The dream goal for Sacred Heart Cathedral’s (SHC) cross country team has always been to qualify both the boys’ and the girls’ teams to the California State Meet in the same year. Given some of the circumstances this was a tall task:
- In the twelve seasons that I have been the head coach I have only had one boys’ team qualify (2005).
- I have qualified three girls’ teams, but the last time was in 2001 and all three qualifying teams had a future Olympian leading the way.
- Three of the four state meet teams qualified in Division IV, which traditionally has easier competition than Division III, the division that we currently compete in.
- I wouldn’t say that we are cursed, but the list of state meet near-misses had reached (San Francisco) Giant proportions. The top three teams at the section meet qualify for the state meet. We finished fourth (one place away) in six of the last eight years (the other two years we were fifth). We have missed state meet by as little as 24 points, 23 points, 11 points, 10 points, and 1 point.
Despite the long odds, my dream goal has remained the same: to someday qualify both teams to the State Meet in the same year.
The 2010 cross country season started off like so many before, with the hope that this would be the year. The first day of summer conditioning was 153 days before the Central Coast Section (CCS) Championships. We had 153 days to be ready for a run at the dream.
Like all teams we had our share of good races and bad races, and good workouts and not so good workouts along the way. We battled injuries, illnesses, and assorted other inconveniences that threatened to derail our dream goal. Our coaching staff worked tirelessly, teaching the nuances of the sport, motivating the athletes at practice, trying to be inspiring as well as understanding and forgiving.
As the CCS Championships approached, nervousness and excitement started to build. Assistant coach Rachel Giovannetti, who ran on three CCS teams that missed state meet, and I independently studied the statistics and made our projections for the meet. The top three teams at CCS would advance to the State Meet. We both projected our girls’ team to be a solid second place with a decent 20-30 point margin for error. We both projected our boys’ team to be pretty much in a dead heat with North Monterey County (NMC). We had a front runner in Jarrett Moore but NMC could pack five runners in around our second and third runner. It would be very very close.
I felt very good about our team’s chances. As a coach all you can do is prepare the team, get them to the starting line, and let them race. If you get them to the starting line and they have a chance to make it to state, then you’ve done a good job. Well, I’ve done a good job plenty of times. This year I wanted to do a great job! We added a couple twists to our workouts during the final week. I had the boys and girls simulate the small pre-race details. For one of our final hard interval runs I had the kids practice for the conditions at the end of the race.
I made two conscious decisions regarding my coaching approach for the week leading up to CCS. Unlike past years, I was a lot less sentimental. I wanted the week to seem almost like any other week. I also decided to outwardly demonstrate my confidence that both teams would qualify. I picked my words and said things like “when we qualify” and “at practice next week” to subtly hint that I expected both teams to qualify. At our team dinner the Friday before the race, completely out of character, I told the team we had one more thing to practice. “When both teams qualify for state tomorrow, I think an appropriate celebration would be for you guys to pick me up and put me on your shoulders.” The kids looked at me rather dumbfounded. They weren’t sure what to do. Finally Jarrett picked me up and put me on his shoulders. Not exactly what I had in mind, but my point was made.
I was believing it myself. I stayed up late on Friday night to make a video that would commemorate both teams qualifying for State Meet. I burned it onto a DVD and placed it in my meet day backpack. This DVD would only see a DVD player if both teams qualified. I sure was hoping to get to show my video the next day.
I feel like we had the perfect race plan. The CCS Championships are held at Toro Park in Salinas in even numbered years. The SHC team has struggled on this course, mostly because it’s so far away and we don’t get enough practice on it to become familiar with the course. Perhaps one of the key days of the entire season was Saturday, July 10, when we drove down to Salinas to run at Toro Park. We ran the course twice, stopped constantly to ask the kids what they thought about various race plan options. By the end of the day, I had come up with a new race plan for the team. The coaching staff and I decided to develop two different race plans that played to the individual strengths of our kids. We also realized where on the course our kids were losing focus. We decided to put a coach at that spot during the races to remind them to keep going strong. At another spot we instituted a new team policy. Here every Irish runner would be required to make eye contact with our coach at the spot (usually Tomas Palermo) and to give a nod or some other sign that indicated they were ready to “leave it all out there.”
We reviewed our race plan at the team dinner on Friday night. I wanted to make sure we didn’t go out too fast because I believe the key to success is feeling that you are stronger than the runners around you in the middle of the race. The middle mile of the race is usually a runner’s best chance to move up. We instructed all our athletes to aim only for a one second personal record (PR). I learned of this strategy at a coaches clinic. The best way to get a thirty second PR is to try for a one second PR, because if you try for a thirty second PR you often go out too fast and end up running thirty seconds slower than your PR. I wanted our kids to run the first mile like we’d been practicing. If they all tried for a one second PR, they were not likely to change their first mile. If they all tried for a thirty second PR, they were likely to start the race too fast, in an attempt to “pick-up time.” I reminded the kids that they would get a PR by running the middle and end of the race faster, not by running the first mile faster.
