By David Miles
HARTLAND — The nine children in the family of John and Donna-Lee Bassette make just enough to field a baseball team — and if that’s what they wanted to play, they’d probably be pretty good at it too.
Instead, the Bassette clan has turned primarily to running and Nordic skiing. As a result, they have left a trail of excellence across the local high school sports landscape for the better part of the last decade.
“I’ve lost count of all the individual and relay state championships that the kids have won in track and skiing,” John Sr. said. “But I know that it’s a very hard thing to do at Woodstock.”
In The Beginning, A Hill
The family’s athleticism has roots from the earliest years. The Bassette family property in Hartland has a nice steep Vermont hill in the backyard.
“I never thought about it at first,” Donna-Lee said. “But the kids always climbed that hill, even in their diapers. They loved to be outside all the time. And that hill develops muscles.
“I didn’t realize it until they would have friends over to play and the friends couldn’t climb the ways our kids would. It was their geography.”
Their running prowess began innocently enough. Eldest son John Jr., now 26 and an infantry officer currently stationed at Fort Drum in upstate New York, took a part-time job in eighth grade about five miles from home.
“I ran to work,” John Jr. said. “Then I began to time myself to see how long it took. I enjoyed it and Dad recommended I consider racing.”
Donna-Lee picks up the tale.
“Everywhere he went he would run,” she said. “At first we weren’t going to get involved. It was just something he did. But as a family we entered the Shamrock Shuffle in Lebanon, most of the kids running in blue jeans.”
The family did a few more races that summer. At one of them, Bruce Franzen, who was coaching cross country in Hartford at the time, saw John Jr. run and learned that he, like all his siblings, was homeschooled. He approached John and suggested that he consider joining one of the area high school cross country teams.
A Sibling And School Rivalry
Beginning in 2002, John Jr, was running both cross country and track for the Yellowjackets. Joel followed his older brother to Windsor and the program grew and, led by the brothers, two state championships for Windsor followed.
James planned to run for Windsor too. But he was taking math classes at Woodstock, and then, Hank Glass, assistant track and cross country coach at Woodstock, began treating James for a knee injury. So he switched over to the Woodstock athletic programs. With these ties already established, it was a more natural fit.
This placed the family in a unique situation. Joel was the Windsor captain in cross country. Younger brother James ran against his brother in cross country.
Come winter, both boys skied together on the Nordic team at Woodstock. (Windsor does not have a Nordic ski program.) But in the spring Joel returned to Windsor for track, while James continued to run for Woodstock.
Tracy Rose, head coach in track and cross country at Woodstock, credits James for being the catalyst that began to turn the track fortunes around at the school.
“It seems like everything started with him,” Rose said. “He was so talented and enthusiastic that he got others excited. He was such a great role model. It was the time when our numbers, for both boys and girls, really started to grow.”
John Jr. had no idea what he had started when he began to race competitively.
“My brothers saw what I was doing and that I was having some success,” John Jr. said. “So they joined in, following my footsteps. By the time I was a junior, Joel was a freshman. So we ran on the team together.”
“And James,” he stated proudly, “was beating high school runners as a middle schooler. He had run a 4:52 mile in sixth grade. He was really something.”
James continued that success with the Woodstock program, winning a pair of individual state championships in the 800-meter run and the 1,500-meter run his senior year, leading the team to a fifth-place finish.
Running was not the only place that his younger brothers followed John Jr. It was his decision to attend West Point after finishing high school. Joel, James and Josh all ultimately pursued their secondary education at the U.S. Military Academy as well.
The Legend Grows
The Bassette family’s greatest athletic success may be in Nordic skiing, however. Eldest brother John Jr. had only taken it up his senior year, but James and Joel began it earlier (and continued with the club team at West Point). Josh excelled at it.
“All four Bassette skiers that I have coached are very dedicated and committed and they work very hard. And the family tradition of excellence seems to mean that each successive sibling gets a little stronger and a little better,” says Nordic skiing coach Nick Mahood. “…Now we have the same thing happening with the girls’ squad. And Kathryn may be another beneficiary of that.”
For now, Elizabeth and Kathryn are preparing for the upcoming track season. They not only helped propel the Woodstock girls to their third consecutive title last spring, the duo outscored all but three of the D-III teams competing. So consider the Bassette Home School as the fourth place finisher in the Vermont High School Track and Field State Championships.
Elizabeth has won the triple jump for three straight years, beginning as a freshman. She also has a pair of long jump titles as well. And last year she added a pair of runner-up finishes in both the 200 meters and the 400 meters.
Rose, meanwhile, steered Kathryn towards some of the events in which Woodstock has not scored many points in previous years. All she did was tie for first in the pole vault, the first year Woodstock has even competed in the discipline, as well as snag first place in the 300-meter hurdles.
Elizabeth switched back from soccer to cross-country after her junior year. “I’m more of a sprinter than a long distance runner,” she says. But this didn’t stop her from being on the team at the State Championship Meet in Thetford.
In that meet as she was approaching the finish line she was stuck between two Harwood runners. With Harwood and Woodstock being neck-and-neck in the team race every point was important. “With Hank’s inspirational speech in my head — and because I’m so intense about all my sports — I thought I can use sprinter’s speed to outpace them at the finish.”
Five yards from the end her legs gave way. She doesn’t remember much after that, other than the EMTs and that it was very traumatic and the family spent much of the rest of the day at the hospital.
Everybody who was there to see the effort and the spill knew that they had witnessed an athlete pushing herself further than she could have imagined.
The Future Looks Bright
For their part, while delighting in their children’s successes, John and Donna-Lee have not pushed them toward sports at all. John had done track, cross-country and Nordic skiing while in high school in Hartford, but Donna-Lee considers herself decidedly unathletic.
“Whatever they do, we want them to excel at,” John said. “We have tried to instill in them a strong work ethic, so that they will work hard and be successful, whether it is academics or athletics or some other field. We want them to be well-rounded.”
After Elizabeth and Kathryn move onto college, 13-year old Matthew, 11-year old Justice and 9-year old Victoria will take up the mantle. Matthew is running with the middle school program in Hartland.
“Another benefit from this is that the kids all coach each other. They get along great, with the older ones helping the younger ones,” Donna-Lee adds.
Rose concurs. “You couldn’t find better, more self-motivated kids. They have been a huge help to me. On days when I haven’t had an assistant coach, I have leaned on all of them to help me. Anything that I ask of them is well received.
“And their work ethic is amazing. Others feed off of it. They really do.”
Teammates feed off this discipline. Younger siblings do as well. “The domino effect in this family can go a long ways,” John Sr. said.
Five of the youngest Bassette children hang on a swing in their Hartland backyard. Clockwise from top right, are Justice (11), Kathryn (15), Victoria (9), Elizabeth (17) and Matthew, who is 13 years old.
Rick Russell Photo