The ride home from the State Cross Country Meet in Fresno, California is one filled with different emotions. I have been fortunate to take this ride home fourteen times in my fifteen years as the SHC cross country coach. The last three years (2010, 2011, and 2012), I’ve been particularly lucky that both the boys and girls teams have qualified for the State Meet and thus, this ride home from State Meet was made in the front seat of a charter bus, not from behind the steering wheel of a van.
My mind wanders a lot during this ride home. I think about the season that has just concluded and the various highs and lows that have occurred. I think in particular about the obstacles that were overcome to qualify whoever was able to qualify for State. And like any good coach, I am already thinking about the next season – who is not graduating and will be back next year, what do we need to do to be even better, which people will step up to be the new varsity? All these thoughts usually make me feel a weird combination of emotions that makes me cry and smile at the same time.
The 2012 ride home from the State Meet was particularly sentimental. Of the fourteen kids who raced at State, half of them were seniors, many of them ran at the State Meet three times in their career. It was a veteran group and we had achieved and experienced a lot together, not just this season but over the course of the last three or four years.
This season’s high and lows were many. At Woodbridge, we experienced a high as both teams ran incredibly fast at this night cross country meet in Southern California (84:53 for the Boys and 101:13 for the Girls). But the next couple weeks made me question if we were not as good as I had thought. The Boys ran 92:06 at Stanford and 90:10 at Baylands and the Girls were even further away – 108:44 at Stanford and 107:56 at Baylands. But we turned it up a notch and ran well at Crystal Springs, 85:28 and 101:12 respectively, and my confidence that both teams would qualify for State returned. The next two meets brought mixed results. The Boys ran well but not great at the Polo Fields (86:10) and Toro Park (86:55). The Girls were beset with injuries and I wondered if I was going to be able to motivate them to “bring it home” come championship time. At the Polo Fields (102:28) the Girls had a horrible last mile where we fell from third place to fifth place. At Toro Park (105:01) we ran a pretty un-inspiring race that left a bad taste in our mouths heading to league finals. But that led to the perseverance that will forever define this year’s team.
Two days before league finals, we had yet another injury and I was forced to move a girl up from the JV, to run Varsity. The Boys needed to hit the time standard to qualify for the section meet. I don’t know if I’ve ever been as worried about simply qualifying out of league as I was this year. But, the kids showed their toughness and made it look easy. The Girls beat two teams that had been beating us all season to easily qualify. The Boys were over a minute and a half faster than the time standard.
The road to Fresno went through Saratoga on the boys side and Valley Christian on the girls side. I had decided that the key to achieving our goal was for the kids to have fun. We didn’t need any special workouts or fancy race plans. We needed to have fun. If we were having fun, we’d be relaxed. If we were relaxed, we’d run well. And I truly believed that if we ran well, we would qualify both teams for State.
The Boys race between us and Saratoga was incredibly close. It was impossible to tell at the finish line which team was ahead. We’d have to wait for the official results. Our nervousness was heightened because I thought I saw Saratoga’s fifth runner finish with our fifth runner. But it turned out that that runner was from another school that had a similar white uniform top. Twenty agonizing minutes later, in the middle of the girls race, we learned that the boys had qualified. The Girls, bless their hearts, made it much easier on all of us watching. Our 3-4-5-6 runners got themselves ahead of Valley Christian’s third runner and stayed there to clinch it.
I relived all of those memories in my head as the bus made its way towards San Francisco. I then started thinking about next year. I would really miss these seven seniors. The boys team will return five runners, and the alternates and underclassmen are pretty strong so they are in good shape. The girls, on the other hand, graduate all but two runners. Plus we are losing a lot of leadership…
At that point I decided that worrying about next year was something to do tomorrow. Today, I should be celebrating the achievements of this year’s team. I got up and looked toward the back of the bus. It was very quiet. A lot of people were asleep. Some were talking quietly to their seatmate. Others had their headphones on and were playing a game or watching something on their phone or laptop. I wished that I could freeze time. These were the final moments of the 2012 cross country season. For the last month, these fourteen runners, five alternates, and four coaches had spent a lot of time together. We’d experienced nervousness together and we’d celebrated success together. There were team dinners, a Zumba class, a team service project, tons of group photos, and a unity ceremony with colored sand that will forever unite us.