The girls were given place goals. We felt that if we had one in the top five, one in the top ten, two in the top 20, and one in the top 40, we would qualify for the State Meet. They didn’t have to worry about any teams, they just needed to run their usual race and place where we were projecting them. In our team huddle I showed my confidence again. I told them, “It’s time to go to Fresno. Run the first mile smart, attack in the middle, and have some fun in that last 1000 because those are the final meters you’re running before we qualify for the State Meet.”
The boys knew they had to battle NMC. I printed pictures of the NMC team so the boys would know what the NMC uniform looked like. We prepared for a potential uniform switch by showing them pictures of alternate NMC uniforms that we had seen before. The boys were in for a battle; but all they had to do was look around, the people they needed to beat to get to the State Meet were likely to be all near them. Coach Rachel gave me a great theme for the boys race, which I shared with them at dinner. We needed six solid races and one hero. We didn’t know who the hero would be. No one should try to be the hero in the first mile, and everyone should try to be the hero in the last mile. I wanted them to know that we didn’t need seven amazing off-the-charts races, just one of them. In our team huddle I reminded them of this: “In 2005 I asked the boys’ team to make history. Today, if we run six solid races and have one hero, history will find you.”
Watching the races was both wonderful and torture at the same time. The girls did exactly what we asked them to do. Between the mile mark and the 1000 meters to go mark, they all attacked and moved up. They got into the places that we needed to qualify. As they crossed the finish line I felt confident but not certain that we had done it. There were too many other teams with a couple of runners in the mix that it was impossible to keep track of everyone. We would have to wait, but it sure looked good.
The boys’ race started and we still didn’t know the girls’ results. The boys came past me just after the mile mark and it was just as we had predicted, NMC was slightly ahead of our guys but our guys could see them and were close enough to have a chance. When I next saw the boys a half mile later a lot had changed. We had clearly moved up and passed a lot of NMC runners. It was looking very good. We just needed to hold on for the last mile.
I ran down to the 1000 meter to go mark, stopping briefly at the results board to see that the girls were officially second. One team going to state. One team to go. I bumped into our seven girls as I ran to cheer on the boys. We had a group hug and I thanked them before we dispersed to cheer on the boys. Four years ago I felt that our boys had the lead for the last state meet spot with a 1000 meters to go, but San Lorenzo Valley rallied to pass us in the final half mile. I didn’t want that to happen again. I cheered on the boys and almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing. We were beating NMC at every match-up (our first runner was beating their first runner, our second runner was beating their second runner, etc.). I ran to the finish line and saw several of our other coaches. We all agreed that we had done it.
It was amazing. Four weeks earlier at Toro Park I had to lecture the boys about stepping up their game if they even wanted to make it to CCS. Two weeks earlier at WCAL Finals we didn’t run the qualifying time and thought we had missed CCS – only to realize later that we had placed fourth and qualified on place. Now here we were, going to the State Meet.
When I finally got a good look at the girls’ results I realized that we edged out Aptos for second place (and thus a trophy) by just one point. That key point was won by our senior Juliana Flynn. Juliana was up and down all season. I never gave up on her and thankfully she was running well in time for the final meets. Her job was to beat other teams’ fifth runner. As it turned out, she and Aptos’ fifth runner came down the final stretch together. They crossed the finish line so close that they were given the same time. But Juliana out-leaned her to place fifty-second. That made the Aptos girl fifty-third. That was the one point!
The next hour was a blur. There were lots of hugs, lots of handshakes, and some tears of joy. When it became official that both teams had qualified Jarrett picked me up just like we had practiced the night before. Many coaches from other teams, knowing what an amazing accomplishment this was for our program, came over to congratulate our team. After the awards ceremony we went back to our tent and something familiar but a long time coming, started happening. The girls ran towards the cooler of water bottles. Rachel came to get my hat, camera, and anything else on me that we didn’t want getting wet…it was time for a celebratory shower!
On the bus ride home I had so many emotional thoughts. I thought about all the runners who have worn the Irish uniform, especially the ones who ran at CCS trying to qualify for State Meet but came up short. This day was for them. I thought about the long hours I spend coaching this team in hopes of having a day like this.
To borrow some words from assistant coach Natalie Martinez, who herself ran on two teams that came up short of state meet, “It’s been a long journey to this moment.” But it was a great journey and a great moment.
The sports of track & field and running require a great deal of sacrifice. Whether you are a lifelong adult runner, an elite runner, college team member, or high school athlete, there are sacrifices you must make in order to be successful. The main sacrifice is usually time. It takes time to train. Time to go for a long run, or do your core workout, or to ice a nagging injury. Much of the training required to be the best you can be is not glamorous but most of us who do it consider the opportunity to set a personal record or compete at the highest level that we can, well worth the sacrifice.
