MASON CITY – Curtis Vais started the NIACC cross country program in the fall of 2004.
The veteran coach said he had to beg then NIACC athletic director Ryan McGuire for the job.
“He doesn’t remember that,” Vais said, “but it’s true.
“I’m just glad he (McGuire) took a chance on me. I moved my family from Illinois to Iowa for a head coaching job for $4,000 – just to be a head coach. I couldn’t fail for them, I couldn’t fail for me. I couldn’t fail for NIACC or the team. I just worked and I guess it turned out OK.”
It more than turned out OK.
Vais, who is stepping down after the 2021 cross country season, has compiled an impressive, lengthy resume that includes coaching the NIACC men’s cross country team to the 2020 NJCAA Division II national title. In cross country, he has coached 173 NJCAA All-Region XI honorees, 12 NJCAA All-Americans, 10 U.S. Citizen All-Americans, 10 USTFCCCA all-Americans and 5 NJCAA Region XI runners of the years.
He has also coached the Trojans’ men’s teams to four regional titles (2011, 2012, 2020, 2021).
Vais, who was also the head track and field coach at NIACC from 2006-19, coached eight individual NJCAA national champions and 21 NJCAA all-Americans in track and field.
And now Vais, who is in his 18th season as NIACC’s cross country coach, will be inducted into the NJCAA Cross Country/Track and Field Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Vais is one of four going into the hall of fame at next weekend’s national championships in Richmond, Va.
Other members of the 2021 class are Macomb’s coach Kim Renas, Vincennes’ coach Bill Smith and Iowa Central student-athlete Leanne Pompeani.
Vais found out in early October that he would be a member of the 2021 hall of fame class. NIACC athletic director Cam Olson set up a Zoom call with Don Cox of the NJCAA, who gave Vais the news.
“I was shocked,” Vais said. “My first thought was – I’m still here. I’m still at NIACC. How do you go in before you’re leaving a position, which I know I’m leaving in December? I was shocked with all kinds of different emotions.”
Anna (Buenneke) Lucs, one of NIACC’s most decorated runners in cross country and track and field, gave a ton of credit to Vais in her hall of fame recommendation letter.
Lucs was the 2012 NJCAA indoor champion in the 3,000-meter run and the 5,000-meter run, a six-time All-American, a 2-time cross country All-American, a NJCAA half marathon All-American and 2-time NJCAA Region XI cross country champion.
“Under Coach Vais’ expert coaching, I was able to truly blossom and develop as a runner,” Lucs said. “I can truly say that I would not been able to achieve these accomplishments had it not been for his guidance, care, direction and expertise.”
One of Vais’ highlights in his 18 years as coach of the Trojans was the men’s national title in 2020.
The Trojans had four runners earn NJCAA all-American honors, including individual champion Melvin Kipkemboi. Vais was selected as the NJCAA Division II coach of the meet at the 2020 national meet.
Heading into the final mile at the 2020 national meet, the Trojans sat in third place.
“It is hard to explain to somebody that doesn’t know cross country,” Vais said. “They can watch a football or basketball game and a team is down by 10 with a minute to go and they win it. I don’t know how to compare different sports.”
“After mile four, we were down a couple of places. I honestly felt we weren’t out of it. I didn’t see Melvin finish. I didn’t see Jorge (Ruiz) finish. I heard the announcer and I was excited and that was a start. At that point in time, Vicente (Correia) and Jalen (Peterson) were just moving through the crowd. They just took it to a different level. And then (Stephen) Ringo. The way he finished that race was like a 200-meter sprint. His dad said he’s never seen him run that fast before.”
Even though the 2020 men’s squad was the team that ran the race that won the national title, Vais said all of his previous teams played a part in championship.
“It’s hard to explain,” the veteran coach said, “but every single team that I had from 2004 to 2020 had a piece of that.
“Every year, I learned something more that I was able to take and put it into that team and make us successful. I don’t know if those athletes feel that or not, but it’s true.”
The NIACC men’s cross country team placed in the top 20 at the national meet for 10 straight seasons from 2008-2017, including top 10 finishes in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2016.
The highest individual finishes for the NIACC men under Vais have been Kipkemboi (first in 2020), Jorge Ruiz (sixth in 2020), Brian Jacques (seventh in 2017), Correia (11th in 2020), Trent Smith (11th in 2011 and 16th in 2012), Peterson (12th in 2020) and Imad Amenzou (14th in 2015).
The NIACC women’s team placed 10th at the NJCAA Division II national meet, which is the highest ever for the Lady Trojans.
Lucs placed second at the national meet in 2011 and was eighth in 2010. Hannah Palmeter placed sixth in 2013 and was third in 2014.
In 2020, NIACC’s Sarah Bertry was the runner-up at the NJCAA Division II national meet.
In his 18 seasons, Vais has had runners from as close as down the road at Mason City High and cross town at Newman Catholic and as far away as Rift Valley, Kenya.
“They put their trust in me and that’s the biggest thing,” Vais said. “That means a lot to me.
“They’re coming from hundreds of miles away and the international kids, thousands of miles. There’s more than the couple of hours a day at practice. It’s how you make them feel outside of practice. They’re going to respond to you.”
Former NIACC athletic director Dan Mason said in his recommendation letter for Vais that the coach created a culture of excellence for the student-athletes in his care.
“Coach Vais is intentional in his training methods and is passionate about the student development piece for every member of his program,” Mason said. “The cross country teams, both the men’s and women’s teams, routinely excel in the academic arena and have represented all of us in a positive fashion on our campus and within our community.”
Another thing that Vais is passionate about is the Trent Smith Invitational, which was started in 2017. Smith, the school’s first-ever men’s cross country all-American, died in a car accident on Aug. 9, 2016.
“Trent meant a lot,” Vais said. “It’s a meet I wish we never had, but in a way he’s given back to NIACC cross country because now we have our own meet.
“We have our own course. He’s still giving back. I know he meant a lot to admissions with him being a student ambassador.”
So now the hall of famer’s coaching career is nearing its end. Only one meet remains – the national meet in Richmond, Va. on Nov. 13.
So what is the legendary coach going to miss when cross country season rolls around next fall.
“I enjoy making up the workouts,” the coach said. “I enjoy talking with the athletes and trying to figure out what makes them tick a little bit.
“I feel like my approach is so individualized. What works for one person might not work for another person. I really listen to that. I like it when the athletes take a bigger role in their workouts. I think over the years it really helps them grow as an adult as they’re taking ownership in what they’re doing. I’ll miss going to meets but it won’t be hard to go to a meet and support.”