LEWISTON — The Lewiston-Porter school district had a grand unveiling of the Gary Raby Sr. Cross Country course Tuesday evening. The family of the late Lancers coach was in attendance to cut the ribbon on the course's new sign, bearing the name of the man who was known as the "high five coach."
A Lew-Port alum and longtime varsity cross country and track & field coach, Raby had an untimely passing in 2017 due to a battle with cancer at the age of 63. He may no longer be here on Earth with the Lancer faithful, but his spirit and legacy continues on through his former colleagues, athletes and his family, particularly his daughter, Jenn.
"It is such an unbelievable and humbling experience to get to be here," Jenn said, who is now in her father's former role as the cross country head coach.
"And being able to see my dad's name on this sign dedicated to him. I still cannot believe that this is happening and it couldn't go to a better person. My dad was such an extraordinary man and he gave so much to his athletes, to Lew-Port, that there's no else in the world that deserves this more."
The late Raby was also very successful in his tenure, securing two outright Niagara Frontier League championships in girls track & field in 2007 and 2014, with two more co-championships from 2015-16. But his impact on his athletes and the Lancer community cannot be measured in wins and losses.
"I think the biggest thing is I always try to bring a little piece of my dad to practice every single day and that is he was always known for saying 'believe,'" Jenn said
"I always tried to instill that into the kids. No matter what, you just need to believe in yourself and have that positivity that no matter what the obstacles may be, whether you're the underdog or you're the favorite going into your race, you just need to be humbled and know that you work for (it) and you have to believe in yourself."
Lew-Port girls soccer player Claire Skowronski ran for Jenn's father in cross country and track & field from seventh to ninth grade from 2014-17. She raved about how he would never tell a kid that they did bad and that he "was always your biggest cheerleader."
"It's awesome. He was such an important person to me so to finally see something going up for him ... he deserves it," Skowronski said. "He was right there for you always telling you to 'believe.' He went around on the courses and wrote 'believe' on them for us. He was just always there for you. (He) was never down."
Paul Casseri, the Lew-Port school district's superintendent, shared similar stories about the fallen coach and how he even remained upbeat when Casseri visited him days prior to his death. To see the course finally being in place is much to his delight, with the concept being a brainchild that he and Raby concocted in the fall of 2016.
"The startpoint was really just informal conversation and ideas that were kind of being kicked around by Gary and the cross country community for a number of years," Casseri said.
"When we finally came out of some budgetary difficult years, we started to make commitments to these $100,000 capital outlay investments in our campus. It dawned on me that what a great opportunity here, to create a cross country course, not just for our students but for all students in the Niagara Frontier League. But more importantly, to really create an opportunity to bring our community on our campus."
Families in the Lewiston community will be able to use the course as a facility to walk on and use recreationally. It will also be one of the NFL's now three official courses, joining Bond Lake and Beaver Island. This will allow the school to host events like invitationals in the future.
Casseri had a great team around him that was able to get things off the ground, including Brad Vaillancourt of Trautman Associates,who handled the architectural side, and Scott Lawn and Yard who took care of the maintenance of the course.
To see this all coming to life means a lot to Casseri, especially having been so connected with Raby. He talked about a time when Raby did a 100-mile run over a five day span to honor a student that had past away, just because "this is the type of guy that he was."
Casseri also mentioned how Raby made it an effort to look out for troubled kids, raising funds for at-risk youths who battled with social/emotional issues.
"He was super special with the kids. ... You talk about the loneliness of the long-distance runner," Casseri said. "He could get in that kid's head and pull them out. Get them refocused on their goals and their dreams and they're aspirations, both in running and in life."
Brad Halgash, Lew-Port's director of athletics, physical education, health & recreation, also spoke highly of Raby, saying his positive attitude is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the revered coach. Regardless of a tough run or a championship win, Halgash shared that Raby was the first person there to lift kids up in any situation.
"It was the all-around student-athlete that he was concerned about," Halgash said. "Their grades, their behavior, how they treated their teammates, how their teammates treated them. He really approached all the angles of what a student-athlete means."
With the course now set up for future Lancers to come, Halgash envisions the many possibilities in store.
"It started off as just two guys talking back and forth and it ended up (turning) into this," Halgash said.
"Now what I see is opportunity. It's opportunity for kids, it's opportunity for our community, it's opportunity for the Niagara Frontier League to showcase its school(s) and its cross country across the league. To me, that's just what this course is representing is opportunity that it could present to benefit kids and benefit the community."
For more from sports reporter Khari Demos, follow him on Twitter @riri_demos.