Today I share a story about two seniors I coach on the Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory (SHCP) track & field team who had to make a big sacrifice last weekend. As fate would have it the SHCP graduation fell on the same day as the Central Coast Section (CCS) Track & Field Trials. We’ve had this conflict in the past and athletes have had to leave graduation early (Nick Lien ’03, Jason Kobuchi ’04, and Christina Young ’04) or had to come to the meet immediately after the ceremony (Andy Lee ’03, Michelle Gallagher ’03, Tammia Hubbard ’09). But this year the student-athletes had to choose one or the other. With graduation scheduled for 10:00 A.M. and CCS Trials starting at 11:00 A.M. in Gilroy,one and a half hours south of San Francisco, it was impossible to do both.
I had anticipated this conflict at the beginning of the season but didn’t want to jinx our chances of qualifying to compete by bringing it up too soon. Two weeks before the league final I finally told the seniors that, if they qualified for CCS Trials, they and their parents would have a difficult decision to make. At the league final on Friday night May 14, the boys 4X100 relay team of sophomore Michael Munchua, junior Gary Moore, senior Marcus Del Bianco, and senior Doug Parrish qualified for CCS Trials. Now came decision time.
All along the boys were telling me they were going to skip graduation to run CCS Trials. But I encouraged them to go home and talk it over with their families. It wasn’t until Monday that both athletes and their families officially agreed to skip graduation for the meet.
I worked with the SHCP administration to make sure Marcus and Doug were properly recognized at other senior ceremonies during graduation week. I also worked out a secret plan to have a mini-graduation ceremony for them at the track after the CCS Trials meet. I got their diplomas from the registrar. One assistant coach downloaded pomp and circumstance onto his iPod. Another assistant coach brought mini speakers. I made arrangements to have a cap and gown for both Marcus and Doug down in Gilroy. And I dusted off my own hood and gown so that I would be properly attired to present the diplomas. The rest of the team and the families were told to meet on the warm-up field at the end of the meet for the surprise graduation ceremony.
What followed was a touching ceremony where I got to let Marcus and Doug know how much I appreciated the sacrifice they had made to run at the CCS Trials Meet.
It is finally sinking in that the 2007 Varsity Boys team is most likely the fastest boys team in school history. :37 faster than the 2005 team that made State Meet. The first team I have ever coached to run in the 84’s. It’s hard to believe but it’s true. And I couldn’t be prouder.
I don’t know if anyone could have predicted this. I often talked about it being possible but deep inside I think I was saying it in an attempt to convince myself. There were moments when I thought to myself, no way can they be like the 2005 or 2006 teams…that this was a season that would be reminiscent of the boys teams from the early 2000’s (88 minute team times). I wondered if I had been spoiled the last 2-3 years and that I had better prepare myself mentally for the inevitable “return to the middle/back of the pack.”
But instead the 2007 team went on this rollercoaster of a ride….
When we started summer practices, sub-85 was not on my mind. We had just graduated Nick, Ethan, Justin and Colin. I was more concerned with getting 7 runners on the line that would give us a change to: 1) continue to beat Mitty and Riordan and 2) make CCS for the fourth year in a row.
At times during the summer, though, Tomas and I noted that the boys looked impressive. People like Michael, Jim, Joseph S, and Jared were consistently getting the runs done and at a solid pace. And I had confidence that Paul, Tommy, JJ, and Kyle, with their experience, would be ready as well. I was only half joking when I started saying that we were a motley bunch of guys who would scare no one during striders but maybe, just maybe, could go out and on sheer toughness, beat runners who were supposedly more talented on sheer toughness.
But there were moments I reminded myself to be realistic. I remember driving back from a summer workout at the beach and telling Christine that if we got to mid-season and the seniors weren’t getting it done, I would start looking towards the juniors and sophomores so that we would be ready for the 2008 season. I wasn’t giving up on the season before it even began, just being realistic and having an eye for the future of the team.
At the start of the season, for a variety of reasons (family vacations, SAT’s, nagging injuries), we never lined up at full strength. We looked OK at the meets but nothing that would predict the times that would come at the end of the season. At Oregon, we talked about having to turn up the intensity level of the training. I wanted them to feel a sense of urgency if we wanted to beat Mitty and Riordan and make CCS. At one meeting, I also told the boys that as long as we were working hard in practice and racing well, Jarrett would stay up on Varsity. But if it ever became apparent that we weren’t going to make CCS, I would run him in the Frosh race and let him go for the win. Part of that was for motivation. But it also showed that at mid-season, not running the CCS qualifying 86:37 was on my mind.
