By Marty Dugard
Well here we are: October, when the cross-country racing season becomes just that little bit more intense.
The big meets like Orange County Championships and Mt. SAC (the biggest XC invite in the world) are just weeks away. Right behind them is post-season CIF competition, and then State. For a coach, this means geeking out on weekends, post-race, scanning the internet for race results to see how our times stacked up against other top teams, and trying to find ways to keep us inching up in the rankings (the JSerra Boys Cross-Country Team is currently ranked #5 in CIF, and the Girls are #4 on their side of the ledger).
For the runners it means 10 miles a day, and sometime more — each and every day. I could not be more proud of the way they have come together as a family, bonding through the suffering of hundreds of summer miles in the heat and dust, running each and every hill around JSerra until they know the contours by heart — and even giving them names.
There’s Ridgeline, Devo, Monica’s Hill, Crazy Horse, and Vietnam; Dueker Park, Fence and Back, Gazebo, and the endless switchbacks of Goliath. And in that bonding they have become highly competitive athletes. Coaching sometimes means stepping aside to watch the athletes evolve from mere students into elite young runners who are capable of so much more than they ever dreamed. And for that to become a reality they have to own the process.
So I’ve stepped back as they have shed the baby fat that they carried on the first day of summer training way back in June, replacing it with the lean muscle mass that leads to pure speed. They have sweat, puked, bled, cried, and cursed through mile after punishing mile in those unforgiving hills, even as they pushed the pace harder and faster.
One by one they learned that showing up each day for practice is not good enough. It’s all about never ever settling for good enough. Our motto is “Keep Pushing… Always” but more often I hear everything from “Trample the weak and hurdle the dead” (a bit over the top, but I give it points for style) to “Giving anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift” (which always stops me in my tracks, because who hasn’t had that moment of regret because they settled instead of strived?). And finally they realized that cross-country is an individual sport, but that true success in cross-country only comes through being a team.
Right now Katie DeYoung is the fastest girl and Luke Decker is the fastest boy. Luke, who began the season with a sizzling victory at the Laguna Hills Invitational. just led the boys’ squad to an upset of Mater Dei and Santa Margarita in duel meet competition last week. Katie just led the varsity girls team to a second-place finish against 30 of the best teams on the west coast at the Stanford Invitational, snagging 10th out of 300 runners.
But that could all change, and they know it. That’s what I love about cross-country — you’re only as good as your last race. The coach can’t play favorites or decide the starting lineup, because the stopwatch and the runners do it for him.
The top seven times are varsity. Anything below that is not. Each runner controls their own destiny. Varsity slots are constantly rotating as new runners move up to take their shot. So Luke keeps pushing the envelope in practice, knowing that guys like Kyle Willis, Michael Maben, Sean Robb, Luke Blanchart, Andy and Mikey Fisher, and brother Jake Decker want that top varsity spot.
And Katie is being chased each and every day by old friends like Sydney Teske, Taylor Mujica, Michelle Vaday, and Allison Manning — even as new runners like Andrea Maben, Leah Vitrano, Caitlin Nilssen, and Colby Lindholm push their way to the top. And right behind them is a stellar list of JV runners about to make their mark. No one’s taking anything for granted.
The great thing about October is that summer’s long forgotten, and the victories of September have begun to fade.
You’re only as good as you’re last race, and the only time to ponder glory is after the season is done. So the practices are becoming just that much tougher, just that much more focused, just that much more competitive. League Championships are four weeks off. October will give way to November, CIF post-season competition and State. I love my Running Lions. They are 45 of the greatest young men and women I have ever had the privilege to know. Walking out onto the track for practice at 3:00 is the best part of my day. We are something of a phantom team at JSerra, running our miles off campus where no one can see, and racing dozens and sometimes hundreds of miles from school.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t say that is the best cross-country team in JSerra history — good, and God-willing, getting even better as we sharpen in October. The girls were seventh in State two years ago, and sixth in 2008. The boys have made it to CIF Finals the last two years, but never pushed on to State. The goal this year is to change all that, and to come home from Fresno on November 28th with some hardware. But first, there is October.
Keep pushing… always.