In 1915, the state of California held its first ever state championships track & field meet. The meet took place in Fresno with 91 male athletes representing 28 different schools. Points were scored in 13 events (100, 220, 440, 880, Mile, 120 Highs, 220 Lows, 880 Relay, Shot Put, Discus, Pole Vault, High Jump, and Broad Jump). In addition, there were non-scoring competitions in the javelin and hammer throw. In 1974, the first official girls competition took place at the California state meet.
Over the years the California state meet has garnered a great deal of respect for its elite competition. There are no divisions or classes at the California state meet based on school size. To win a track & field state championship in California means that the athlete is number one in the entire state. It is no wonder that since 1994, future Olympians including Mebrahtom Keflezighi, Ryan Hall, Allyson Felix, Shannon Rowbury, Chaunte Howard-Lowe, Stephanie Brown, Joanna Hayes, Lashinda Demus, Sharon Day, Jill Camarena, Suzy Powell, Michael Stember, Tyree Washington, Monique Henderson, and Angela Williams have won California state championships.
The last time an athlete from Sacred Heart Cathedral qualified for the state meet was 2003. Future women’s Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier Michelle Gallagher represented the Irish that year. Gallagher had a terrific regular season, setting personal records of 2:17 (800) and 4:57 (mile). Her best race was a 10:33.04 that earned her fifth place in the 3200 meters at the prestigious Arcadia Invitational and ranked her in the top fifteen in the nation. At the West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) Finals, she was second in the 1600 (4:57.13) and set meet record that still stands in the 3200 meters (10:49.11).
One week later, Gallagher came down with the flu. She attended the SHC graduation ceremony and then her mom drove her to the Central Coast Section (CCS) Trials Meet. When she arrived she didn’t look good. She was determined to run the 3200 to try to place in the top 12 to qualify for the CCS Finals. Fortunately she was talented enough that it didn’t take her best effort to qualify on. In the days that followed that race she was still not feeling great so she did pretty light workouts leading up to CCS Finals. At CCS Finals she faced some tough competition in defending champion Ruth Graham of Gunn High School and Melissa Grelli of Presentation, who beat Gallagher at the state meet in cross country. We decided that since she was not 100% healthy, it was in her best interest to not go for the win but instead to run for third place to qualify for the state meet. Tough as it was for her to let the other two beat her, it was the right decision. Gallagher ran conservatively for most of the race, finishing in 11:01.45, eighteen seconds behind Graham and twelve seconds behind Grelli – but more importantly eight seconds ahead of the fourth place runner.
Now that she was qualified for the state meet, I had some decisions to make. Normally I fill the week between CCS Finals and the state meet with light running to rest up for the championship race. But in Gallagher’s case she had missed a great deal of training, and she was a runner who thrived on hard training. I consulted with a coaching friend that I respect, Don Paul, and decided that I would do something a little different. I gave Gallagher hard interval workouts on Monday and Wednesday, leading up to the Saturday state championship race. On Monday she ran 2X400 (80, 79), 4X800 (2:41, 2:40, 2:41, 2:38), and 2X200 (34, 33). On Wednesday she ran 1600 (5:20), 3XPower 500 (94, 95, 98), 2X200 (33,33). This was much more intensity and volume than I would give any other runner I’ve ever coached in high school the week of a big race – except for Gallagher.
Throughout Gallagher’s career we always battled about the race plan. She tended to go out fast and would fade in the final laps. I liked it when she ran even or negative splits. Her best paced race was the 10:33 at Arcadia when she ran 5:21 for the first 1600 and 5:12 for second 1600. I wanted her to run a similar race at state. After the first lap, run in 76 seconds, she was in eighteenth place. Then she locked in. She ran 80, 81, and 81 for the next three laps and moved up to eleventh place at the midway point, splitting 5:19 for the first 1600. On lap five she ran another 81 but passed three people, including Grelli, to move into eighth place. On lap six she ran an 80 and passed three more people, including Graham, to move into fifth place. It was going perfectly. She was running a steady pace and as everyone else slowed down she moved up. On the seventh lap she ran an 82 and passed one more runner to move into fourth place, where she stayed. Her final time was 10:41.37. She moved from eighteenth place to fourth place during the race. She had the satisfaction of being the top runner from the CCS, beating the two runners who had beaten her the week before at CCS Finals, when she had to just let them go in order to make sure she qualified. It was a proud coaching moment for me.
Eight years have passed since that state meet. We had a near-qualifier in 2007, when James Mabrey placed fifth at CCS Finals in the high jump and triple jump. On Friday May 27, 2011, the Irish have athletes competing in seven events at the CCS Finals. We did a great job to qualify so many people this far. I believe that anything can happen at CCS Finals. There are eight invitations in each event to the CCS Finals and we are happy to have one of them in seven different events. On Friday we will compete in the girls shot put, the girls 400, the boys 100, the boys 800, the boys 200, and both the girls and boys 4X400 relay. The top three will go to the state meet. We have seven shots at getting to the state meet. Maybe we’ll qualify in all seven. Maybe we won’t qualify in any. It’s the unknown that makes this week so exciting.
The California state championship meet is an amazing meet to be at. The competition is fierce. It’s an honor and a privilege to compete at a meet of its caliber. I would love the honor and privilege to be coaching at the state meet this season. I’ve even promised the team that if someone qualifies they can shave my head bald. The road to state goes through Gilroy this Friday. Go Irish!
I’ve read the list of previous winners and their bios and it’s quite an honor to be mentioned with so many coaches that I look up to and respect. Winning something like this has really made me appreciate the support I get from friends, family and loved ones. There are a lot of all-day track meets and late nights typing up calendars and updating websites.
Of course I couldn’t be a successful coach without the support that I get from the administrators and faculty at Sacred Heart Cathedral.
I think my assistant coaches do an amazing job, too, especially given the fact that we have over 100 kids on the team and no home track facility. I’m especially proud that my first high school coach, the man who got me started in this sport, has been an asst coach with me at SHC for the last 7 years.
But most of all, winning this award has made me think about the student athletes that I have coached over the years. Year after year they make me laugh and they make me cry. To me, coaching is all about the kids. My goal has always been to provide the best possible high school sports experience for the athletes. I want to make them passionate about track & field and about working hard.
Passion. I feel blessed that I have found work in life that I am so passionate about. Two times in my life I have been at a crossroads in terms of making career decisions and I am thankful that both times, I made the choice that has allowed me to keep coaching. Since it was announced that I was winning this award I have gotten lots of congratulations on the award. But to me, the reward is getting to go out there everyday and have athletes call me, “Coach”.