WCAL #1 at the Polo Fields was certainly a low point. Running without Paul, having JJ injured, and not having the alternates to go to, our worst fears came true – Riordan and Mitty finished ahead of us. I knew we would be back but this certainly served as a wake-up call.
Then we got hot for 2 weeks. First we won the Artichoke Invitational, our first Varsity Boys invitational win since 2004. Then we ran 87:17 at the Serra Invitational. That gave me a lot of confidence that we would make the CCS time standard of 86:37 relatively easily. And at WCAL #2 (Shoreline Park), we finally had a good race plan and the result was 5th place (bounced back to beat Riordan and Mitty) and a team time of 85:47 (:44 faster than last year). I began to see people writing on their post-race critique that they believed we could be faster than the State Meet team and that their goal was to run in the 84’s. It was great because, while I had those goals at the start of the season, the performance at Shoreline validated that we could really do it. I started really believing we could do it now, too.
But after resting out the top 5 at the Center Meet, we ran poorly at WCAL Finals. Everyone basically went out too fast and we had a terrible 2nd mile. When the boys hit the 2 mile mark, I checked their splits and started making calculations in my head. Forget running in the 84’s, we weren’t going to make the time standard to get to CCS even. I yelled to Kim to tell the boys we weren’t getting the times and they had to dig down and try to get some time back. To their credit, they did. A gutsy last 1000 meters got us home in 86:00 (5th place, ahead of Riordan and Mitty, and :37 under the time standard). We had dodged a bullet and lived to race again.
The bad day at WCAL Finals, though, affected our confidence. I wasn’t sure what would happen at CCS. I felt pretty sure we could do it and pretty sure we had a good race plan. But I started to question whether my projections were right. Maybe the fast times at Shoreline had skewed my calculations? Maybe we peaked too soon? Maybe we shouldn’t have rested at the Center Meet? Maybe we need a different race plan?
After reviewing the numbers over and over and then adjusting the race plan slightly at the Saturday workout at Crystal, things started to come together in my head. On Tuesday or Wednesday before CCS I had this vision of how I wanted to the race to go. We were seeded 11th or 12th. I wanted us to be in the back half of the pack at the mile mark (in our predicted 11th or 12th place) and then I wanted to attack the field and move up as far as we could. If we did this, the times would take care of themselves and we should have a successful last race of the season.
The CCS race went according to plan. Everyone was right on at the mile mark both in terms of their time and their place. Now, could we attack? On the first surge everyone seemed to be moving up and they had packs of runners to chase down. When I checked the 2 mile splits, things looked pretty good. As the boys came up Cardiac Hill, I noticed that Jared and Jarrett especially, looked a lot better than the runners around them. At the time it didn’t dawn on me that the boys were also really tightly packed. In the final stretch, Paul was battling Riordan’s top runner and looking like he would be near his PR. Jared was close behind so I knew he would be in the 16:40’s. Then, holy cow, there was the freshman, Jarrett – apparently running a sub-17 race. And not far behind came senior veterans, Tommy, JJ, Jim, and Kyle, running the last 150 meters of their high school cross country careers…and fighting for every last second.
I rushed to meet them at the end of the chute. Since I couldn’t see them finish, I started asking them if they knew their times. Most of them did so I wrote them down. As usual in moments like these, I was having trouble adding them up. Shannon Rowbury was there and offered to use her phone to add them up while I talked to the boys. I was very proud and excited. Mr Gary Cannon was there, too, and I think he could tell I was really happy with the race. There were a lot of hand shakes and back slapping going on. I told them that I thought we had run in the 84’s and that they had just run great. They looked pleased and proud to hear the news.
The final results confirmed it:
84:36!! Our 1-5 pack finished within :48 and 37 places of each other. JJ, our 5th man, ran 17:19, which is one second over what we need to average to hit the time standard. Jim, who didn’t make the top 5 on this day, ran 17:24, a time that’s among the top 25 in the Chanman era. Our depth was sensational. Jarrett, Tommy, JJ, Jim, and Kyle ran the fastest #3, #4, #5, #6 and #7 runner time that I have ever coached at Crystal.
I am so proud of this team. They faced some adversity but never stopped fighting. They may not have made it to State. There was no front runner or All-WCAL performer. They weren’t the best practice runners I have ever had. But they were a bunch of guys who knew how to lay it on the line in a race. And they are certainly deserving of this crowning moment – to be called the fastest team in school history.
November 12, 2006
Dear Colin, Ethan, Jackie, Jim, JJ, Jocelyn, Josh, Justin, Kyle, Meghan, Michael, Natalie, Nerissa, Nick, Paul, Peter, Rachel, Reilly, Stephanie, Tommy, Yesenia, and Coaches Christine and Tomas,
24 hours have passed since CCS 2006. I still do not have anything magical to say that will lessen the sting from yesterday’s meet. Only time will do that. I can say that I’ve thought a lot about the races that transpired at Toro Park and have come to the conclusion that we did everything we could.
