Former M-S track, cross-country standout now leads the pack at St. Thomas More

For most 22-year-olds, graduating from college is No. 1 on the resume. But Tessa Hanlon's resume is so packed that a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois just doesn't resonate quite as much.

The Mahomet-Seymour grad is now the head coach of the girls' track and field team at St. Thomas More High School and has led the Sabers to some big-time success.

"At the time, I was 20 years old in the middle of my undergrad at the University of Illinois," Hanlon said. "I was not expecting any type of commitment like that, but honestly, I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. It has been so worth it to help them reach their goals and succeed."

Hanlon led STM to a fifth-place finish at the Class 1A state finals at Eastern Illinois University on May 19. STM finished with 33 points as a team. The Sabers were just three points behind Farmington, which placed second.

A top-two finish in Class 1A was well within reach. STM qualified eight individuals for the finals, which was more than any other Class 1A team.

"Shortly after I came on as a head coach at STM, I realized that there was a lot of young talent on our team," Hanlon said. "This pushed me to dedicate myself 100 percent to coaching because they deserve a coach who is willing to match their level of enthusiasm and commitment."

Hanlon ran track and field and cross-country at M-S and graduated in 2013. The lessons she learned at Mahomet have been put to good use at STM. Although STM is much smaller than M-S, Hanlon's program has established itself as one of the best in the area.

"The program at Mahomet has high expectations," Hanlon said. "I carried the work ethic from Mahomet into the coaching at STM. I also set those expectations for my athletes. Having high standards has helped them achieve great things. That came from the work ethic from Mahomet."

Hanlon was coached at M-S by Illinois Track and Cross-Country Coaches Association Hall of Famer Bonnie Moxley. Team-bonding activities were a huge part of Moxley's program, and Hanlon borrowed some of her ideas such as pasta dinners and overnight team trips.

"I'm a big fan of doing stuff together as a team," Hanlon said. "I strongly believe that the best teams are the best individuals who are also best friends with each other. As they get closer as friends, we start to grow and get better. They love to go to practice and hang out with each other. That's the secret to success."

But it was M-S boys' cross-country coach Neal Garrison who really molded Hanlon's coaching style. Garrison has led the Bulldogs to two straight Class 2A boys' cross-country state titles.

"I've been so inspired by Neal Garrison and his program," Hanlon said. "My brother went through his program, and my boyfriend. It seriously changed their lives and I want my program to have that impact, too.

"Coach Garrison had a way of showing them through example that their hard work will pay off and to be confident in who they are. I've seen the graduates around my age, five years out, still having that confidence in everything that they do. I think it's a contagious passion and I'd love for my team to have that as well."

Hanlon is just a couple years older than some of her own athletes. But that isn't a bad thing. Hanlon knows how they think, and she remembers the pressure that she had in high school.

"That has been the biggest advantage of being a young coach is that I can relate to them," Hanlon said. "I just graduated from high school five years ago and those memories are still very fresh in my mind. A lot of adults are so far removed that they don't see the inner workings there. It's helped me a lot to have that perspective."

Even though her playing days are over, Hanlon has continued to run. She has completed four marathons since graduating from M-S, including the Boston Marathon in 2016.

"Running is my passion," Hanlon said. "The Boston Marathon was life-changing. The first time I crossed the finish line of a marathon, I knew that I had achieved something I thought I could never do."

Hanlon will begin her master's program in school counseling in a couple weeks. Juggling school and coaching has led to a lot of late nights, but the reward is far greater than the cost.

Hanlon's team has become more than just a job. Her players have become her family.

"I almost think of all of them like younger sisters in how I care for them," Hanlon said. "I've learned the importance of believing in the student-athletes and how much of a difference that makes.

"Believe in them and make your faith obvious to them because confidence is everything in running. The biggest role that I play is helping my athletes realize what has always been inside of them."

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