Layne impressed with direction of ETSU athletics

Douglas Fritz • Jan 20, 2016 at 6:09 PM

Having qualified for the 5,000-meter national championships in 2000, East Tennessee State’s Catherine (Berry) Layne was excited about her prospects in the event.

Then she was called into the office of ETSU athletic director Frank Pergolizzi.

“He told me it was an event I didn’t have to go to, if I didn’t want to,” said Layne. “Honestly it was as if he couldn’t have cared less either way. Obviously I wanted to go to the national championship. That was my last chance to go to the NCAA meet. It was a big deal for me.”

Layne went to Duke University for the event and earned All-America honors, finishing eighth with a time of 16:18.07 — less than 24 seconds off the national championship pace of Colorado’s Kara Wheeler. It was an accomplishment that played a key role for her upcoming induction into the ETSU Hall of Fame.

She said recounting the story of her visit with Pergolizzi wasn’t meant to highlight a negative thing, but rather to spotlight how much ETSU has grown in a positive way.

“ETSU has come a long way in athletics,” said Layne. “The university is more supportive to athletics. I think 2000 was just a really odd year with just a lot going on. So it’s not necessarily in a horrible light, but the twist is ETSU developed into something it didn’t used to be.

“Had I not gone to ETSU, I don’t know how my career would have panned out. It was just a good fit, and it was the place for me. I loved the team and made really good friends.”

Just being at ETSU seemed a stretch for Layne, who first attended the University of Arkansas. She was a top-level athlete from Great Britain, and Arkansas came calling along with Villanova, Alabama, and other big-time track programs. Ironically, Layne said she was never recruited by any smaller schools.

But Arkansas and Layne didn’t fit, and the pieces started to fall into place for her move to ETSU.

“I had a friend who was coming to Johnson City, and an assistant coach at Arkansas got a head coaching job at ETSU,” said Layne. “I already had a lot of ties to ETSU without really knowing it. When I decided not to go back to the University of Arkansas after my freshman year, the idea was thrown out to me about ETSU. I said I would try it. As soon as I got there, I knew I would like it.”

Arkansas didn’t release Layne, so she had to sit out a year. But it didn’t take long for her to make an impact.

She was chosen as the Southern Conference Cross Country Runner of the Year in 1997, and won Southern Conference indoor event titles in 1998 and 2000. She still holds the ETSU record in the outdoor 5,000 meters with a time of 16:00.97, and was a member of the school-record indoor distance medley relay team in 1998. Layne made six trips to NCAA meets, three in cross country and three in track and field.

Having success at a smaller university was fine with Layne.

“I loved the environment,” she said. “I felt comfortable and that was a big plus. You can go somewhere smaller and not have the best team in the world, but as a runner it doesn’t matter. You can do it anywhere.”

She also said Coach Milan Donley played an important role in her success.

“When I first came, he was the head men’s coach,” said Layne. “But they combined the programs and he became head coach of both.”

These days, Layne said it’s nice to be back in the athletic spotlight because her daughter, seven-year-old Mahri, hasn’t really seen her that way.

“My husband, Chris, is head (track) coach at Milligan College, and because I retired when I had Mahri, she never really thought of me as a runner,” said Layne. “Everything track and field is Chris. It wasn’t until the Hall of Fame induction she saw me in that way. She became really excited. It has been kind of funny to see her reaction.”

As for Layne’s reaction to the induction, she said it has been a good one.

“I think it’s a great honor,” she said.

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