We prepared very well for the meet. We handled every injury/health situation to the best of our ability. The race plans were solid and the execution was perfect. With 1000 meters to go, both teams had a chance. That’s all you can ask for. If you asked me at the beginning of the season, if after all the miles of training with about 3:00 of running to go, “would you be satisfied with the team having a chance?” The answer would be yes. Everyone gave it all they had. It’s okay to be disappointed with the end result. But please, be proud of your effort.
On paper we shouldn’t have even been in contention. Even before Nick got hurt in the summer, we were probably ranked 5th in CCS for Division III. In September we ran 91:45 at Toro. That kind of time would have gotten us third-to-last on Saturday. At Stanford, we were behind Saratoga and Cupertino and 245 points behind SLV. A big thank you needs to go to Jared, whose early season running really made a difference. Without Jared in the early going, I think we would have been behind Riordan and Mitty at WCAL #1 and probably had a pretty bad showing at Stanford. It would have been hard for me to keep everyone motivated to keep chasing the dream if that had happened. When we went back to Toro in October we improved to 87:53. Better, but still not in contention with the teams who run in the 85’s. In the final weeks things really came together. Confidence was on the rise and I meant it when I said that even though it seemed like a long-shot (we were supposed to be 52 points behind SLV), I wouldn’t bet against our boys because they know how to come through in the clutch. Our 85:44 at CCS represents 6 minutes of improvement in two months and we made up 236 points on SLV since Stanford. Those are things to be proud of.
All season long the girls were a team off the radar that no one seemed to consider a State Meet contender. At one time or another in the first half of the season, Division III foes NMC, Willow Glen, SLV and SI all beat us (often by margins of 50-100 points). We knew the road to Fresno would go through those 4 schools. We ran 107:06 at Toro in September. At our second trip to Toro we ran 104:00 but that still left us 5 minutes behind SLV’s 98:46. At WCAL Finals we beat SI for the first time since the 2001 season and our 100:35 made us a legitimate contender for State. We knew it would be a close race. Our 102:05 at CCS represents 5 minutes of improvement in two months. Beating SLV, SI and Willow Glen, teams that beat us earlier in the season, speaks to our ability to race well when it truly counted. In the end we were one of five teams that finished within 11 points of the coveted 3rd place spot. Those are all things to be proud of.
At the very top of our website, it says “we will laugh together (and) cry together.” We certainly did that during CCS Week 2006. It also says, “You get back from the team, what you put into it. If you put all your heart into it, you will be rewarded with an experience you will treasure forever.” You all certainly put your heart into this team. I hope you feel rewarded and I hope you’ve had an experience you will treasure forever. I know I have.
The moments after the awards ceremony were some of the most difficult in my coaching career. The training books on lactate threshold and nutrition, the websites with running stats, and all the years of running did not prepare me for that moment. I felt an enormous pressure to say something to make the situation better. Isn’t that what the coach is supposed to do? But what is a coach to do when his girls team misses State Meet by one point and when his boys team, with 3 seniors, realize that because they were 9 points short, they will never race together as a cross country team again?
I decided to speak from the heart. That’s why my voice was cracking and tears were welling up in my eyes. I think it’s wonderful that all of you are so passionate about cross country. Yes, it is a bit of a risk to be passionate about something. The more you invest of yourself, the more it hurts when it doesn’t turn out the way you wished. We all experienced that on Saturday. But it’s a risk well worth taking. It is infinitely better than going through life without finding something that you are passionate about.
I know I will always remember this team. I will remember your passion. I will remember the alternates, who trained all week to be ready, supported the team 100 percent and took the disappointing news as hard as everyone else. I will remember your faces when we heard the results at the awards ceremony. But I will not remember CCS 2006 with sadness. I’ll remember the girls, who composed themselves just a few minutes after being in tears, going over to Sobrato to congratulate them. I’ll remember Nick coming over to me at the end, giving me a big hug, and saying “Thank you, Coach.”
No, thank you. Thank you everyone. You are the very reasons I love to coach. I consider it an honor and a privilege to be your coach.
The Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory (SHCP) Boy’s Cross Country team made school history on Saturday November 12, 2005. At the Central Coast Section (CCS) Championships at Crystal Springs, they placed 4th in the Division IV Boys race to qualify for the California State Meet for the first time in school history. It was just last year that Nick Cannata-Bowman, then a sophomore, qualified for the State Meet, becoming the school’s first male athlete to run in the State Meet. All in all, it was a wonderfully great day for the SHCP Cross Country program.
The result sheet will tell you the final times and places. But there is much more to the story than that. This is that story from Coach Andy Chan’s perspective.
