The Circle Christian girls followed up their 2015 1A Cross Country Finals championship with a runner-up finish in 2016. Coach Mark Caulfield tells us about this year's Centurion team and their road to a podium spot in Tallahassee.
What kind of training did your team get in over the summer months leading into the season?
Coming into 2016 we had five returners from the previous State Championship team. They each understood that getting back on the podium would be hard and that summer would be important for any hopes of a return. Our summer training is fairly structured and developmental. Since we sometimes have kids for 6-7 years we are pretty intentional about their weekly mileage goals and work with them to progressively build up their miles each season / year. We are still pretty young, but all of our varsity level runners averaged between 30-40 miles per week over the 10-week summer. The workouts are basically aerobic miles with a fartlek, tempo, and 8-10 mile long run added each week over the last 5-6 weeks. Our summer team highlight included a week long camp at Montreat College near Ashville, North Carolina where the kids ran and hiked in the mountains and took part in an awesome 2-day team building high ropes adventure camp.
How did you train the team in the final weeks leading up to the state meet?
The last few weeks of each season is our favorite time of the year. We try to instill in our kids the mindset and wiliness to train 6 months just for those final 2-3 weeks. We try to treat those weeks like Christmas (an exciting anticipatory time with no stress or anxiousness). Like most teams, in the last 2 weeks, mileage and interval volumes are dropped 20-30% while the intensity and rest recovery of the quality workouts are increased. The goal in these weeks is to store energy, rest, stay / get sharp, and focus in on the exciting opportunity ahead. At the week of Districts, we begin to transition towards a more specific focus on the emotional, strategic, and mental side of race preparation with a continued repeated mantra of being relaxed and confident with a faithful trust in their training and teammates. Lastly, we instill a "No Drama" policy (for our kids and families) over those last 2-3 weeks while finding creative ways to encourage each athlete.
What chances or belief did you have in your team's chance and ability to win the state title/make the podium?
Leading into the State Meet we believed that there was a chance to repeat but that it would have to take a really good day. We felt Oak Hall was strong, determined and rightfully the favorite going in and that Maclay and First Academy would be battling along with us for those podium spots. Oak Hall certainly did not disappoint and ran amazing that day. We were happy for them and very grateful to come away with a narrow runner-up finish. During the race, our #3 runner actually broke her foot (a displaced fracture nevertheless) at "the wall" on the first loop and somehow managed to make it through the final 1.5 miles. She still ended up being our #5 finisher though well back of where she was projected and hoped to finish. She was really disappointed (and in a lot of pain), but it was awesome to see that when it was announced we finished 2nd by 3 points, all the girls rushed and hugged her tightly knowing that her courageous effort to finish secured a podium spot. It was one of the coolest things I've ever witnessed in a team. =
What advice or points of emphasis did you give your team prior to the race or the week leading into the state meet?
Because our team is still pretty young, we try to keep things relaxed and "business as usual". We continually reminded them leading up to the Meet that to race effectively they needed to stay relaxed; be confident in their God-given abilities and fitness level; be focused on what they could do (and not worry about others); and trust their training and their teammates. It also helped that these girls have consistently shown the ability to run well in big races.
What was the race plan for the state meet and how did you feel it was executed?
We try to get our kids to strategically approach the State Meet the same way they execute every other race. For now we still like for our kids to get out comfortably in the first mile, work into position through the second mile, and then finish strong in the final 1.1 miles. We would love for our kids to be able to get out fast and compete early, but we are not their just yet. For us, it is still about pace and position and we encourage and practice this throughout the season. Nothing really changes for the State Meet. Since I am involved with the FACA rankings during the season I feel we have a pretty good idea for where our kids are with regard to seeding and rankings with other runners and teams in Class 1A. We ask each of our runners to improve upon a realistic positional finish range that we set for them. It is a reasonably low key individual motivator that they seem to respond well with. At the 2 mile mark, we let them know their position and encourage them with where we think they can move up to. This group seems to like the challenge of exceeding expectations and are pretty gutsy over that last mile. They know that the greater they improve upon their positional range, the better chance we have to finish well. I think that works for us because each one knows very specifically that they have an important role and they seem to enjoy the challenge and opportunity to run their best for their teammates.
Who do you feel really stepped up individually the most for the team at the state meet?
I think for us to be on the podium, everyone had to have responded well. We are not a deep team yet, so there was very little margin of error if we hoped to finish in the top 2. We had 4 personal bests set in the Top 5 that included two runners in the Top 10 and a couple of big improvements from last year. Sinkenesh Parker (8th Grade) who finished 10th last year moved up to 3rd this year with an awesome, smart and strong effort. Add that to her 3rd place finish in the 3200m last track season and it is exciting to see her beginning to establish herself among the best in our classification. Brooke McEwen (9th Grade) finished 7th in a big breakout race for her. While not necessarily surprising to her coaches, it was great to see the potential she has come up big on the largest stage. She is an amazing young lady. Mulunesh Parker (9th grade) picked up 12 spots over the last mile to finish 23rd (improving 18 spots from last year) with a big PR while her sister Archike moved up 53 spots from her 2015 State Meet finish. Jaden Ault closed out our scoring with one of the most courageous efforts I've seen. Still not sure how she managed to do that on a broken foot, but we all remain very grateful. Emily Grandstaff (7th grade) in her first year of running showed great promise with a big PR while Lauren Spidell (12th grade) finished out her career one of the best ways possible, with a state team medal.
