I've coached also know how much I love the sport."

Mason-Johnson admitted it isn't easy leaving runners like Gomez and Jespersen, who will both return to Klamath Union in the fall. But she said she wanted a new challenge.

"I don't think a person can grow that much if they stay in the same job year after year after year," she said. "I'd like to be a college coach 10 or 15 years down the road and this is a great step forward.

"North Medford already has a great track staff and I'm looking forward to joining it and see if I can help out the distance runners."

Mason-Johnson ran collegiately for Brigham Young University but left after three years without getting a degree. She worked at a golf shop in Klamath Falls for several years before returning to school at Southern Oregon University, where she graduated in 1994.

Reach reporter Don Hunt at 776-4469, or e-mail