This 2012 ride home from State Meet was particularly emotional for me. I think I summed it up best with a Facebook status post: Cried a little. Smiled a lot. Thanks, Seniors!
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!
The SHCP Cross Country team was represented at the California State Meet in Fresno by the Varsity Boys team and Jackie Flynn. “Going to the Big Dance” was the theme. The meet took place on Saturday November 26 on the 5K course at Woodward Park, the 19th consecutive year (since the meet’s inauguration in 1987) that Fresno has hosted this Championship Meet.
“There is so much more than just the race at State Meet,” said SHCP coach Andy Chan, who has not missed a single one of those 19 meets in Fresno. “The State Meet experience is the ultimate in high school cross country in California. It’s a big deal to a lot of people.” In total there were 10 races (one boys race and one girls race in each of 5 divisions). 1866 runners crossed the finish line. 225 teams. For each one of those runners and teams, there are coaches, friends, family and teammates. “Everyone has their own personal story of how and why they are at the State Meet. That means there are literally thousands of stories,” said Chan, “A lot of people don’t get to experience what we did this weekend. It was exciting to bring so many people to share and experience what I think is a great moment in high school sports -The State Meet Experience.”
A State Meet tradition is the decorating of the vans. When you arrive at Woodward Park, it’s like the Academy Awards, everyone is checking out the van decorations. It’s your first chance to make an impression. When the SHCP team assembled on Friday morning, the vans were wet from the overnight rain. Our first attempt at decorating the vans led to a lot of runny pain. “It looks like our van is crying,” said Jackie Flynn. So after a lunch break, the team started over. We got paper towels and dried off the windows and set about doing a better job. “State, Baby” and “We’re Going to the Big Dance” were common themes. And of course, we had to put everyone’s name somewhere. It wasn’t easy as there were three vans to decorate. In the end, we were pleased with our job and we know we were better than St Joseph’s of Notre Dame, who used soap on their van windows.
The first time you realize that this isn’t just another meet is when you get to Woodward Park to do a pre-meet run on the course. There are teams everywhere. The big finish line banner and finish line chute are already up. Big tents are up where coaches go to get their race packets and where vendors sell CIF merchandise.
All the merchandise is really over-priced but it’s one of those things. You don’t get the opportunity to buy this stuff unless you are there at the meet and it’s one way to show off that you were there. So you kind of have to be willing to spend the money and just figure it’s worth it because you might not get the chance to do it again. I personally made good on a promise I had made a few years ago. The last few years I kept refraining from spending the big money and buying a sweatshirt but I told myself that I would reward myself by buying a sweatshirt the next time I came back with a team. I happily dropped my $45 and now have a new CIF State Championship sweatshirt to remind me of this great season/team/experience.
The only times I ever gotten excited during a pre-meet are at State Meet and the first time I went to Mt Sac with Lowell (Tower was a sophomore on that team in 1995). You end up running the pre-meet really fast because your heart starts beating fast and you are all excited to be racing. The Irish got to see lots of teams running their pre-meet. Some slowly. Some very quickly. Lot of sweats of teams we have not heard of. Everyone was very friendly as at least two teams shouted out a hello to us as we ran by them on the course. Some of the veteran coaches, who are in the know, realized it was significant that SHCP had qualified a boys team. Two or three coaches came up and congratulated me.
THE FRESNO “SIGHTS”
When I tell people that I’m going to Fresno Thanksgiving weekend for the State Meet, most people tell me that that’s too bad. It’s become a big joke. Fresno at Thanksgiving. While Fresno itself with its fourteen Wienerschnitzel’s (all on Shaw Ave it seems), isn’t the most exotic of locations to spend a holiday weekend, 19 years of hosting the State Meet has made the city synonymous with the “State Meet Experience.” At this point, there is nowhere else I would rather be on this weekend. I don’t know what I will do if/when the time comes that someone doesn’t qualify and I don’t get to go. In addition to the fast food chains and outdoor strip malls at every corner, Fresno also has a certain feel to it in the fall. The air is crisp even if the sun is out. The leaves are changing color and falling. Often there is the smell of fireplaces. People always think I am crazy, but those are some of the things I look forward to every year. Also, as you drive around Fresno, you are constantly seeing team vans at hotels, restaurants, grocery stores or on the streets coming and going. “Wow,” said Rachel Mills, “This is a big meet. There are so many people in town for the meet.” Exactly!