We’ve been dreaming about going to the State Meet for a long time. At the West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) Track Meet at St Ignatius on March 10, 2004, we raced 20 Frosh/Soph Boys in the mile. I remember sitting the boys down on the grass afterwards and telling them we would get to CCS in 2004, be a contender in 2005 and qualify for the State Meet in 2006. That is when I first put this idea of going to the State Meet into the boys’ mind. When we placed 6th last year at CCS, I realized we were a year ahead of schedule.
During the summer we talked almost daily about the potential of the team. I wanted the boys to wake up every morning and say to themselves, “What am I going to do today to help get us to State?” Something Nick C-B wrote on his myspace.com blog stood out in my mind. He told Justin Abantao that we were going to be at the State Meet and that he would look over to him at the starting line and say, “See, told you we’d be here.” I felt good that the boys were buying into my belief that we could make it this season.
We came in to the meet ranked 5th in the CCS for Div IV. Ahead of us were San Lorenzo Valley (SLV), Carmel, King City and Half Moon Bay (HMB) with Palma lurking right behind us. Only the top 4 teams would advance to the State Meet. Since the summer we knew SLV, King City and HMB would be contenders. Because Carmel and Palma have strong traditions we knew we could not count them out. As the season went along I and numerous team members were scouting the competition on the internet. As each week went by, the rankings changed, but always with the same 6 teams at the top. But we knew the rankings wouldn’t decide it. It would all be settled at CCS. It was important to train properly, race at the right times and know when to back off. Lactate threshold running over the summer was an important addition to our training. I wanted the team to race hard against top competition at the De LaSalle meet. That was a measuring stick for me to determine our race fitness at that point in September. After that meet it was important that we back off, and we did, taking it easy at Westmoor and HMB. It wasn’t easy because I would have liked to have ‘flexed our muscles’ and made a great showing at one of those meets but patience was important. Looking back now, teams we beat later in the season (like Mitty), were beating us then. We were always focused on racing well in November not September or October.
Deciding who would run on the Varsity team was no small task. Nick C-B, Ethan Wicklund, Justin and Jack Shepherd trained all through the summer and were running at a high level. Josh Ling and Jonathan Juntado (JJ) were CCS veterans from a year ago and they were up there with our front group at practices and races. The 7th spot was the tough one. Nick Karsant, Humberto Roque and Eddie Hynson were rotating in and out of Varsity. In late September, Steven Arce, a first year runner, really distinguished himself and I made the move to put him in the Varsity line-up. At the same time, Josh was struggling with some injuries.
All along, in the back of my mind, was the hope that Mike Bullard would be able to return and give a boost to the Varsity squad. Mike was our top runner as a freshman and sophomore but towards the end of last season he developed compartment syndrome and he missed the last three meets of the season. Mike had off-season surgery but at the beginning of summer he was still unable to run. It looked quite likely that he would give up running and go back to soccer. But he decided that if he was going to be in pain, he’d rather be in pain trying to run. We took a gradual approach to his training, running low mileage and not having him race. By late September he was running well enough that I knew he was ready to test his legs in a race. At his first race, Junior Varsity (JV) Boys at Westmoor, he went out too fast and had to drop out because of the tightness in his shin but at least he tried. He bounced right back the next week at HMB and the comeback began. After two more solid JV races I decided it was time to gamble. There were 3 meets left before CCS. If Mike was going to make a difference, I needed to get him into the Varsity races to get him ready. In one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make as a coach, I put Mike into the Varsity line-up and moved Josh, someone who’s run Varsity for me since he was a sophomore, to JV.
When we got to the Center Meet it was great. No more projecting and forecasting times. No more wondering. It was time to focus on racing well at Crystal. In the 3 weeks before CCS, we had 2 workouts and 2 races at Crystal, as well as a classroom session where we reviewed the course on an overhead projector. There was no way we were going to be under-prepared for the course.
The week of Center Meet was filled with some Varsity drama. Justin had been complaining about tightness in his chest. After the Oceanside race he couldn’t take a deep breath without pain. I insisted he go to the doctor, hoping this was some type of asthma thing that could be corrected with an inhaler. Instead he was sent to a cardiac specialist and had to get an echocardiogram. Justin was devastated when I held him out of practices and the Center Meet, but his health was my primary concern and I was not going to take any chances since his heart was involved. I lost some sleep worrying that Justin’s doctor was going to say no more running. I kept thinking about how Justin didn’t miss a practice all summer and how Nick C-B had told him he’d be on the starting line at State Meet. There was nothing I could do; it wasn’t fair. At practice the Saturday before WCAL Finals, Justin told me his doctor had cleared him to race and he would have the note on Monday. That was the best news I had heard in a long time. Now we could get on with the business of qualifying for the State Meet.
