Have you ever had a group of guys with whom you shared your every wish and goal, and shed tears and blood as you strove to reach the pinnacle of those expectations?
One muddy course helped seven high school boys become cross country men the day it rained in Rocklin, CA. Fourteen feet ran, slid and skid at different paces through the muddy trails at Sierra College – chasing the feet of talented runners with names like Mark Mastalir, Adam McAboy, Chris Hoepker and Robert Roberts, and chasing packs of runners with the letters Bellarmine, Lassen, Jesuit and Vacaville on their jerseys – before the mud was scraped from the bottom of the racing flats, the tally sheet was scored, and our championship team was written into our high school's folklore history.
We were headline-makers and news-shakers after every cross country meet – big or small.
We trained tough in the hills, and we ran hard around the perimeter of a university located nearby. We found success racing in the rain and in the sand.
We repeated as sectional cross country champions when our lead runner braved the local course with his 5th-place finish – running on guts after hurting his foot coming down the ramp. We headed to a destination just outside of Sacramento the day after Thanksgiving with a coach who believed in us, a team that believed in itself, and had just one goal in mind: sacrficing everything – the individual titles, the great Thursday meal and previous results – for the top step on the podium in our bright yellow sweats when the team scores were announced.
Each boy showed up, put it all on the line, finished the course and did his best.
And we finished second.
And was is for those silver medals which we proudly hung around our necks that day many years ago that we were honored with a golden reception in 2003 – for being true champions in the eyes of our community. For being grateful in times of victory, and equally true to each other and our sport when the race director made the announcement and we realized our destiny that day: that after all the months of training, team-building, encouraging and planning, a better team won the championship title...they took home the most prestigious team championship available to Northern California High School cross country teams by a mere five points.
The blue-and-white uniformed boys beat the best. They out-classed us at Clovis. The stumped us at Stanford. They pummeled us at Postal.
And they’d beaten us again.
We were tired of hearing their names ring throughout the Northern California cross country sports reporting world.
But it was in that defeat – in replacing our names in the winner’s circle with theirs – we were deemed champions in our own community. We were honored long ago in front of our peers, and we are honored now by peers we do not even know. We have become legends to an entire generation of Mariner athletes.
I had an opportunity to thank each and every one of my teammates personally and collectively for helping me to understand the value of true teamwork. Their inspiration and dedication then made such an impact on whom I have become today.
I was a stat-freak in school, and am quite thankful the internet did not exist as it does today. I made a point of remembering the small details – including who ran what, where, and how quickly. Had I had an entire world at my fingertips, I don't imagine I would have ever gotten my school work done.
However, one detail I never realized in all of my years was this: I won my very first race as a high school student, a 14.06 2-mile cross country victory in the fall of 1984 that is now lost somewhere in the memory banks of time. And I placed an absolutely, no-questions-about-it last in my final high school race – 4.29,7 1,600m run at the State Finals in the Los Angeles suburbs, and on the grandest stage in front of two of my former mentors.
I won a race I can’t remember, and I finished last in a race I would rather forget. I stepped up, and then stepped down. And to top all things off, during our most celebrated event in our high school's cross country history, I ran slower in my race than the girl’s race winner, Lauri Chapman of San Jose Gunderson.
But what I learned between the time I first set foot on a course and the last time I took a stride around the track were the values of integrity and teamwork. I learned to try, to push and to never give up. I learned to listen...and to laugh...to take the right things seriously. And I learned to help others as I was helped. To rejoice in someone’s new PR.
I was a newcomer to the varsity field during what we coined the “Road to the Championships”. I had run the total of one 3-mile race my entire life prior to getting the varsity call that season. I had absolutely no idea how significant and special that team was until long after the van returned from the high school, we each headed our own directions, and the Sunday sports section exalted: local kid leads high school to 2nd-Place at NorCal.
I learned more on the “Road from the Championships” than I had learned in all the hours and months preceeding it.
I learned to have integrity and determination like our number one runner demonstrated on the course and in the weight room. I learned to have poise and confidence – to “Face the Challenge” like our second in command did when he ran effortlessly (“like a machine,” one newspaper would later state).
I took the competitive, never-die attitude our wunderkind third runner exemplified as a 15-year-old, and believed with him that we were going to eventually break Jeff Nelson’s 8.36 2-mile high school record by the time we graduated.
The number four guy gave me the word “understanding”, and would continue to prove its worth in the future. The fifth boy gave me more confidence-building moments after that race and throughout the entire subsequent spring track season than I have time to list.
Finally, the seventh man on that team had been there along the championship site's cross country grounds before, and stepped up to the plate again in that great season. He helped me through every step of every race. We practived together, and we PR’d together. We beat the entire league runner-up team together.
None of this was possible without our coach.
"Coach" set the tables, and we brought our best every time he invited us to compete. I once had a great opportunity to thank him from the bottom of my heart for the chance to dream alongside those who were there before me, and to hope with those who follow.
The championship drive we had my grade-10 season helped the team the following year return to the same Northern California site for a 3rd-straight season. Our previous number two was now the head guy in charge, and captured the league title along the way – making our team an instant league success after winning the individual and team titles in its inaugural season (this athlete set two school 3.200m records, two school 5.000m records and anchored three school relay records prior to graduating a year ahead of me).
My 2-mile partner in crime grew to a formidable force our grade-12 season, and made it happen our final cross country season - beating me by 1,1 seconds in a 1-2 league finish, and leading our team team to a 2nd-straight conference championship title. His victory was the fifth-straight season a boy from our school had won a varsity league title - three in one league, and two in our new one.
With the opportunity to qualify for the first-ever CIF State Cross Country Championships, we ran all-out and finished 2nd and 3rd at our section championships, and opened up the door for future state championship qualifiers. For the fourth consecutive season, our school was in the post season finale. What the excellent lineup of boys started years before continued to bear fruit for our high school's program.
The “Road to the Championships” began long before I stepped on the starting line, and today a different road is being marched by others who wear my alma mater's high school uniform.
Today, the “Road to to the Championships” doesn’t stop down highway 80 near Sacramento, rather it leads from the training grounds to Woodward Park in Fresno, then further south through the hills above Mt. Sac College – and ends ultimately around a course in San Diego.
None of our names are listed on today’s school-record categories, nor are they mentioned when the gun is raised and the runners set to take their mark at aiming to do their best.
But talk about true champions, and I remember these boys as legends.
They did a fantastic job of teaching me the value of hard work, and taught me that pushing through one more hill repeat - going one more time around the pond for another repeat - was to be a bond unlike any other when one discusses the spirit of friendship - even when a collective goal fell five points short of becoming a reality.