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Papineau steps back after 20 years in parochial league

Track coach nearing the finish line after two decades of successful sports coaching

Published: February 23, 2024   
Dwain Hebda
Clem Papineau urges his Mount St. Mary Belles runners on during a sprinting drill Feb. 12. The longtime volunteer coach and parochial league cross-country and track and field chief is headed into retirement at the end of this school year.

On the second floor of Mount St. Mary Academy, a collection of athletic high schoolers stretch for track practice. Running in the halls, as almost everyone knows, has long been strictly forbidden here but today presents a rare exception to the long-standing rule. 

Cold blustery weather has forced the Belles track team from nearby Scott Field into a decidedly makeshift Plan B.

Clem Papineau rallies the girls and with the help of two assistant coaches, works them through their warm-ups. The setup is far from ideal, but it hardly fazes Papineau, who after decades coaching track and field — plus his own participation in high school as a sprinter and high jumper — has seen a little bit of everything.

“My wife’s a graduate from Mount St. Mary’s, but I’ve never had a kid on the Mount team,” he said when asked what drew him to the Belles. “They were looking for some coaches one year. I used to coach at Catholic, and they came to me and said, ‘Hey, will you help?’ That was at least six, seven, eight years ago, maybe longer.”

Papineau has not only left his mark on the Mount St. Mary and Catholic High programs, but also Christ the King Church and School where his family has long been members and where his sons competed in athletics.

“My oldest, Tripper, was going to play basketball, and I just felt like I needed to be around him a little bit more. I asked the athletic director if I could help coach basketball,” he said. “She put me with a couple guys, and I was an assistant coach in basketball for Tripper’s four years and then I stayed as a coach for Hunter, my other son. I also coached golf at Christ the King.

“Then one day the athletic director came to me and said, ‘Hey, in 2004 we’re starting a track program. Would you like to be the track coach?’ I really enjoyed track when I was in high school so I said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to do that.’ That’s how it started.”

Were Papineau’s story to stop there, it would mirror that of many dedicated parents who volunteer in Catholic schools to help make programs go. In Papineau’s case, however, he would be destined to do that and then some, organizing and managing parochial league meets both in cross country and track and field for more than two decades as a volunteer.

The first couple of years of running the meet were learning experiences, but as time went on and more parents were recruited as volunteers, the process became smoother.

“At one time, we were running 400 kids. I used to get a lot of grief from teachers, principals, parents, the diocese,” Papineau said. “We started the meet at 4:30 or 5 o’clock (and) we wouldn’t get out of there until 9:30 or 10. It was a five-hour night.

“I got some people involved that knew how to do check in, then I got the Mount girls to come down and shepherd the kids and get them where they needed to be. Once that started moving, the meets started going fast, fast, fast. We can run a whole meet in three-and-a-half hours. There’s no public school that can do that.”

With the formula set, Papineau turned his attention to expanding the number of meets, eventually growing to four track and field meets and five cross country meets a year, giving kids more to run for than just one competitive outing.

“It was really important to me that our Parochial League kids get the same experience that the public-school kids get,” Papineau said.  

The parochial program has produced a number of former runners going on to high school and even the college ranks. Hundreds more got the experience of a well-run contest and developed healthy habits that have followed them into adulthood. As both coach and meet director, Papineau is proud to have played a founding role in that legacy.

“It makes me feel really good that I got kids interested in running,” he said. “It’s why I went to clinics as a coach, why I read all the time, why I watched YouTube videos. I wanted to craft my coaching game so that I could give kids the basics so that when they went to Catholic or Mount St. Mary’s or wherever they went, when they got there their coach got a well-rounded athlete that knew all the basics.”

After more than two decades, Papineau himself is nearing the finish line. He managed his final cross-country season in the fall and has announced that this spring’s track meets will be his last in charge as he trains his replacements. 

He’s also hung up his coaching cleats at Christ the King and plans to do the same at the Mount soon, saying it was time for someone else to take over. Truth be told, however, he talks like a man who may never fully disconnect from the program he spent so many years growing and developing.

“My wife, Debbie, is going to retire from the Little Rock School District this year so we have things planned. I’m plenty busy,” he said of the future. “I don’t know how far I’ll step away, though. I thought I was going to step away from the cross-country program completely, but I asked the new meet directors if they’d let me come back and time the meets, just so I could hang around with it.”

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