Two things happened within a day or two that told me we were ready. After WCAL Finals the team filled out their usual post-race critiques. To a man, the boys were writing that their goal for the next race was to get to State Meet. I could tell it wasn’t going to be difficult for me to coach them. They were fired up and they were motivating each other. If anything, I had to be the one keeping everyone calm. We went out to Crystal Springs the week before CCS and just killed a workout. Everyone was hitting their race pace and running some fast surges. I felt we were very ready and all we needed to do was to get through the last week of practices and get to the race. That may have been the hardest part.
As the last week progressed, the nervousness continued to build. After the run on Tuesday I let some of the boys do striders just to get some of the pent-up nervous energy out of their bodies. I could have used a strider or two myself. Everyone was raring to go, but we had to wait until Saturday for the race. I banned Nick C-B and Justin from going to the Lynbrook website and looking at all the stats because they were psyching themselves out. I should have banned myself. I was having a hard time doing anything but worry about CCS. Carmel and King City ran well at their league finals; for the first time all season we weren’t ranked in the top 4. Even though I had known it was going to come down to a head-to-head race, I think I lost a little confidence when I saw the new rankings. It’s ironic because I’m always the one preaching to ignore the rankings.
For the first time since the summer, I went on to myspace.com to see what the guys were saying to one another. Clearly the main focus was CCS and getting to State Meet. It was very exciting to see the passion Nick C-B, Justin, Jack and Eddie were showing online. And it was touching the way they wanted to do it for me as well as themselves.
I was excited and nervous. Here we were on the brink of history. But also, we had a difficult challenge ahead. I practically cried at two team meetings. I kept reflecting on the boys who had run for me previously who never had a chance to run a race with a shot of qualifying for State Meet: Don, Steve, Buck, Misha, Andy, Matt, Sean, Tristan, Gino, Brian and others. I was having the same nervous feelings I had before big meets with Shannon Rowbury ’02 and Michelle Gallagher ’03. Those feelings of butterflies in my stomach told me that I really cared about this and that it was important. The morning of CCS my girlfriend said all I did was pace around. Finally she told me I had to get myself together because the team was looking to me to lead them. She was right, I had to be the face of calm for the team – even if I was going crazy inside. So on the outside I tried to be relaxed but inside my mind was jumping from thing to thing to worry about (“Where’s the bus? Did anyone forget their uniform?”).
When we got to Crystal Springs I tried to busy myself so I didn’t have to talk to anyone. Unfortunately there was nothing to do and still over an hour until the race. Then due to a medical emergency, they delayed the start of our race 15 minutes. “Great,” I thought, “More time to be stressed.” When I told the guys of the delay they sort of moaned, then I said something that finally got me to relax, “What, you in a hurry? You got something else you gotta do today?”
Finally it was 15 minutes to race time – GU time in the SHCP camp. Then we headed for Box 23. We had the most memorable team huddle I have ever been a part of. In the huddle I gave my final instructions.
“It won’t hurt if you don’t try.
You won’t cry if you don’t care.
That’s what I love about this team. That’s what I love about you guys.
You try and you care.
You have the talent to compete against the best in the CCS.
You’ve worked hard to put us in this position.
You’ve been committed to this goal, to this dream, for a long long time.
I don’t know what’s going to happen out there but I ask you to do 2 things:
1. Leave it all out there.
2. Be a Hero in the last mile.
Let’s get to that Big Dance in 2 weeks.”
Some of the kids started to yell. The screaming and emotions were incredible. “Let’s make history,” I yelled, “Irish Pride on 3.” 20 or so people came in for the Irish Pride team cheer but it felt like there were 50 people. Nick C-B later said that King City looked scared when we finished our cheer. I left the team huddle with tears in my eyes and goose-bumps on my body. “Here we go,” I thought. The race that I had been thinking about for months was finally here. It was exactly how I thought it would be. We were on the bubble. It would be close. We needed to run well. The road to Fresno would go through Half Moon Bay and Palma.
The race itself happened very fast. As I watched the first mile through binoculars, nothing was happening that wasn’t expected. Nick C-B hit the mile mark right on pace and with the leaders. Ethan and JJ looked like they were in the top 25 which is where I wanted them to be at the mile mark. I took off to run down the trail so I could give them some instructions on the downhill section away from the large crowd. SLV looked well positioned. Everything else was a blur. Jack came by not long after Ethan and JJ and I worried that he may have gone out too fast. We had good position but could Jack stay up there? And where were the others? Steven, Mike, and Justin came by and I checked how far they were behind Jack and got a little worried that there was a lot of ground between them….maybe too much between our #4 and #5 runners. I watched this for awhile and noticed that Steven was moving up. “Good,” I thought, “Let’s hope he can keep surging at people.”
I met assistant coach Tomas Palermo at the top of Cardiac Hill where we had planned to use binoculars and try to get some team scores at the 2 mile mark. I was shaking and breathing heavily so looking through the binoculars was difficult. Plus, I have terrible vision. SLV and HMB’s uniforms were too similar and it was taking me a long time to differentiate between the two. I think we got to about 23rd place when I had to give up. “They’re behind a bush now. I can’t see them. Let’s forget it. Just get them to run fast,” I told Tomas.