No State Meet trip is complete with out the Friday night team dinner. Every Italian restaurant in and around Fresno is booked for Friday night. The pounds of pasta consumed on Thanksgiving Friday in Fresno must rival the pounds of turkey consumed on actual Thanksgiving in Fresno.
This year, the Irish had one of the best team dinners ever. DiCicco’s on North Cedar gave us a private room in the back. It was a little tight but the service was great. They constantly re-filled our pitchers of drinks and bread baskets. We had a family style dinner of salad and pasta. St Francis’ boys team was also at this restaurant and we wished them good luck on our way out (Ben Sitler was nowhere to be found, however, much to one person’s disappointment).
The last time the Irish had a full team competing at the State Meet was 2001. The last three years it was just one or two individuals competing. At the most there were two vans and 10-14 people in the hotel. This year it was 3 vans, 7 boys, 3 boys alternates, 1 girl, 8 support team and 4 coaches. That meant there were 23 people packed into the coaches hotel room for the pre-meet meeting on Friday night.
After getting everyone to sign one of the State Meet shirts and the usual talk regarding meet logistics, we spent some time sharing the things we are thankful for. I was thankful for family and loved ones who support me and let me be who I am, which is a crazy coach that loves being a high school cross country coach. Others were thankful for health, for being able to run, for their teammates who are so nice, for their families who come support them, for the opportunities they’ve had, for the privilege of being on the team, and many other great things to be thankful for. We closed the meeting with a short visualization of a “dream race”. Then it was off to bed. The vans were leaving at 7am Saturday morning.
There is a real electricity in the air at the State Meet. Few times have I felt this type of atmosphere. The weather was great – sunny but cold. There were sounds of activity everywhere as teams set-up their areas, began their warm-ups, etc. We set-up right behind the starting line. We could hear the announcer introducing the section champions and the teams, then the officials gave final instructions. All of a sudden the runners were off and the announcer was giving race updates: who was in the front pack, the mile split, how the team battles were shaping up. Jackie was in the 2nd race of the day and the boys were in the 4th race so we had some time to take things in but not a lot. Slowly our parents began to arrive. The excitement was building.
GIRLS DIVISION IV RACE
Jackie Flynn qualified for State Meet with a 12th place finish at CCS. After missing by 6 places as a freshman, she was determined to make it this year as a sophomore. And by doing so, added her name to a short list of 16 girls who have run at the State Meet for SHCP. Some outstanding runners are on that list, and Jackie definitely deserves to be mentioned along, with Rowbury, Gallagher, Cannata-Bowman, Townsend, Scannell and Kefalas.
After warming-up with Rachel Mills and Janet Jew, Jackie stretched and prepared herself to race. The pace would be fast early and she knew to hang back and to try to make her move in the second mile. She hit 6:10 at the mile, which was right on pace. She was probably in about 65th place at that point. Over the next mile she moved up 20 plus placed to put herself in the 40’s. She hit 2 miles around 12:50 and continued to battle for a top 40 finish, which was one of her goals. It took some determination over the last quarter mile, as there were a lot of runners bunched together (12 runner finished between 20:05 and 20:14). In the end Jackie was 40th in 20:05. Not pushing all the way to the end could have cost her a few seconds and could have meant 50th in 20:14 instead. But Jackie pushed hard all the way. That’s why she’s a hero to so many on the team.
BOYS DIVISION IV RACE
Wearing their new “Going to the Big Dance” shirts, the Varsity Boys team of Nick Cannata-Bowman, Ethan Wicklund, Jonathan Juntado, Steven Arce, Jack Shepherd, Mike Bullard and Justin Abantao, nervously went to Box 16 for their race. After some final stride outs and pictures, the team came on for the final huddle of the season. I like this new way we have of bringing the team back to the support team for the huddle. Most teams huddle and cheer with just the 7 runners in the starting box. The Irish have been bringing the team of 7 back to the fence so we can have a larger huddle and feel the love and energy of the support team.
We’re here. We’re at the Big Dance. We did it. Thank you to Eddie, Nick and Paul who did all the training and were ready to go if needed as alternates. This team is the 1st team in school history to qualify. No one can ever take that accomplishment away from you.
