Coach Mark Caulfield is in his 4th year at Circle Christian School and his 10th season coaching in his career. In the last three years, he has guided the Centurion girls to three cross country podium finishes. The squad won the 1A title in 2015, were runner-up in 2016, and champions again in 2017. We caught up with Coach Caulfield to talk about this year's team and what makes his program so special.
What kind of training did your team do leading up to state?
We follow a pretty specific periodization training program. The last 4 weeks include a 2 week maintenance phase where we go back and touch on various energy system workouts and then the last two weeks are your typical taper / peak phase of slightly lower mileage and higher intensity sharpening workouts.
What chances or belief did you have in your team's chance and ability to make the podium?
While we definitely felt like the under-dog through much of the season, following Pre-State, the girls thought that if they could get / stay healthy, continue to progress, and had a great day at State, it could happen. The closer it got, the more confident they became. The program has a history of racing well late in the season and they went into the race trusting they were ready to run well.
What advice or points of emphasis did you give your team prior to the race or the week leading into the state meet?
Going into the Regional and State Meets, it is simply to stay relaxed, be confident, trust your training, and believe that God has already gone before you. Faith, staying calm and being encouraged are important preparations for them. A couple of fun things we do through the State Series is that we institute a "Drama Free Zone" policy at school, practice, and home where we strive to eliminate all potential drama, conflicts, complaining and negative talk.
The girls do a lot of relational encouraging with cards, gifts and group discussions during this time with each other. We even include the families and ask all the parents in the last 2 weeks to take over the kid's chores and prepare their best and most nutritious meals. It's mostly done in fun but the kids enjoy it, feel special and it marks a shift in physical preparations towards rest (we call it stored energy) while building emotional and mental confidence.
What was the game plan for state and how do you feel your team executed it?
We don't overly plan or strategize the State Meet. The preparations for State are done throughout the season. The kids are aware of the teams around them, but we can't control what others do, so we try our best to manage what we can do. Race wise, we typically go out comfortable the first mile, look to move up into position in the second mile, be tough over the 3rd mile, and then compete strongly for every point over the last 200 meters. At the Region and State Meet each athlete has a "position" they need to be in by the 2-mile mark that we have set for them. Our girls are all pretty competitive and enjoy going after and beating their position from the 2-mile mark to the finish. We make a pretty big deal of that and celebrate their closing mile.
Who do you feel really stepped up individually the most for the team at the state meet?
We had all 7 girls set personal bests at the State Meet this year so I'd say that they all stepped up pretty well. Scoring wise, Sinkenesh Parker had a great race up front finishing 2nd with an impressive and strong effort. She is only a 9th grader but has consistently improved from 10th, to 3rd to 2nd over the last 3 years. Brooke McEwen who always seems to run crazy good at the biggest meets had a huge day with a 30 second PR to finish 4th improving upon last year's 7th place finish. Archike Parker and Mulunesh Parker (Mulu) ran together and pushed and pulled each other throughout the race with Archike setting a 45 second PR and Mulu setting a 14 second PR to finish 22nd and 23rd. Caroline Spivey, running in her first year, closed out our scoring with a 14 second PR and passed 15 people over the last mile which proved to be huge.
What were the biggest challenges for this year's team?
Every team has challenges and distractions each season. In a somewhat strange way, it is one of the beautiful "teaching moments" about our sport. Persevering and overcoming are great life lessons we seem to get opportunities to learn every season. This year we lost a talented returner right before the start of the season and then we had our fair share of nagging injuries throughout the entire season. I think the Regional and State Meets were the first time of the year we felt we had the majority healthy.
Was there a particular race, workout, or moment that you knew that your team was ready or had the potential to become state champions?
The moment I knew we were ready was probably at the 2-mile mark of the State Meet. I always felt the girls had the potential to be State Champions but realistically, we knew that it was going to require a great race from everyone to have a chance. I think that is what made the win so exciting with all 7 running their personal best. What made it most special though was the amount of encouragement and congratulations they got from so many people. Their first comment to me when they finished the race was that "it felt like there were so many people on the course cheering for us". We were taken back by the number of parents and coaches from other teams who came over to congratulate the girls on their effort. It was unexpected but so gratifying and encouraging for the girls.
