Since Jim Fischer arrived as Ursuline Academy’s cross country and track coach in 2015, the Raiders’ fortunes have steadily improved. This past fall, they won their third straight Division II cross country state championship, a title that had eluded the school since 1998.
For that, and to recognize 40-plus years in Delaware leading young men and women, Fischer has been named the recipient of the 2020 Tubby Raymond Coach of the Year Award, voted on annually by the Delaware Sportswriters and Broadcasters Association. The award is usually presented at a Presidents Day luncheon, but that was not held this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
He spent 30 years coaching at the University of Delaware until the program was disbanded in 2010-11. Fischer went to Delaware Technical and Community College before taking over at Sanford School, which led him to Ursuline in 2015.
“Sanford, it was a good situation, but they don’t have outdoor track, and I wanted to do all three seasons,” Fischer said recently at Ursuline. “My third year at Sanford, Ursuline didn’t have a track coach for indoor, so I coached both of them. Sanford would come to Serviam Field. So I would just coach both of them.”
The opportunity to coach all three seasons — cross country, indoor track and outdoor track — brought him to Ursuline, and in the years since, the Raiders have returned to the top of the state’s cross country programs. This past fall, they won their third straight Division II state championship. Fischer credits his assistants, Melanie Aube and Brittany Keller, and the girls on the roster.
“We’re pretty lucky. We’ve got some pretty talented kids here. Coaching is part of it, but it’s really the kids and how hard they want to work,” he said.
Senior Emily Rzucidlo has been running for Fischer for four years. She said her coach has been very supportive on the track and off.
“Sometimes, when things aren’t going the way I want, he’s always there to support me. He talks me through things, and he’s been a role model for me the last four years,” she said.
Fischer, a Minnesota native, spent 10 years coaching in high school and at a small college before the Delaware job became vacant. He said he was walking out of the fieldhouse in Newark after his interview when he was offered the position. At Delaware, he coached with his award’s namesake, Tubby Raymond.
He attributed his longevity at the university to the energy of his athletes.
“I was fortunate,” he said. “The kids that I got to work with wanted to be there. And I think that was really important. No matter where they were talent-wise, they were all wanting to get better.”
That is the key to his coaching philosophy, to help his athletes improve. His approach has changed a bit since his transition to high school, where the athletes may be on very different skill levels.
“Our philosophy is improvement. Some of the kids may be intimidated by how good some of the other kids are, but we try to focus on them getting better than they were yesterday,” he said.
It is important to remember, he added, that “only one person can be in first place.”
State championships are nice, but there are years where a third-place finish might have just as much meaning. He also remembers athletes throughout his 52-year coaching career who made remarkable progress, which is fun for him to witness. Other times, it’s the reaction of an athlete at their own improvement that gets to him.
“That’s good that it has that meaning. And sometimes it’s not the championships,” he said.
This winter, Fischer has been coaching the Ursuline indoor team at outdoor events, as the pandemic has essentially robbed the winter track athletes of their season. He said they have had meets outside, even when the temperatures have been around the freezing mark and there’s been snow on the ground.
“Our kids are out there in 30-degree weather. They come there every day, and they work hard. They chit chat with each other. It’s just such a pleasant thing. We have an indoor sport, and we don’t have a facility, and they’re just happy to be out there,” he said.
Fischer has passed his coaching acumen to others. Marnie Giunta and Patrick Castagno have built Padua Academy and Tatnall School, respectively, into powerhouses. Both ran for Fischer at Delaware, and both are previous winners of the Raymond Award.
The Raymond Award, established in 2000, is certainly not the first accolade for Fischer. In fact, he was honored by the DSBA in 2012 with the Herm Reitzes Award for community service. He has been involved with Special Olympics and the Leukemia Society. He initiated and ran the Tuesday Night Running Group for members of the community to run at the University of Delaware. He founded the Delaware Track and Field Hall of Fame, and he was inducted into the Delaware Sports Museum and Hall of Fame in 2012.
Rzucidlo said Ursuline is fortunate to have such an accomplished coach at the helm.
“He has so much knowledge. I think it’s really important to listen to what he has to say,” she said.
At 72, Fischer knows he doesn’t have the energy he once did, but he still has the desire to guide young people.
“I enjoy being at Ursuline,” he said. “I enjoy being with the other two coaches on the staff. I enjoy being with the kids. So, that’s a big deal.”