Run the 1st mile with your head. Hit race pace.
Run the 2nd mile with your legs. Throw in some surges and move up.
Run the 3rd mile with your heart. Be a hero. Run it for all the boys who have ever worn the Irish uniform but never got to run the last mile of the season at the State Championships.
Because that’s where we are – The State Championships.
Let’s go. Irish Pride on three.
Thanks to all the practice over the last 2 weeks, everyone seemed to hit the mile mark right on pace. Nick C-B was probably in the 60’s. It was hard to tell what place the rest were in. Jack, Mike, Steve, and Justin did not have a lot of people behind them but they came through right on pace. Any faster and they might really fall off. Any slower and they would hardly have been in the race. Over the 2nd mile Nick C-B moved up into the 30’s. Ethan was also pasing a lot of people. JJ looked to be moving up slightly. Justin was leading our pack of 4 as they hit the “Killer Hill”…it was the best Justin had looked in awhile. Even though the second mile was slower than we wanted, everyone seemed to be competing well. We had moved up a lot, which meant we were passing people who went out way too fast and were slowing down even more than we were. Nick C-B hit a wall in the last half mile and just wasn’t able to keep it going. Part of it may have been from the pre-race nerves he was feeling. He would finish 68th (17:14 – faster than last year’s 17:27). Ethan ran the best race on the team, moving up the whole race to place 74th (17:17 – tying Andy’s Woodward Park PR). JJ was 123rd (17:50 – beating Tower’s 17:55 PR). Then the big pack of Irish green: Jack 142nd (18:09), Mike 148th (18:12), Steven 149th (18:12), and Justin 150th (18:13). The goal of placing in the top 10 did not happen. But the Irish still finished a respectable 18th against the best Division IV teams in California.
The California State Meet is one of the most unpredictable and competitive races in the country. You never know who is going to do well or how a team is going to place. Of particular interest were the other CCS Division IV teams. On the boys side, CCS 3rd place team King City was the top CCS team in 8th place. CCS Champion SLV was 10th. The Irish, who were 4th at CCS, were the 3rd CCS team in 18th, while Carmel, 2nd at CCS, came in 20th. On the girls side the CCS exerted their dominance for the 2nd year in a row. CCS runner-up SLV turned the tables on Half Moon Bay to win the State Championship. HMB, the CCS Champs, were 3rd. Carmel, 3rd at CCS, took 7th at State. That means the Irish, who were 75 points behind Carmel at CCS, will probably earn a top 30 State ranking in the season ending poll.
It was mixed results for the other WCAL teams at State. SI and St Francis continued their season long dual in the Boys Div III race. Sitler was 2nd in the race to lead St Francis but SI packed it in and ended up nipping St Francis for 3rd 161-167. CCS rival Willow Glen was 5th so CCS went 3rd-4th-5th in this race. Serra ran slower than they probably projected and placed 20th/23 in the highly competitive Div I race. In the Girls Div III race, Presentation took 16th and St Francis was 21st.
We took some more pictures after the race and SHCP Asst. Principal Gary Cannon had the team sign a program for him. Then it was off to lunch and some fun and games. After a long season with miles and miles of running, it is always nice to just relax and have fun at the arcade. Almost everyone raced in the go-carts (some quite a bit faster than others – Congratulations to Krystal Yee on winning the Natalie Martinez Award for the slowest driver).
THE DRIVE HOME
As has also become tradition for me, the drive home from Fresno was filled with mixed emotions. I was a little sad, but not because we didn’t run as well as I would have liked. I think I was mostly sad that the season was over. This goal that had consumed me for months was achieved and now over. Jack agreed with me when he said it felt weird that it was over. So now it’s on to new challenges. I began thinking in my head already about next year….what will we do differently for training to be more ready to run that 2nd mile faster, what will be the new goal that gets everyone fired up, what meets will we attend, who will be the new heroes…
Thanks for being there
Nick C-B, Ethan, JJ, Steven, Jack, Mike, Justin, Eddie, Nick K, Paul, Jackie, Josh, Sherie, Krystal, Lisa, Jocelyn, Stephanie, Meghan, Rachel, Tower, Janet, Christine