By Mike Ramczyk

Longtime Burlington High School cross country head coach Rick Koceja was planning a meet against crosstown rival Catholic Central for next fall.

The retired teacher contacted Toppers track coach Sean Birren, who said he didn’t think he was returning to the team next spring.

The track position came up, and Koceja wanted to get back to coaching track after coaching Demon track for 35 years before missing last season.

According to a press release from Catholic Central, Koceja, who’s coached Burlington cross country since 1980, will be the new track and field head coach for the Toppers.

“I’ve always enjoyed track,” Koceja said Tuesday. “I took a year off at BHS. There was an opportunity, and I’ve heard some good things about Catholic Central.”

“It’s a new challenge, I’m pretty excited about starting the program.”

Koceja said Catholic Central Athletic Director Tom Aldrich hopes to improve numbers in the track program, and that is Koceja’s biggest goal.

Koceja said he plans to stick with Burlington cross country in the fall and Catholic Central track and field in the spring.

The cross country contract at BHS starts new each fall, and Koceja said there could be other candidates interested by next fall.

Koceja, a non-staff member at BHS, must reapply for his position each fall.

“Rick brings with him a plethora of knowledge and experience in working with high school track athletes and has been acknowledged by his peers, being awarded multiple coach of the year awards,” stated the press release from Catholic Central Tuesday.

“We are most excited with the hiring of Coach Koceja because of his positive coaching style and passion for working with young adults. We feel very fortunate to have found a coach of Coach Koceja’s caliber for our student body.”

The release further states that Birren resigned to “spend more time with his family.”

Koceja, who developed a passion for running at the age of 14, said it will be key to get a coaching staff.

In high school, Koceja went out for basketball, and a coach advised him to try cross country.

It stuck, and he was inspired to get into coaching based on his running success and coaches.

Koceja acknowledged it will a challenge to attract more numbers to the program, as Catholic Central’s enrollment hovers around 150 and student-athletes can play multiple sports during the season.