Coaching Champions: Trinity Prep Boys

The Trinity Prep Saints flexed their muscles once more as they claimed their 4th consecutive 2A Cross Country Finals state championship. Longtime Coach Ken Vinal carried the team mid way through the season and then took a short leave of absence. Mike Hill who coached Winter Park to a powerhouse program in the 2000's took over the reigns. We caught up with both of them to talk about this season and the team's road to the top of the podium.

What kind of training did your team get in over the summer months leading into the season?   

We began our training in mid-May starting with nothing other than building mileage. Depending on age and experience each runner has a mile-per-week goal that tops out at 70 miles per week. In June we started holding monthly 2 mile time trials, VO2Max workouts, tempo runs, and running the clay road in Clermont.

How did you train the team in the final weeks leading up to the state meet?

We kept weekly mileage at around 55 miles a week until the week of Regions when we dropped it to 45 miles. The week of States it dropped to 40 miles. We also emphasized speed workouts ranging from flying 40m to all out 400m with complete rest. 

What chances or belief did you have in your team's chance and ability to win the state title/make the podium?

Not racing against our main competition, Satellite and Bolles, and not racing in a big competitive meet like pre-State put us at a psychological disadvantage. Two mile time trials indicated the team was where I hoped they would be at the end of the season and capable of racing much faster than their times from previous showed. Coach Hill pulled a workout out of his deep bag of championship workouts on the Monday before States. (The workout is top secret and know to a select few and the Russians who hacked my files) It gave the team the psychological boost they needed and I was convinced we going to win a 4th straight championship.

What advice or points of emphasis did you give your team prior to the race or the week leading into the state meet?

(Mike Hill): One of the things I emphasized was they could run great, and finish third!  They could run OK and possibly win.  The state meet is a strange and wonderful beast.  I have seen nationally ranked teams finish out of the top two, I have seen teams who were third in their region win the state meet, I have seen programs who never falter on that day, and some programs that continually underperform at the highest level.  Just like the real world, it takes all kinds.  Another point I hammered home was we could only control what WE do.  If that is good enough, then they deserve to win.  If it isn't then someone else better have earned it.

What was the race plan for the state meet and how did you feel it was executed?

(Hill):We believed Kayamo could hang closer to Trent than most thought.  They both did a great job and finished in the top seven.  The other two youngsters Mamush and Trent T wanted so bad to break 16 they may have gone out a touch quick.  Despite that they were well behind points wise at the mile mark.  However, that early in the race 5-8 seconds can swing the points 15-20 points.... So there's that.  To their credit they held on strong and ran their best times of the year to that point and both finished in the 25 or so with Turby going 16:07 (which was huge).  Mamush had his best race of his life at NXR running 16:07 as well).  However, as is the case with great programs (which Ken has absolutely built at TPS) it is your seniors you have to look to and lean on (Shout out to Bolles' Mr. Glover) when it matters the most.  Patrick and Preston did everything that was asked of them, executing (different) race plans perfectly.  So impressed with those 3 seniors (Mandato).  TPS number 7 guy - Ricky would have finished as a top 3 guy on 22 of the 25 teams we raced that day.  His value cannot be understated.

Who do you feel really stepped up individually the most for the team at the state meet?

(Hill):See above.  The short answer is ALL seven since 6 of the ran lifetime bests and the 7th ran a season best.  Absolutely all seven guys.....

What were your feelings and emotions when you realized your team had made the podium or during the awards?

(Hill):I am infamous(?) for having the scores before anyone else when it comes to who I am coaching/cheering for.  I am a huge numbers guy and like the challenge of being accurate in a break neck speed. (probably why I enjoy timing now a days...).  I was convinced we had won sixteen and a half minutes after the gun went off.  It was all on my paper!  However, the wait for the scores was unnerving a bit.  When the original online results were posted, and Bolles had won, I knew something was amiss and after about 10 seconds, I found Mandato placed second to last - however he had placed 3rd.  Big shift.  I had been on the phone with Vinal and we both agreed something was up.  Turned out Mandato's chip did not read on one of the timing mat split points (which had been run over by steam rollers that AM??!) and it pushed him to the end of the finishers.  Either way, Scott and the Halfmile guys handled it quickly and correctly once notified.  Been on that side of the operation - it can be super stressful!

