When Springbrook High School’s cross-country coach of 36 years got an email in late December congratulating him on winning Maryland coach of the year, the man known for his love of conversation was left utterly speechless.
“I didn’t know what to say—and anyone who knows me knows that’s a pretty big deal,” said Gary Frace, who is seventy-one.
But what he didn’t know was that the Springbrook community had already sprung into action to plan a surprise reception for him. When he walked into the Springbrook media center on Thursday afternoon, lights dimmed and room silent, he had no idea he was walking into a celebration.
The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, or MPSSAA, is a 77-year-old organization tasked with overseeing all public high school sports tournaments and contests within the state. It works closely with the state Department of Education and serves over 111,000 student athletes in 199 public high schools.
In September, the MPSSAA reached out to local athletic directors and supervisors in search of nominations for 2021-22 National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches of the Year awards. The NFHS honors coaches of the year in every state, one for each of the top 10 girls’ sports and boys’ sports, determined by participation numbers. To qualify, recipients must have been active coaches during the school year for which they were nominated. In 2022, there were 16 coaches honored.
Springbrook athletics specialist Dan Feher nominated Frace in the boys’ cross-country category, noting his community involvement, communication skills and dedication to caring for every student on and off the trail.
“He values the whole child,” Feher wrote in his nomination letter, adding that Frace also emphasizes “the importance and life-long skills of commitment and perseverance, always critical in a sport like cross country.”
The nomination period ended on Sept. 29. MPSSAA’s Nominating Committee received Feher’s letter along with countless others and set about selecting winners, which were announced in late December. The full list of honorees can be found on the MPSSAA website.
When Frace received the email congratulating him on the win, he said he was dumbstruck.
“I’ve never won a state championship,” he said on Thursday. “Of all the incredible coaches in this county, why me?”
Feher’s nomination noted that under Frace’s coaching, the Springbrook boys’ cross country team were MCPS Division Champions in 2020 and won the 3A West Region Championship the following year for the first time since 1965.
Frace is also an active volunteer member of the county’s Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, where he works closely with local police, the fire department and the Office of Emergency Management & Homeland Security to cover pre-planned events and emergency situations.
A second surprise
Feher said as soon as the school found out Frace won, leadership began planning Thursday’s surprise celebration. Even his wife and two sons were in on the secret. Principal Stephanie Valentine said the planning came together naturally.
“Springbrook is a family—always has been,” she told Bethesda Beat on Thursday. “It was very easy to pour into someone who’s poured out so much.”
When Frace walked into the room, he thought he was meeting Feher and a few new coaches looking for mentorship. He took off his mask and broke into a grin as the lights turned on and everyone in the packed media center yelled “surprise!”
Valentine, Feher and MCPS athletic director Jeff Sullivan each thanked Frace for his many years of service to the community both in and out of athletic practices.
“Last year you were Springbrook coach of the year—you probably thought it was over with that,” Feher joked.
Standing in front of a giant banner and balloons, he said he’s known Frace for years and admires how mindfully he goes about making sure students are “safe and successful in everything they do.” He added that Frace’s coaching “put Springbrook on the map.”
A congratulatory video was played for the room, narrated by County Councilmember Will Jawando (D-At-Large), in which students highlighted Frace’s communication and mentorship skills. Student Adriana Ferrufino described the support he gave her when she used to experience panic attacks during practices.
“He would be there to help me out,” she said in the video. “He would help calm me down with taking deep breaths.”
Next, Frace was presented with his certification and a decorative plaque. After he stood up and thanked everyone for putting together the event—“from the bottom of my heart, thank you”—one last surprise was sprung: a pre-recorded video from his son Andrew, who couldn’t be there in person.
Several students and former students got up to pay tribute to Frace.
“I used to be super afraid of running,” senior Sofiane Compaore told the room, “and look at me now. I get my hunger from you.”
Bethesda Beat asked Frace what advice he would have given to the new coaches he thought he was going to be meeting that day. He replied:
“Try to coach the way you’d want your kids to be coached. You’ve gotta treat them like your own kids.”