While the team warmed up at our last meet of our championship season of 2011, I noticed a slogan on the back of a tee shirt worn by my former coach, Kevin Hanson. It read, “No such thing as a transitional year.” As our history-making, undefeated season was wrapping up with my senior-heavy team, that saying really resonated with me. Back when I ran for Kevin at Stevenson High School, we worked at continuing a winning tradition, year after year. Going into my fifth year of coaching, with only a few varsity runners coming back, what would it take to continue a winning tradition at Utica High School?
Going into the 2012 season, I appointed two new junior captains, Collin and Andrei. I selected runners on the team that could truly get the returning runners and new recruits believing that they could still be winners, even without the all-state superstars that we were graduating. These captains are dedicated, positive, dependable, honorable, and passionate about the sport. They have the qualities that the team needed, and I knew they could be an extension of me. They were essential in moving the program forward. We needed new leaders to anchor the team and set a positive tone for the team’s personality. We needed leaders that would help the team set new goals and believe in them.
At our 2012 summer training camp we discussed short-term, long-term, individual, and team goals. I wanted the team to realize that not only would they be amazed with their progress in a single season, but they would continue to develop their running from year to year. The advantage of having previous success on my team, is that the returning runners can see how the older runners made their goals a reality through years of hard work. I showed them the captains’ times from their first year in cross country, and many of them gasped, “Andrei and Collin were THAT SLOW freshman year?” They realized that if they set reasonable goals, and kept these goals clear in their minds, they could accomplish great things like the runners of previous years.
As this season has unfolded, many of the athletes have accomplished their personal goals, but I have noticed more and more of them are already looking ahead to next season, and even past that. They are buying into the program, and as their short-term goals become a reality, they are looking more to their long-term goals. Earlier in the season the boys seemed to focus most on achieving personal bests, but now I see them focusing more on what they can contribute to make the team successful.
Yesterday was one of the most important meets of the season: the county championship. As defending champs, I thought it was important for our team to prove that there is no such thing as a transitional year. Our team goal for the varsity race was to be third place, behind two strong senior-heavy teams. The boys were focused and raced very well. We ended up placing fourth, 6 points behind third place. Although we were disappointed not to get a trophy, I couldn’t complain about our finish. Three of the top seven had personal bests. Being fourth out of 24 teams is still very respectable, especially since we have almost a completely new team this year.
The highlight yesterday for me was the junior varsity race. Looking at the times going into the meet, I shared with the team that our j.v crew had a good chance of winning. One of the team goals we discussed at camp was not only having a strong varsity team, but having the strongest j.v. team in the county. That would ensure the future success of the program. We knew Romeo, Dakota, and DeLaSalle High School would be our biggest competition. These three schools were usually near the top for j.v. every year, and among the top varsity teams as well.
As the race unfolded I was in awe of my team. We had one in the front pack, along with a Romeo and DeLaSalle runner, and 4 others in the top 10. They went after it and raced hard. Four of the top seven runners had personal bests by over 30 seconds, in cold, rainy weather. We won with an impressive low score of 35 points, beating Romeo by 16 points. I don’t think I ever saw a team so excited to get a trophy during an awards ceremony as this group of young men.
As the j.v. posed for photos with the trophy, Kevin Hanson walked up to me and said, “Being junior varsity champions is a big deal. It’s the future of your program. Combine them with your returning varsity next year, and you have a great team coming back.”
I knew it, and the team knew it. This was a big deal. We had a respectable finish this year, but they view this year not as a transition, but an investment. The harder they work now, and the harder they race now, the better they will be next year. Don’t wait to reach your greatness. Now is the time to go for it. But know that the greatness isn’t fleeting. It’s in the bank.