by Andrew Garda

When Matt Bach starts his tenure as the head coach for the boys and girls cross country, indoor winter track and spring track programs at Montclair Kimberley Academy, he knows he has some big running shoes to fill.

That’s because he knew Tom Fleming, the MKA coach he is replacing. Fleming, who passed away at the age of 65 in April, was a mentor and a became a friend to Bach over the past few years due to their shared involvement in what Fleming used to call “The Church of Sunday Morning long run.”

Bach had begun training with Alden Basmajian, a track coach at MKA with Fleming. The two men were aiming to compete in Ironman Triathlons and along with several other runners, gathered for a long run at Brookdale Park each Sunday. The run lasted between 12 and 23 miles, usually averaging about 17.

Fleming wasn’t running long distances like that anymore, but he would drive alongside the runners with his car windows rolled down. Bach said he would keep a constant chatter going, telling stories, critiquing technique, cracking jokes and handing out water as the runners made their way.

“It was an amazing experience and chance to know Tom,” Bach recalled. “How funny, gracious and generous he was.”

Bach called losing Fleming “surreal,” a feeling certainly shared by many students, faculty and Montclair citizens who knew Fleming over the years. Most recently, we saw an example of this when Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. dedicated the “The Oval” in Essex County Brookdale Park as the “Tom Fleming Athletic Complex” in honor of Fleming.

Despite knowing Fleming, when Bach took the job initially, the enormity of replacing a legend hadn’t really occurred to him.

“I never really thought about stepping into Tom Fleming’s footsteps until someone brought it up,” he said.

Now that he has thought it through, he’s excited by the challenge, but also aware that the team is still processing the loss. They’ll also be losing Basmajian, who has served as interim head coach, when the season is over, as he will be moving to Virginia.

Bach has worked to get to know the team by attending the recent NJSIAA Sectionals and introducing himself during a recent fall sports seminar MKA put on. He’ll get to know them more over the summer as well, when students will be training for the fall.

Still, he knows it may take some time to really connect with the kids.

“I’m ready to embrace the challenge,” Bach said about filling Fleming’s role. “I hope students are ready to embrace the opportunity, [but I know] everyone grieves differently.”

More than anything, Bach just wants them to understand this is still the same program they ran in under Fleming. He’s hoping they can embrace the challenge in front of them, trusting in the program that’s already there and give Bach a chance to lead them and help them improve as individuals.

While some top seniors like Billy Massey will be departing for college, Bach says there remains a talented core group and he’s impressed with the returning team.

“There are a number of girls and guys who can step up,” he said. “I’m excited to see where we are as a team, where we can take them and where they can go in the fall.”

While Bach knows who some of the leaders will be — he expects Nick Wilson, Anna Schaller and Matt Petrocelli all to step into lead roles — he also knows some new faces could step up. Part of summer will be finding those diamonds in the rough and giving them a chance to shine.

“It‘s early to figure who will step up. Summer development is big determinant, and an athlete can see better production with more training,” Bach said. “The fifth-best runner can fall behind others, while the 13th-ranked runner can climb and make varsity team if they are impressing with practices.”

Leadership is also not just about physical prowess, he said.

“Some captains are physically faster and are respected because of performance. Some show attributes that are less about performance and more about interacting with the team, keeping a good and positive attitude and being a good support system.”

Bach says that can have a greater impact than one guy running well.

The 30-year old Bach comes from an interesting background. Until recently, he worked on Wall Street and had been doing so for nine years, since leaving college.

While he wasn’t coaching, he was competing. Bach has spent seven years training at an elite level for Ironman Triathlon, much of it with Basmajian. While he says he was a decent high school athlete, he knows and appreciates competition at a different level now.

Bach won the 2014 Maryland Ironman in 8 hours and 51 minutes, a time he said was a “breakthrough performance.” He also competed in the 2013 and 2015 Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.

The World Championships only invite the top 1 percent of each age group to compete, and Bach’s two invitations tell you he can compete at a high level.

He’s hoping that experience will allow him to give the kids a window into competing at an elite level and what it takes to succeed in the sport.

That’s why, despite the challenge of replacing a legend as well as a well-liked assistant and interim coach in Basmajian, Bach says the opportunity was too good to pass on.

And that’s why, even though the season is still months away, Bach’s work has already begun.