Don Bonsett is in his 50th season as a Lewis Cass cross country head coach.
Bonsett was honored by Lewis Cass at halftime of the senior night football game against West Lafayette earlier this month.
“It was a total surprise to me until halfway through the halftime when Matt Benner, who is my assistant coach, said ‘Come on, we’ve got to go to the 50-yard line.’ I had no idea any of that was going on which added to the neatness of it I guess,” Bonsett said.
Bonsett started coaching Kings cross country in the fall of 1970 when he was 23-years-old.
“I just got out of college,” Bonsett recalled. “My wife and I had moved to the area and I was coaching physical education and she was teaching first grade and the opportunity presented itself with an opportunity for the cross country coach, and I jumped at the chance.”
Southeastern School Corporation began in 1963, but the current Lewis Cass High School building wasn’t completed until 1968.
Bonsett started his teaching career at Washington Township Elementary School until it was closed in 1982. He then taught at Thompson Elementary School next to the high school in Walton until he retired from teaching four years ago.
His wife Dotty was a first and second grade teacher in the school system for 30 years. The couple reside in Deacon.
“My wife and I were both looking for teaching jobs and we came here and interviewed for teaching jobs and we both got jobs for what was then the Southeastern corporation and it’s been our home ever since,” Bonsett said.
Bonsett is originally from Indianapolis and ran cross country at Warren Central High School and Greenville College, an NCAA Division III school located about 40 miles east of St. Louis.
He said two major coaching influences for him were Virgil Kirkpatrick at Warren Central and Bob Blume at Greenville.
“I had a good high school coach and a good college coach, so for me, my idea was ‘I want to be like them,’” Bonsett said. “They were nice guys, they were gentlemen, they helped me a lot both as a coach and as men in their lives. I thought, ‘if I ever had a chance, I want to be like them.’”
Bonsett said he wasn’t a standout runner himself.
“No, honestly I wasn’t. I loved the sport and I worked hard to be better, but I was never a frontrunner,” he said. “I was sixth, seventh runner in high school and I was sixth and seventh when I was in college. But it was the fact that I wanted to stay on the team in college that made me study harder when it was kind of easy to goof off and not stay eligible, I knew that I had to stay academically eligible and track and cross country was kind of my boost to do that.”
He said he ran along with the kids in practice for the first 15 years. He still runs along at meets, but just to cheer and coach them on at the mile and two-mile checkpoints and at the finish line.
Bonsett’s job as an elementary education teacher allowed him to see generations of Lewis Cass athletes go through the school system.
“I would work with some of the kids from the time I knew them as kindergartners all the way through, and that’s kind of neat to see the entire process,” he said.
His current Cass boys cross country team is a good example.
“There’s seven seniors in there and four of the seven had come up all the way though the junior high program, and those four I’ve known as kindergartners,” Bonsett said. “So yeah, we’ve gone through a long time together.”
The Kings’ top runner, Bailey Scott, is a two-time sectional champion. His father, Mark Scott, also ran for Bonsett when he was in high school.
Seniors Scott, Hunter Mundy, Sam Miller and Juan Simpson, junior Erik Mayorga and freshmen Enoch Hines and Braxton Armstrong advanced out of the Logansport Sectional as a team last Saturday. They will compete at the Culver Academies Regional this Saturday.
One of Bonsett’s first standout runners was Bruce Moss in the early ’70s back when high school cross country was a two-mile race. It was then moved to a 4K race and is now a 5K event. Moss was a semistate qualifier in 1971.
Bonsett coached the girls semistate team that was led by Leslie (Carden) Guy and Kathlene Maughmer. Along with Sarah Bowser, Bonsett's Kings won the Logansport Sectional title in 1998. The Lady Kings also won a team track sectional title in 1992.
Bonsett's 1982 Cass boys cross country team won the Maconaquah Sectional that included Kokomo area schools.
Bonsett has helped coach several state qualifiers in track, including Leslie (Carden) Guy, who went on to run at Bowling Green, and Andy Leininger, who went on to run at Purdue. In 1997, Leininger reached the state finals in four events — the high jump, 400-meter dash and 110 high hurdles and was the anchor of the 4x400 relay team that also included Justin Ramer, Josh Meador and Shane Miller. More recent state finalists include Emily Beckley in the high jump and Averi Parker in the discus and shot put.
Scott has a chance to make history this fall for the Kings. He’ll be shooting for his third straight trip to the New Prairie Semistate at Saturday’s regional.
“I’ve not yet had a cross country runner make it to the state meet,” Bonsett said. “He’s a good one.”
Bonsett said he changes up his practice routines from year to year depending on the athletes.
“My basic philosophy is the same but it changes from year to year depending on the group,” he said. “This group that I have now, they’ve kind of all gone though with me, but as they’ve matured I’ve had to change things a little bit. And we get new kids come in and we have to change it a little bit. My basic philosophy is to work hard and try to train smart, not train overly hard but train smart.”
At age 72, Bonsett plans to continue coaching into the foreseeable future.
“That’s up to the powers that be both heavenly and locally. I hope they let me and I hope God lets me,” he said.