How would you best describe the group of kids that you coach?
Respectful, sweet, persistent, supportive, kind, silly, steadfast, humble, coachable, hard working, smart, talented, and competitive.
What role do your assistant coaches play with the program?
A little more than three years ago on my first day at Circle, a woman walked up to me and said "I have three sets of Brother-Sister combinations that we adopted from Ethiopia and the 3 girls want to run". My immediate response to her was "will you be my assistant coach?" Although the kids had been at the school for a number of years, I had no idea if they could run, but I was certain that this must be an amazing mom and family. Over the years my instincts have been proven true as she has been an invaluable asset to our team, families, and me. She is an incredible encourager, spiritual mentor, and ancillary instructor (yoga, strength, core) to our team, an example of commitment and support for our families, and a wonderful compliment to me whose strengths covers most of my weaknesses. And as a bonus, the three girls ended up being pretty good too.
What would be the best way to describe your coaching style?
If you ask me, it would be training kids through a scientific stress adaptation periodization program with age / grade appropriate workouts and mileage with long term progression priorities and an emphasis on emotional and motivational encouragement and commitment to them as student-athletes. If you asked the athletes, they would probably just say "goofy old guy who keeps showing up every day making us run lots of miles and then work really really hard every other day".
Who were the leaders on your team and what was the importance to the squad?
I would say the real leaders on our team are our parents. Every year our program seems to grow and we are able to do more because of the support of our families. We ask a lot of our parents regarding commitment, finances, and involvement in the team. We are probably a little different than many, but we want the parents active in the program. On all of our team trips, they are encouraged (loose term for required) to go. We give them roles and tasks during the season. We want them at practice and give them opportunities to run or walk together with other families. We want them to be engaged in the passions and interests of their sons and daughters. Generally, it is not a big stretch for them though. They are wonderfully supportive of their kids and are difference makers for our program.
Who was the biggest individual surprise or runner that most impressed you with their improvements this year?
Interestingly, probably our 6th, 7th and 8th runners, Emily Grandstaff, Grace DeJesus and Sarah Rudolph. Emily is a talented young lady who battled some health issues much of the season and then set a 60 second PR at the State Meet which we were all super excited over. Grace and Sarah were two girls we moved up from the JV team late in the season who responded beyond our expectations. Both dropped big minutes off their time and showed great promise for what they can do in the future to help the team continue to progress.
How would this team rank against some of the past teams that you coached?
The 2015 State Championship team will always be a favorite because it was the first, but this year's team is the best in the 10 years Circle has had a team and competed in the FHSAA. Collectively, they poured in more miles than any team we have ever had over the summer, won more meets (6 of 8 meets), and had the lowest Top 5 team average in school history by 16 seconds over the 2015 team.
Every state championship/podium team seems to have a special or unique makeup that makes them state champions. What were some of those characteristics of this year's team?
These girls are all very different. But it is probably what is most common in them as a group that make them special. I have never been around a collective group of athletes who were as focused on consistently working hard and who genuinely cared more about each other. They don't miss runs. They understand the relationship between consistent training and success. They don't complain. They take care of themselves. If injured they work harder to rehab and get back. You don't have to ask; they just do it. They hold each other accountable and encourage one another. They persevere for the long haul. They work so hard because they care so much about each other. They each want to be good with and for each other. Cross Country brings that out. They also love to have fun together. That was probably never more evident then when we took them to Disney to celebrate their Championship. They love being together and celebrating each other. As a coach it was a such a cherished day just watching them enjoy what took 6 months to accomplish together.
What are your expectations for next year's team?
This team is still young. The State Series team was comprised of a 6th grader, three 8th graders, two ninth graders, and two 10th graders. It is certainly our hope that they remain together, continue to work hard, stay healthy, and progress. They are certainly capable, Lord willing, of doing something special in running and beyond. It is a pretty amazing group of young ladies. But each year is new and different and you quickly learn not to look too far ahead. We are very grateful and humbled by this year's State Championship. It has been a joyous celebration that still continues. The way the girls won it, and the memory of it, will be a bond that will be with them most likely the rest of their lives. To God be the Glory.