Michael Sexton is the head girls cross country coach at Mill Creek, as well as an assistant coach for track and field. He was named the Gwinnett Daily Post Coach of the Year in the fall, his first cross country season as head coach. His team finished a Gwinnett-best seventh at state.
Sexton, who was born in Germany, is an accomplished Gwinnett County athlete from his time at Brookwood from 2005-09. He was all-county in track in 2009, all-county in cross country from 2006-08 and was a county record holder in the 3,200-meter relay. He also ran cross country at Berry College. Staff correspondent Jarell Rushin asked Sexton about his career.
JR: You were born in Germany. How was living there, and when did you move to the U.S.?
MS: I didn’t get to live there for very long. My dad was on assignment for the Army, and we moved back to the states before my second birthday. So I don’t remember any of it. We moved a lot while I was younger though, so I’ve lived in Savannah, Ga., Kentucky, Louisiana, Kansas, North Carolina and then finally Snellville, Ga., for my high school years.
JR: Why did you choose Berry College?
MS: I went there because I was talking to a couple colleges and I wanted to go somewhere I could run. Paul Deaton is an absolute most mastermind of a coach and I felt really at home around the team when I went up to visit during my senior year.
JR: What was the injury that ended your career as a junior?
MS: It was something in my knee and we never figured out exactly what. It may have been some type of scar tissue behind my knee and made it really hard to do any longer runs or hard workouts. I took a couple of years off and nowdays it’s mostly back to normal.
JR: Do you still run today?
MS: I run with our cross country team most of the time when they do mileage.
JR: How did you get started in cross country?
MS: I got started because my cousin threatened me. My parents said that since Brookwood was such a big school that I had to get involved in something. They kind of gave me the options of doing marching band or doing cross country practice. My older cousin was on the girls team and she forced me to come to a couple of practices with her over the summer, and after I had done that for about a month it started to click with me just how special of a thing the team was and what the sport was like and how much I actually enjoyed it. So, I owe a lot of it to her getting me out there in the first place.
JR: What was your most special moment at Brookwood during high school?
MS: Probably my favorite memory at Brookwood was we were doing a (1,600-meter) relay. And this is a really weird memory because we had a bunch of times that we won county, we won region, we did good at state, but probably my favorite memory was a (3,200-meter) relay in track with me and a bunch of the other seniors that I had grown up with for four years doing one last big event together and having fun with that.
JR: Why were you such a successful cross country athlete at Brookwood?
MS: It was because of Coach (Ben) Dehnke and because of my teammates constantly being there and supporting me and pushing me every day at practice, and pushing each other. He made sure we always had fun with it, too. I wouldn’t be anywhere I am today without Coach Dehnke’s guidance, without all the friends I had back then kind of showing me how fun running can be because running by yourself sounds just awful. But if you’re around the right people it makes it all worth it.
JR: Is there a similar atmosphere at Mill Creek?
MS: The Mill Creek culture feels a lot like what I loved back at Brookwood. The kids have the right attitude. They’re all in it to compete, but also to support each other. The coaches that I get to work with are all in it for the right reasons. It’s a great thing. We like to say it’s a family feel and that sounds cheesy but it really does have that vibe about it.
JR: How did you wind up at Mill Creek?
MS: After college, I spent a year community coaching with St. Pius and Ryan McClay and Mike Demarest and their crew down there. Ryan knew that I was looking to find a school to land with and get more directly involved in. He knows Andy Christie at Mill Creek well, so Andy said that he was looking for a new assistant coach, and Ryan did a good job of putting the two of us together.
JR: Did you ever imagine yourself in coaching?
MS: A little bit, yeah. It was always in the back of my mind that I loved cross country and I liked to be involved with it long-term, but I went on to a bunch of possible career paths (laughing) before actually realizing that that was what I really wanted to do and then that first year with St. Pius really solidified that for me, that this was the right place for me and I was doing what I actually loved.
JR: What was in the back of your head that made you interested in coaching?
MS: The team atmosphere. Cross country is amazing. Even though it’s definitely an individual sport, like you’ve got to go out there and do it yourself, but every team I’ve ever been involved with, from Brookwood to St. Pius to Mill Creek to Berry College, it’s a group of kids and guys and people who all are 100 percent in it for each other and supporting each other in any way that they can. It’s just a really special thing to be in and to help build up around you.
JR: Take me down the timeline of those other career paths you went down before coaching. What was your first occupation?
MS: My first occupation was an attempt at law school. I went down to Georgia State and even though I liked the school and I liked the program, I realized really quickly that being a lawyer wasn’t quite the right thing for me. So I pulled out of that after about a month and landed a small job with a construction company for the rest of the year because by that point it was September, so finding a teaching job or anything like that wasn’t going to happen. Then the St. Pius staff brought me on to help out, and that’s why I was community coaching with them because I was trying to juggle that construction job for a year while I looked for the next step. So law school to construction to teaching. It was a weird path.
JR: Where did you have the most fun at in between graduating from Berry and coaching at Mill Creek?
MS: I definitely had the most fun teaching. The others definitely had positive aspects to them, but teaching is where my heart’s at now.
JR: Is there anything that you can apply from law school and construction to coaching and teaching at Mill Creek?
MS: Just kind of work ethic (laughing). If you set your mind to anything well enough, you can make it work. Construction definitely was not something I had ever planned on, but when that became the cards I was dealt for a little while, I just buckled down and made the most of it. Everything worked out in the end.
JR: How was the transition from being assistant boys coach to girls cross country head coach in 2018?
MS: The challenges that I had faced was that I had never worked with a girls program before, not through Pius or through all my time with Mill Creek. I’d been very focused on guys teams. Somehow I kept landing on guys teams, and then switching over to work with the girls I thought was going to be a lot more of a challenge than it was, but the girls at Mill Creek are just absolutely fantastic young ladies. They made the transition really easy, they did everything that I ever asked. They worked so hard for me, just straight out of the gate, so they helped a whole lot by just being themselves. Being at Mill Creek was helpful too because that was where I had my roots already. I had been there for a few years, and I’ve got a really good working relationship with Coach Andy Christie. Having him literally right down the hall to help mentor me and guide me with everything that I was doing and double-check on me and help me out with some stuff, just having him there was an incredible blessing every step of the way.
JR: How was your experience as a first-time head coach and grabbing the fall 2018 GDP Coach of the Year award?
MS: The experience was amazing. Our girls program progressed very, very quickly because of all the hard work that the girls put in. We had a whole bunch of leaders step up and take the reins of the team. We were in a weird position coming into the season because most of our top seven from the year before were gone. We graduated a whole lot of seniors, so I was a new coach and we had new girls trying to step up into leadership positions that hadn’t had to do it before. So one of the best parts of the past season to me at least, especially, was just seeing it all come together and how well the girls performed under such unusual, unexpected circumstances for them.