It was one of the great partnerships in Arizona cross country.
Dr. Jeff Messer and Dave Van Sickle accomplished much in their seven years together at Phoenix Xavier Prep, leading the girls team to a runner-up finish in their first season before reeling off six consecutive big-schools state championships.
Messer left his post as co-head coach after last year, but it didn’t take long for him to pop up in a familiar place. He’s now the coach of Phoenix Desert Vista’s girls team, Xavier’s biggest threat for the Division I state title that will be decided at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Cave Creek Golf Course.
It’s not quite Bill Belichick bouncing between the rival Patriots and Jets, or Joe Torre managing both the Yankees and the Dodgers, but it does add an intriguing story line to what was already going to be a thrilling race.
The two coaches first joined forces before the 2006 season. Messer, 51, had recently completed his Ph.D in exercise physiology at Arizona State and was working with Kari Hardt, an elite distance runner who won two cross country titles at Queen Creek High before moving on to ASU.
Van Sickle, 53, was nearing his 17th season at Xavier and needed to fill an assistant coaching vacancy. He arranged a meeting with Messer, and it soon became clear that Messer’s strong passion and focus on the science of running meshed well with Van Sickle’s more laid back, runner-friendly approach.
“The combination was perfect,” Van Sickle said. “He brought the intensity, and I brought the calm. It was kind of like Good Cop, Bad Cop.”
After one season, Van Sickle realized that Messer’s title of assistant didn’t reflect the multitude of responsibilities he had taken on, so he elevated Messer to co-head coach. Then all Xavier did was dominate cross country’s highest classifications for the next six years, taking the state championship in each.
Messer left Xavier following the 2012 season with the intent of stepping away from coaching altogether and concentrating on his teaching duties at Mesa Community College.
That changed when good friend Chris Hanson asked Messer if he would be willing to help out as a volunteer coach with his Desert Vista boys team. Messer accepted, and after longtime Desert Vista girls coach Doug Christofis resigned shortly after, Messer was encouraged to apply and then suddenly found himself at the helm of his former school’s biggest rival.
“My vision for the spring changed dramatically,” he said.
Xavier and Desert Vista have been mainstays at the top of meet leaderboards this season, and are widely expected to finish 1-2 at the state championship on Saturday. Desert Vista, which came in third last season and was runner-up to Xavier the three years prior, is hoping Messer can push it over the top.
“Desert Vista’s always been up there,” Xavier senior Shelby Brown said. “Now that they have Coach Messer, it’ll be interesting. It’ll be exciting to see how the state meet plays out for both teams. We both want it. We both have high expectations.”
The coaches downplay the situation, calling it just a friendly rivalry. They still talk frequently, about everything from cross country to family to college football. On Saturday each will be more interested in the performances of their girls than in claiming bragging rights over the other.
“Win or lose, it’s all good,” Van Sickle said. “I’m in a happy place. I know there’s a streak on the line, but you know what? Streaks end all the time. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be great to win, but if we don’t win, it is not the end of the world.”
No matter the result, Van Sickle and Messer will meet after the race for a handshake — or more likely a hug.
“You look at Dave Van Sickle and Jeff Messer,” Messer said, “and I think you got two guys that are always going to have an affection for each other, a genuine heartfelt care for each other and a genuine desire to see the other do well. It’s a strong bond.”
Perhaps sensing things getting a little too sappy, Van Sickle makes it clear that their model friendship doesn’t make them any less of competitors.
“Hey, if they win this year,” he said, “he’s got to know that we’re going to be right there nipping at their toes next year.”