Keep ’em coming: Lockhart cross country coach wins district titles in five straight decades
By Wesley Gardner
To say that longtime Lockhart High School cross country coach Scott Hippensteel knows running would be a whopper of an understatement. He lives it. He breaths it. It’s defined so much of his career as a student athlete and coach.
Hippensteel recently led the Lions varsity cross country squad to yet another district title that isn’t so much surprising these days as it is the norm.
The win extends a streak of dominance rarely seen in high school sports that stretches back to the school’s first district prize in 1988, which, coincidentally, was Hippensteel’s first year as the coach.
He’s since gone on to win 24 district titles with the boys’ squad and 5 more with the girls’, spanning five decades. Let that sink in. The man’s won titles in the 1980’s, 1990’s, 2000’s, 2010’s and finally here in 2020.
Add two state championships, five second-place state finishes and 11 regional championships for the boys’ cross country team, and that’s not even including the district and regional titles he’s helped take home as the head track coach.
For Hippensteel, competing in sports has been a way of life.
“I grew up in rural Indiana, and I played everything,” said Hippensteel. “In the winter, we played hockey on our lake.
“I played baseball. I played football. I played basketball … Through the fact that my dad had run track in high school, I started running track and had this immediate success, and that kind of led one thing to the other. I was able to get pretty good at it – good enough to set an Indiana state record. I still hold my high school’s records for the mile, the 800 [meters] and the two-mile.”
That mile time, by the way, was 4 minutes and 15 seconds. And it’s not that running came easily to Hippensteel, because it didn’t. He put in the work.
“As I look back now, I realize how much investment I put into it, and that’s why 40 years later, [the records] still exist,” said Hippensteel. “I pretty much did the outlier type of training, which was literally before I even spent one week in high school.
“I ran 126 miles in a single week. I was accustomed every year to running several weeks to where I’d run between 80 and 100 miles a week … It took that type of extreme training to do the things I did.”
Hippensteel didn’t compete at his first state championship until his senior year in high school, and a series of unfortunate events ultimately hindered his chances of capturing the title. Upon arriving at the Indiana State Meet, he went for a warm-up run and got lost in the streets of Indianapolis.
“I ran hard for about 45 minutes, trying to figure out how to get back to the meet, so I’m completely drenched, and I’m completely soaked and I’m exhausted,” said Hippensteel, who ran nearly eight miles before finding the competition. “I get back there. I’m paranoid. I’m out of my mind. What was I doing? What was I thinking? And I take off and I run the first lap in 59 seconds. I come through the 800 in 2:01. These other guys are sitting back there – like 2:05, 2:06 – and by the third lap I’m gassed. I’m toast. As the first guy goes by and the next guy goes by, I’m just delusional, thinking I blew my only chance. At the moment, I thought it was the end of the world, but really, it was just the beginning of something … it’s helped, though, to coach the kids. I can put it into perspective for them, because it wasn’t the end of the world.”
Following his senior year, Hippensteel went on to run cross country and track at the University of Texas in Austin, though he said he didn’t find as much success because many of the recruits were international athletes in their late 20’s and early 30’s, while he’d graduated high school as a 17-year-old.
“What really happened to us young guys, we weren’t physically mature enough to run the mileage,” said Hippensteel. “It was a huge disadvantage for me to get there so young … fortunately, I had enough presence of mind to know that what I really needed to do there was graduate from college. I did that.”
After graduating from UT in the summer of 1986, Hippensteel spent a year coaching and teaching at Lanier High School before moving on the Leander Junior High the following year to lead the school’s football, basketball and track programs.
“Ironically, in the front yard of Leander Junior High, there was a sign that said ‘Lockhart, 50 miles,’” he said, laughing. “That was the only thing I’d ever known about Lockhart.”
Hippensteel attended a Texas High School Coaches Association conference later that year and received a list of available coaching positions nearby. Sure enough, Lockhart was on the list. He went on to secure the position as Lockhart High School’s head cross country and track coach, in addition to a slew of other coaching titles.
“When I got here, the whole concept of winning a state championship was really quite an outlier of a thought for people here, but somehow for myself, I was like, ‘I’m cool with the idea. Let’s try it,’” said Hippensteel.
The Lions won their first cross country district title in Hippensteel’s first year as head coach. Then their second title the next year, and their third the next. That particular streak extended for 22 years.
In Hippensteel’s third year as head coach, the boys’ varsity team took home its first regional title and placed fourth at the state meet. Finally, in 1998, his team won it all.
“Winning the state championship had to be one of the greatest moments of my personal life, because I knew what the odds were,” said Hippensteel. “The year before in ‘97, we were second and El Paso beat us, and literally the next year we turned it around and beat them by 47 points.”
Hippensteel said one of the reasons he’s found success as a coach revolves around one the main values he tries to instill in his athletes.
“One of the things I’ve always done is I have the kids help me do things, whether it’s building the course for the meet or picking up the stuff when we’re done,” he said. “I believe in teaching a good work ethic.
“To me, running is a different word for work. I don’t sell cross country as work necessarily, but that’s what it boils down to. It’s hard work. If you can’t work hard, it’s going to be really difficult.”
Ironically, Hippensteel said he didn’t feel as if he truly became a coach until he stopped running with his athletes – something he attributed to their initial success.
“For the longest time, I would simply and arrogantly tell the kids, ‘All you have to do is run with me, and you’d actually be the state champion,’” Hippensteel said, with a grin. “I think the moment I became a coach, though, was the moment I stopped running so much.
“That’s when I really stopped to think about what was happening, because it’s kind of hard to think about it and do it at the same time, so to speak, so I probably wasn’t a very good coach until about 2000. I was probably an average coach who just ran really hard. I was like the team’s cowbell.”
Hippensteel said replacing the team’s cowbell – the lead runner who sets the pace for the rest of the squad – is one of the most difficult aspects of the job, but it’s forced him to become a better coach.
With so much success, it was only a matter of time before Hippensteel was recruited to coach a college squad. In 1997, he was offered the assistant coaching position at The University of Arkansas, a powerhouse program in the college track and cross country realm. Ultimately, he declined the offer because it would have meant uprooting his family’s life, which would have required his wife to leave her long-time job in Austin.
Hippensteel declined a position at UT the following year, and initially declined the same job offer in 2008. He changed his mind the following the morning, but by the time he called back to accept the offer, the job had been filled.
“In 2014, I had the opportunity to start my running store, Ready to Run,” he said. “Honestly, had I done the UT thing, I would not own the running store right now, and I’ll tell you what, I would not trade the fact that I own the running store to be coaching there.
“God had a plan for me.”
While Hippensteel has no problem acknowledging the blessings and opportunities he’s been afforded, he said he takes far more joy from trying to provide the same thing to his student athletes.
“The thing is, I’ve always tried to do more than just the coaching,” said Hippensteel. “I’ve tried to make an impact on people.
“I realize my own blessings and my own good fortunes, and I really want to try to give that to other people. I really want to see them have those opportunities. I’ve been blessed. Many of the kids have gone on to run D-1, D-2, D-3.”
Hippensteel did note that it’s sometimes difficult for him watch students squander their potential.
“Sometimes, that’ll drive me a little crazy,” he said, “but the people that I did reach has been amazing.”