Going to the Big Dance
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.