What were your feelings and emotions when you realized your team had made the podium or during the awards?
Last year because results were almost instantaneous, the girls knew they had won before I even made it back to the team tent so there was already a party going on. This year it was different because it took longer to get the results. We knew Oak Hall had a great race and a huge win but with Jaden's injury and placement we felt we might be third. When I first heard from Coach Butler congratulating us on getting back to the podium and I shared it with the girls, they went CRAZY. It was pretty exciting to say the least. Every year I am proud of all our athletes who work so hard and long during the year to run their best for us. But standing up on that podium, that we have now been blessed with the opportunity to do for the second year, elevates that pride and gratefulness in your team to an almost indescribable level. You realize how special these kids are, thankful for the gifts and opportunities they have been given and the support their families provide, and you're reminded on how hard they will work for you and their teammates. That feeling stays with you for a long time and humbles you because you know that their accomplishment has the potential to shape and encourage them with a memory they will long remember and bond them together as teammates for a lifetime.
What were the biggest challenges for this year's team?
Every team goes through challenges each year that potentially affect your goals and dreams. Our biggest challenges came early. Midway through the summer one of our top five was struggling with a groin issue that took a lot longer to heal than we expected. To her credit, she cross-trained well and her family got her into physical therapy early which made her transition much faster once she was able to get going in late August. Also, we had a very talented newcomer put in a huge summer and was looking to be a potential top five contributor to the team, badly hurt her ankle twice right before the season began and we were never able to get her healthy enough to compete. That put us without a lot of team depth that does affect the way you manage and train. But, it also gave us an opportunity to grow in our faith and trust God and each other better.
How would you best describe the group of kids that you coach?
I would describe our girls group as young, talented, inner competitive, humorously naïve, fun, fearless, dreamers, hard-working, compassionate and one. This is a pretty special and unique group.
What role do your assistant coaches play with the program?
In my first year of coaching at Circle in 2014, a mom (Brandy Parker) came to me with 3 different sets of adopted brother/sister combinations from Ethiopia (grades K-7). Instinctively (and probably selfishly), I immediately made her my assistant coach (to hopefully lock those kids into the program). Little did I know that this amazing mom would be an incredible coach who loves our kids fiercely, covers my weaknesses, understands these girls emotionally at a level I cannot, leads our weekly devotions with grace and wisdom, and is an awesome yoga teacher who helps keep our kids healthy. Anything good we are fortunate enough to accomplish my thoughts quickly turn towards giving thanks to God, our kids, and Coach Parker.
What role do your parents have with the program?
Each year we build the program, the parents seem to get better. I say that in the most positive way. Each season (now 3 for me), we seem to get more organized, add new and cool things, and draw closer together as "family". Our parents are a tremendous support at practices and meets. They provide replacement drinks and snacks following all of our long runs and quality workouts. They organize our monthly team / family dinners and run our fundraisers. At meets, they manage our team camp, take charge of bibs and tags disbursement and collection, take all split and finish times, shoot and distribute meet photos and videos, and provide incredible encouragement for ALL of our athletes. What I have enjoyed most though is the awesome love and support they give their sons and daughters interest in running and the nearly unquestionable support they give to their demanding and sometimes crazy (but loving) coaches.
Who were the leaders on your team and what was the importance to the squad?
Overall, we are still a pretty young team. Of our top nine runners all but two are in grades 7-9. Our lone Senior, Lauren Spidell had a huge impact on the team keeping them focused and free from major drama while encouraging them on what was most important. Lauren is a very spiritually mature young lady who led by being a great example to her team as one who worked hard for 4 years to get to be a part of this team this year. One of my favorite moments was watching her accept the trophies on behalf of our school and team that we received through each State Series event as part of our traditional honor we give to our Seniors each year.
Every podium team seems to have a special or unique makeup that makes them state champions/runners-up. What were some of those characteristics of this year's team?
When we lost 2 strong leaders to graduation last year we were not sure how the dynamic of this team would develop. Although this group is young on so many levels, we found that they were relationally mature and very considerate of others. We watched this group maneuver the season as a group. They worked through things together. They fought hard for each other. They learned to care more about one another. They made strong efforts to encourage each other daily. They began to consider others as more important than themselves. One of the highlights this season was watching the girls during the last few weeks of the season each take a day to write and share encouraging letters and small gifts they made for each of their teammates leading up to the State Meet. Their special and unique makeup is that over the course of the season they became one.
What are your expectations for next year's team?
When you return your top 5 from this year team for the next few years and have 3 young newcomers that show the talent and work ethic to compete with those five, there is a temptation to dream big dreams. But it is our hope that their joy for the sport and one another continues to grow along with their passion to work hard, learn, and improve. This is a talented group of young ladies with the character, work ethic and potential to do something special not just in this sport, but beyond.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
We would love to extend our congratulations to Oak Hall on an incredible State Meet race. I have such respect for their talented team, Coach McTureous and the example their program has set for all of us to aspire towards. One of my favorite moments this year came at the State Meet when Coach McTureous came over and congratulated us and then asked if we could all get together for a picture. To me it summed up the State Meet beautifully. Two teams competing hard against one another coming together afterwards to celebrate one another. An example of class and a long lasting memory for us.