The Dream Goal
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.