(Ken Vinal): I was at home watching the meet online doing my best to keep count of Bolles, Satellite, and us as they passed the various cameras. I knew we were behind at around 2 miles so I hoped (prayed), yelled at the screen, that the guys would make up ground in the last mile. At the finish line it was clear that Bolles was ahead after their 3rd man finished, but I knew we had won when our 3, 4, & 5 finished in rapid succession and the gap between our 5th and Bolle's 4th & 5th runners. I also could see the Satellite runners were behind us (by position). It was easier for me to be confident because I was not in the middle of the action.

What were the biggest challenges for this year's team?

At the start of the year it was replacing the leadership of the graduated seniors. The new leaders had to keep the team focused on training and avoid getting complacent or believing that success was automatic. It takes great leaders to lead a championship team to remain a championship team. The other challenge was to carry on after the head coach took a leave of absence.  

How would you best describe the group of kids that you coach?

(Hill):  Intensely competitive with a dash of ridiculous, a pinch of weird, a side of goofy, and a layer of high intelligence.  Basically your typical cross country team.
(Vinal): Wiry, wired, weird, wily, workers, well-bonded, and wonderful.

What role do your assistant coaches play with the program?

(Hill):  Invaluable.  Mike Hopkins helped tremendously in the transition between Ken and myself.  While I had no issues with the "coaching" and "science" of what the guys were doing (thanks to a marathon session where Ken went over the entire season with me), Mike helped me with the nuances of the guys.  Who could be challenged, who needed to be encouraged, who responded to being ignored, who needed an extra "atta boy".  Even though I have known or taught most of these guys over the last few years, I did not know them in the athletic world.  That was the hardest part of taking over for ken.  Some people think it was the pressure to defend the title, but it really was not growing with the kids just jumping in with them.  Quite humbling at times to be fair.

Who were the leaders on your team and what was the importance to the squad?

The leaders this year were Preston Copenhaver, Trent Mandato, and Patrick Salas. Each exercised their leadership according to their personalities and they worked together very well to keep the team focused on getting better through training. Of the three Trent was the main leader of the team.

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? 

Like past teams they bought into the team culture that I have put in place over 17 years of coaching - call it the Trinity Prep Way. It is in part that the team is more important than any one individual and that individual goals always take a back seat to team goals. For instance in 2009 Griffin Jaworski and Whitner Chase intentionally chose not to go for the individual championship in order to maintain contact with Daniel Salas and Ryan Gousse to pull them to a higher finish (to win the state championship). We stress running as a pack which is an outgrowth of training together over the summer as a team and the way we do workouts. And while workouts &  races are serious business having fun, being a little goofy even, is a necessary part of the process. At the core of the Trinity Prep Way is preferring to be a bonded team over a winning team.  This team was the perfect exemplars of the Trinity Prep Way.

What are your expectations for next year's team?

We return a very good team that will compete well against the rest of the teams in the state. But we are clearly several steps behind next year's best team Bolles. We will enjoy the underdog status and work very hard to catch up, and if we are fortunate, win another state championship.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

(Hill):  I have a huge regret from the day of the state meet.  I knew that Bolles' win was an error and I heard the group of kids, coaches, and parents start shouting with joy and jubilation from across the course - I was near the finish line.  The 4A girls race was going by and I could not get across to them for almost 6 minutes - felt like an hour because of the course marshalls doing their job extremely well.  By the time I had made it over there was a full blown dance party going on and I had to pull aside their head coach and tell him privately what had happened in the scoring and that they were in fact second.  I actually lost it a little bit (cried like a baby actually...) because I knew how awful it feels to be declared a state champ and have it taken away.  I made every effort to get to them as soon as I could but I failed miserably.  To their credit athletes, coaches, and parents, they handled the news with absolute and complete class.  I have nothing but respect and admiration for the entire Bolles program.

More Coverage