My team is about to enter the heart of the season: October.
This is the month that we have been focusing on since June. And for the returning runners, especially the seniors, this is the month of their lives that they have been working toward for years. The hundreds of miles the guys ran over the summer have led up to the few meets that really matter: county, conference, regional, and state finals. Even though every meet is an opportunity to learn, improve, and get stronger, the last 4 meets are the ones that really determine the success of a season.
Last year, our October was a memorable one. We were one of the top three finishers in the Macomb county meet for the first time in school history. Not only were we within the top three, we were the champions. Not only were we the champions, we were the champions in spite of being the underdogs. Romeo High School, the obvious favorite going into the meet, a team that had beat us every time we met in the last four years, was the odds-on favorite going in. Even the local papers noted that Romeo’s times throughout the season were much stronger than Utica’s times. I told my team the day before the meet that I would be very proud if we could be top three because it had never been done before in the history of our program. Top two would be even better. Second place seemed to be the likely outcome, as long as they raced as expected.
About 5 minutes before the start, we did our usual gather-round near the starting line. In typical Berry fashion, I didn’t say too much. I usually remind them of a few key racing strategies that we discussed at practice or remind them how to tackle the unique features of the course. This time, I looked at them and simply said, “Don’t run for second place today. You guys can win this.” This was the first time I actually said out loud that they should go for the county meet win. They looked at me with complete focus and utter calm. At that moment, I saw that they had been thinking the same thing all along. They were going for the win.
As the race unfolded, the guys ran more aggressively than I had ever seen.
They spilled it.
Romeo seemed off. They just didn’t respond. At first, Romeo had a tight pack of five in front of our top runner. Then my team raced like maniacs. It was almost like Romeo didn’t realize that the Utica runners were passing their pack, one by one. By the end, we put three runners in front of their one man. Their pack was still pretty tight, but Utica’s little pack moved in front.
Following the celebration and many photos with the first place trophy, I reflected on why we won that day. Romeo was truly the more talented team. Why did we win? Yes, the boys worked hard and deserved to achieve greatness, but what really happened after the gun went off?
The answer: the boys truly believed they were champions in order to win.
Distance running is a mental sport. The moment you doubt yourself, you are finished. You have to believe in order to succeed. On the other side of the coin, you have to anticipate others on your tail. I don’t think Romeo even saw us coming.
I think the main reason why the county win was so significant is it hadn’t ever been done before in the history of our program. Believing we could win was so much harder. If we had a history of being a top team, it would have been normal to have the expectation of winning. The fact that these guys believed they could do something that had never been done in the history of the school is inspiring to me, especially because we were the second best team on paper. It took years of training, racing, and building confidence in themselves, for the guys to go after the win.
After graduating four of my five top dogs last year, I was a bit anxious about how this season would pan out. I thought it would take years to rebuild the championship mindset that we had last year since we had graduated so many talented runners. This isn’t the case. Once you plant the seed for success, and the younger ones see the older ones pose with the trophy, they know they can do it too. They know the formula for success. They know if they put in the hard work and race their hearts out, they can be champions too.
I feel proud that the boys on our team this year continue to have the heart of champions. I see that they are hungry to succeed, and take pride in our program. We may not win the county meet every year, but I can tell the boys will strive to be one of the top teams every year, and enjoy every minute of it. I thank the graduates of 2011 for believing and allowing the new runners of 2012 to see that they can achieve greatness too.