Lions’ Menna crosses finish line

Lions’ Menna crosses finish line

John Menna, left, shown giving advice to Nicole Lezon during a break in the girls’ high jump event at last year’s RIIL Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Brown University, is retiring after spending the last 31 years as the head coach of the Lincoln High boys’ cross country/track and field program.
Popular head coach calls it a career after spending past 31 years leading LHS boys’ cross country/track program

LINCOLN – After spending more than three decades as the head coach of the boys’ cross country and indoor track and field programs at Lincoln High, John Menna is quietly calling it a career, and the reason he gave for his retirement was quite simple.

“It’s been a lot of years,” he said last Friday. “I’ve been coaching at Lincoln for 35 years.”

Menna had planned to retire after this past outdoor track and field season, but when the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the entire spring sports scene, it also erased the final three months of Menna’s outstanding career.

And while the break “was nice, I certainly missed coaching that last season with the kids,” he added. “As they say, it is what it is.”

The veteran coach eventually broke the news of his departure a couple of weeks ago, but initially told the senior captains of his cross country team, Chris Lezon and Nick Gaitanis, during an impromptu meeting at Lincoln Middle School before spreading the word to everyone else.

“I kind of suspected it during cross country season,” Lezon said. “He just got married, and I was like, ‘He’s probably going to retire soon.’ I just didn’t know it was going to be this year.”

Because Menna didn’t get a chance during the spring to congratulate his captains on their graduations and their excellent high school careers, he did so during their meeting, “and then he said, ‘I’m retiring,’” Lezon said, “and he hadn’t told our athletic director yet.”

What was it like having Menna as a coach?

“It was great,” said Lezon, who was also a member of the indoor track and field team and a standout on the LHS boys’ volleyball team. “He’s a great coach, and he’s really motivational. He’ll let you know if he thinks you’re slacking, but he’ll also let you know if you had a good workout or a good race.”

While Menna had been on the school’s coaching staff for the past 35 years, most folks around town forget that his first four years were spent as an assistant coach on the football team under legendary head coach Howard Catley.

Menna, who was raised in Cranston, was an All-State football player at Cranston West who graduated from the high school in 1971, and he continued his gridiron career at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn., “back when I was 230 pounds,” he joked.

“And after I stopped playing football in college, I started running,” said Menna. “Running was always part of my life, and I had been part of the running community for years.”

When the school’s boys’ cross country team needed a head coach in 1989, Menna took over the program. Little did he know at the time that he would spend the next 31 years coaching year-round, not only with the cross country squad, but also the indoor and outdoors teams.

And Menna didn’t mind that late August-to-early June commitment one bit, especially because of the student-athletes he’s welcomed to his program through the decades.

“It was always an honor for me to work with the caliber of student-athletes that I’ve had over the years,” he said. “I’ve never been disappointed about the type of kids that I have coached.”

Menna said that he was also honored to work with the girls’ cross country/track and field head coach, Sue Carlson, for the past two decades. Carlson began coaching with Menna during the 2001 cross country season and had spent some seasons in the early 2000s as an assistant coach for the boys’ and girls’ indoor and outdoor track teams.

“We have worked together very, very well over the years,” said Menna. “We always had one program, and we made the best of the two of our talents. She did what she did best and I did what I did best, and everything worked out very, very well.”

“Needless to say, it’s going to be different not having him there,” Carlson said in an email. “Over the years, we had developed a system that seemed to work well for the coaching staff during each of the three seasons. We had come to depend upon each other for different roles to make the training, meets, and other aspects work. It will be strange starting the fall season without him.”

“I appreciate all that he has done to foster the success of my own children during their running careers at Lincoln,” she continued. “I am thankful for the friendship and coaching camaraderie we shared, and I wish him well as he begins this new chapter in his life.”

During his coaching career, Menna had seen his cross country teams win the Class B championship in 2004, 2005, and 2009. Last year’s squad posted a 10-2 dual-meet record that marked only the third 10-win season in the program’s 53-year history and the first since the Lions went 10-0 in their magical 2004 campaign.

Menna’s 2007 outdoor track and field team also captured the Class C title, and during his 31 seasons, he’s seen more than his share of athletes win individual state championships.

A longtime treasurer of the R.I. Track & Field Coaches Association, Menna was inducted into the RITCA Hall of Fame in 2013. He is a four-time winner of the RITCA Cross Country Coach of the Year award, and he was also named Lincoln High’s Coach of the Year twice.

Menna also spent most of the 1990s and 2000s as a member of the Rhode Island Road Runners’ running club. In 1997, he completed the Boston Marathon in a time of 3:23:20, and for several years, he helped lead a group of RIRR runners to the popular Mount Washington Road Race that takes place each June on the difficult 7.6-mile course in New Hampshire.

As for his retirement plans, expect Menna to do plenty of biking, “and I probably will still be involved in some way, shape, or form with track and field, maybe officiating,” he added. “I’ll try to keep myself busy.”

Members of the Lincoln High boys’ cross country team pose for a picture on “Menna’s Mountain” on the Lions’ home course at Chase Farm.