PRINCETON: Woodside following friend to PDS helm

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
John Woodside was officiating track and field when Princeton Day School cross country coach Merrell Noden first asked him about running the Panthers program.
“He said, ‘I don’t know if I can coach next fall,’” recalled Woodside. “‘If not, I want you take over.’”
Woodside responded with only well wishes for his long-time friend who was battling cancer, but watched as Noden’s condition only worsened over the next months. In May, Noden died, a terrible loss for the PDS community, the running and coaching community and countless others touched by his talents. Woodside took seriously Noden’s request to take over and returns to the area as the new PDS head cross country coach.
“The nice part of it is we’ve been friends for a long time and lifelong runners and love the sport,” said Woodside, who last coached boys cross country at Princeton High School in 2012. “The fact that he sort of thought of me and wanted me to take over, that makes a big difference. It means a lot to me. I also think it’s great for the program and the kids. It affected the kids so much.”
Woodside is hoping to ease the transition for his new team by bringing the same passion and enjoyment for the sport that Noden shared. Woodside isn’t happy about the circumstances that brought him back, but he is thrilled to be guiding another team.
“I certainly was interested in getting a coaching job,” he said. “I don’t know that I would have taken any job.”
Getting the blessing of Noden helped push him toward considering PDS, a program he knew something about from coaching at Princeton. PDS does not have a track program, but Noden had helped keep the cross country team competitive.
“Essentially he is the reason they looked at me and hired me,” Woodside said. “I’m very happy to be the coach. That’s my favorite sport. I love track too, but cross country is a core distance running sport.”
It was through running that Woodside met Noden. The two can go far back first as competitors, then as occasional training partners.
“He was so good,” Woodside said. “We knew each other very well. In college, we hooked up in the summer time and would go to these meets in Rider and Trenton and run against each other. After college, occasionally we would run together. We have a lot of mutual friends.”
Woodside is getting to know the team that Noden coached last year. The Panthers have started training this week, and Woodside is looking forward to welcoming more to the team after the summer vacation season ends.
“Next week, we’ll have pretty much the whole team here,” he said. “They’re not used to starting this week. That was something I put in there. Most of them were away and it was too late (to change their plans).
“We don’t have a lot of time,” he added. “But we’ll get ready.”
The Panthers open the season Sept. 9 in a dual meet with Pennington. Woodside will go from focusing on the Mercer County Championships and sectionals to the Prep B championships for the PDS boys and girls, but those details aren’t so significant. He is looking forward to working with a cross country team again.
“A funny thing about coaching for me, I always felt like it was something I wanted to do,” Woodside said. “When I finally got the job in Princeton, after I was doing it for a while, I realized this is the perfect thing for me. It combines my knowledge of running and love of running with the ability to work with kids. It’s fantastic. It really is what I should be doing. I’m good at it. The kids like me. It’s a lot of fun. I love working with high school kids and teaching them how to be better athletes. It’s something I love.” 