BY JEREMY SCHNEIDER | MIRROR SPORTS — Running has taken Zak Kirk across the country, far away from his hometown in Maumee.
As he begins his coaching career, though, Kirk finds it fitting it’s brought him back home.
Kirk was recently announced as an assistant coach for The University of Toledo cross country team.
“When it comes to location or where I am, it’s never really mattered to me, I’ve just gone where the wind takes me,” Kirk said. “I thought it was really fitting now that door (as a collegiate runner) closed and I was starting a new chapter as a coach that I kind of come back to a place where I got my start as a runner.
“I think it’s pretty cool to come back here and lean into this new passion.”
A 2017 Maumee graduate, Kirk’s journey started at Eastern Kentucky University, where he received NCAA All-Southeast Region and first-team All-Ohio Valley Conference honors in 2019. He helped the Colonels win the 2018 OVC Outdoor championships, finishing second in the 3,000 meters.
After EKU, Kirk transferred to the University of Portland, where he earned second-team All-West Coast Conference honors. He helped lead the Pilots to the 2021 NCAA Cross Country Championships, finishing 52nd as an individual.
He holds a bachelor of arts degree in communications and a master of arts degree in higher education and student affairs from Portland.
Kirk was the runner-up at the indoor state track and field meet in the 3200 as a senior for the Panthers. He is a two-time Northern Lakes League individual champ in cross country, and he finished sixth in the state meet as a senior.
As he began his college career, Kirk knew he wanted to be a coach. He began seriously taking steps to find a coaching job beginning last November as the end of his college career came closer.
Not only did he find his first job close to home, but the Rockets have another connection to Kirk’s past – associate head coach Tito Medrano actually recruited Kirk to run at Eastern Kentucky.
“He was the one that was helping me out the entire way, just being a mentor and giving me advice on how to get a foot in the door,” Kirk said. “Then it just turned out, he was going to be the one to help me get a job here.
“It’s kind of crazy how it all worked out.”
While coaching is still brand-new to Kirk, he aims to be a positive influence outside of practice and the training aspect of things. It goes back to the old saying: They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
With his experience of running taking him to all different corners of the country and far away from home, he has a unique perspective to understand what the UT athletes are experiencing.
“You end up being with this team and the coaches at this university more than you do your family for the next four to five years,” Kirk said. “I think as a coach, you have to have a large recognition for that side of it.
“People like to be involved and feel like they’re being cared for, feel like they’re being understood as individuals and not a runner that runs a certain time.”
While he was living, studying and training away from Maumee, Kirk was never too far from home. He is close with Eric Board, another Panthers runner who is now at a Division I university.
Along with Kirk and Board, there have been plenty of other successful Maumee runners, such as Bo Waggoner and Willy Fink, to find the podium at league and postseason meets. Kirk believes that continued success is mainly due to the environment, both in location and attitude.
“It seems random, but when it happens so consistently, there has to be something to it,” Kirk said. “A large of part of it has to be the ability to have really nice places to run.
“I’ve trained in different locations, and I would always get excited to come back here because there’s a lot of soft surface running, it’s really scenic and there are a lot of options.
“There’s a blue collar mentality in the sense that you have these awesome places to train and you have that mentality of something to prove. Over the years, that’s produced some really great runners.”