With about ¾ mile to go, Nick came by me in 3rd. Ethan had moved up a lot and I yelled to him to keep catching people. Then I yelled the same to JJ. Jack came by with a pained look on his face. I yelled for him to be a hero. Despite how tired he looked he seemed to be a little re-energized by my words. When Steven came by I yelled, “Run us to Fresno, Arce.” Just then he passed the person in front of him. For the first time I started thinking that I hadn’t seen a lot of HMB or Palma runners ahead of us.
I ran to the 200 meters-to-go spot and tried to write down the places for our team, HMB and Palma. Nick was 3rd. HMB was 5th and 10th. Ethan was 13th. JJ was 23rd. HMB was 34th. I started looking down the path for Steven and Jack. “Where are they?” I wondered. I saw them coming and noticed a Palma uniform. Then I noticed a second Palma runner who was wearing a similar Palma uniform but it was slightly different. For a moment I was mad because that’s against the rules. Everyone has to be in the exact same uniform. Maybe I had missed earlier Palma runners because of this uniform thing. But, I quickly stopped that line of thinking and yelled to Steven and Jack to get 2 or 3 more points because it could make a difference between 4th place and Fresno and 5th place and the end of the season. In all the commotion I forgot to keep checking for HMB runners and I didn’t write down Steven and Jack’s place. We would just have to wait for the announcer to read the results.
I ran to the guys at the finish area. They were holding each other up. We had a lot of our support team there. I didn’t want to say we made it since I didn’t know. I also didn’t want to say that I thought we made it since there was some doubt, and the last thing I wanted was to get people believing we qualified for State Meet, only to find out later we didn’t. Instead I kept saying, “You ran great. We got a chance.” I heard someone say Ethan ran 16:43. “Wow,” I thought, “that’s fast.” I saw assistant coach Raymond Yu (Tower) for the first time all day. He must have snuck out of a class early to come watch. “Wow,” I thought, “Isn’t that cool that he would do that,” and “This is great that he made it because he had a lot to do with building this team up.” I heard my name being called. Margaret Gallagher was behind me and she asked me to turn around for a picture. I had everyone cross their fingers for good luck as we awaited the announcement.
At this point I figured it would probably be 10 more minutes until they read results so I went to the starting line for the girls race. While I was there I heard the announcer but couldn’t make out what was being said. I heard cheering and Tomas nodded at me and gave me a thumbs up. I saw the boys come running to the start line with big smiles and fists in the air. I knew it was good news. I lost my train of thought and had to look at my notes to remember what I wanted to tell the girls. We finished our girls team huddle and then the boys and I walked behind the starting line and started hugging each other. “We did it!” I was so proud and happy. I wasn’t even bothering to hold back the tears. People were coming up and congratulating me. I saw SHCP Athletic Director JoAnn Momono and went to shake her hand and she gave me a big bear hug. Mitch Stephens from the San Francisco Chronicle tapped me on the shoulder, shook my hand and started interviewing me. I’m glad I somehow was composed enough to say what I wanted to say about, 1) us having a dream of qualifying for State Meet, 2) our being a year ahead of schedule and 3) that I had been calling for heroes the last mile. Mitch made me nervous when he said the results were still unofficial.
After the girls ran by the mile mark, while I was on my way to Cardiac Hill, I snuck over to the results table to look for the official results. What a wonderful sight, they had our school name in red indicating that we were a State Meet qualifier. Then it was back to the job at-hand, coaching the girls team to our 8th straight top 5 finish.
After the girls were finished racing and we confirmed that Jackie Flynn would be going to the State Meet, the usual suspicious things started happening. Ethan asked to wear my leprechaun hat. Dagny Dingman asked to borrow my binoculars. Then it got real quiet and I thought, “uh-oh….I know what’s happening. The ceremonial water/Gatorade shower.” It never felt so good.
So many people contributed to this achievement. Obviously the 7 guys who ran their hearts out. But also the alternates, Eddie, Nick K, and freshman Paul Rechsteiner, who trained and helped push the others at practice to insure we were in the best possible shape to race. All the supporters who came to cheer (especially the spirited freshmen team members); the girls team; guys like Josh, a 4-year team member, who the guys respect a lot; and alumni who were there or made their presence felt via cell phones. There was a lot of behind the scenes work by the assistant coaches, Tomas, Tower, Janet Jew, Dagny, Christine Jegan and Nathan Kron. All 7 coaches were there, the first time all year we were all in the same place at the same time. That’s how important this day was. Former coaches Chris Lundstrom and Mark Jansen played key roles in laying the groundwork with this group of boys when they first started running.
Thanks, everyone, for sharing in this great day where a dream of mine….a dream of ours, came true.