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  • Elmer McPhail, shown at the 2018 Anne Arundel County championship meet, is retiring from his position as a teacher at Severna Park Middle School after having coached Severna Park track and field for the past 12 years.
    Photo by Colin Murphy
    Elmer McPhail, shown at the 2018 Anne Arundel County championship meet, is retiring from his position as a teacher at Severna Park Middle School after having coached Severna Park track and field for the past 12 years.

Through Passion, Elmer McPhail Brings Out Students’ Best

Colin Murphy
View Bio
June 13, 2018

Elmer McPhail received a special sendoff from the track and field program he has helped coach for the past 12 years.

On May 11, the Severna Park track and field teams claimed county championships on both the girls and boys sides, a feat not previously accomplished by Severna Park and not seen in the county since Meade’s boys and girls won in 2010.

It was a fitting end to a coaching career that has spanned 16 years in Anne Arundel County — four at Northeast and 12 at Severna Park — and over 30 years in coaching for McPhail, who is retiring from coaching and teaching P.E. at Severna Park Middle School at the end of this school year.

The native of California will soon return to the West Coast to enjoy retirement with his wife, children and forthcoming grandchildren, and his final months as a coach have led many to reflect on the impact he has made on the Severna Park track and field program and the kids who come through it.

“He’s had a tremendous impact [on our program],” said Severna Park head coach Josh Alcombright. “Just as a mentor to me, and really taking on the amount of kids he has over the years and allowing so many kids to participate, he’s had a huge impact. He lets the kids know that he cares and he’s passionate about it. The kids see that, and they latch on to that.”

The Severna Park cross country and track and field programs have achieved remarkable levels of success over the years, producing individual and/or team champions at the county, region and state levels. McPhail has been an influential force for much of that success, saying his guiding principle has just been to show that he cares and encourage kids to follow their passion.

“I just want them to have passion,” said McPhail. “The other day when I talked to the seniors I just said, ‘Find something you’re passionate about like track and field is for me. Just make sure it pays the job, don’t let anybody ever tell you you can’t, and when they tell you you can’t do something, you try even harder to prove them wrong. That’s the mentality my kids have taken.”

McPhail’s athletes have felt the impact of his influence on and off the track.

“I don’t think any of us would be where we are without him,” said Severna Park junior Emily Knight, a state champion in the indoor 500 and 800. “He’s done so much for us. For him it’s not only about winning races, but about us believing in ourselves and bettering ourselves. He cares about us beyond winning races.”

Emma Hand (SPHS ’16) grew up playing soccer and said McPhail instilled confidence in her as a track and field beginner.

“I was such a shy runner and so nervous about the sport,” said Hand, who won county championships in the 400 and 500 for Severna Park. “I never thought I’d go into running. I played soccer my whole life. So the biggest thing for me is, I think coach McPhail does a really good job of making sure that not only he really believes in you, but he forces me to believe in myself. He will tell you he believes in you. That has carried over, not just in running, but in life.”

Severna Park senior runner Izzy Kintzley agreed, saying McPhail takes a big-picture view of the role athletics play in a student’s life.

“I think he cares a lot about our future,” said Kintzley, who will run next year at the University of North Carolina. “Last year he pulled us aside and asked where we wanted to go to college, do we want to run. He set us up over the last two years if we wanted to run in college to get the times we needed. But he also was really important just saying that even if we got injured in college, you’re in the school you want to be in, and so he cares about our overall success and our future as a whole.”

McPhail has insisted on keeping every kid who comes out to the Severna Park cross country and track and field programs and not making any cuts, a huge logistical challenge but an extension of his philosophy to keep kids involved.

“He doesn’t make cuts,” said Knight. “He lets everyone on the track team because he cares about everyone and wants everyone to have an opportunity.”

McPhail said he’s enjoyed seeing athletes improve dramatically in track and field, noting state champion athletes such as Devin Joyce (long jump and triple jump in 2010 for Severna Park) and Nicole Sohn (indoor and outdoor shot put for Northeast in 2005 and 2006); and he noted they often come from other sports, like Eva Klaus (who plays lacrosse at Johns Hopkins and was a sprinter in high school at Severna Park), Knight (who grew up playing soccer and still plays for the Lady Falcons varsity team) and others.

Chris Dyke, the head track and field coach at Northeast, was coached by McPhail when he was a student athlete at Northeast. Dyke paid McPhail the ultimate peer-to-peer compliment.

“I always watch the way he coaches his kids, because he gets the best out of them,” said Dyke. “I sit back and listen and watch what he does. A lot of the stuff he does in field events I try to pick up and listen and pay attention. He just has that way of motivating kids.”

McPhail admitted he’s been a little surprised by all the attention he has received during his final year of coaching, saying he is simply doing what he loves.

“I love what I do. Sometimes it’s almost embarrassing that people are making a big deal about it, because I’m doing something I love to do, so what’s the big deal? I don’t mean to be ungrateful or anything, but I just love what I do,” said McPhail.

McPhail maintained that showing passion for your pursuits and care for those around you are the best ways to help others grow, develop and succeed.

“You don’t have to be the best. As long as you come out and give me your best and try every day and show up every day, I love you as much as the top runner on the team,” said McPhail.

“Every kid knows I care. That’s all they want, is someone who cares. It’s worked for me.”

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