Coaching Champions: Westminster Academy Boys

When the Westminster Academy boys hoisted the 1A Cross Country Finals trophy it was the first time the team had won state since 1983. On hand for both of the titles was head coach Ken Key. We caught up with him to talk about his team's journey the top of the podium.

What chances or belief did you have in your team's chance and ability to win the state title/make the podium and what kind of training did your team get in over the summer months leading into the season? 

These two go hand in hand. We met as a group a couple of days after the state track meet, the second week in May, and evaluated our hopes. We were the youngest team at the state cross country meet in 2015, and finished 5th with three 8th graders.  We had improved our state meet finish each of the previous four years. We lost only our #5 to graduation. We knew we had a chance at a podium spot if we could put it together.  The guys pledged that a podium position was their great goal, and that they would do whatever it took in the next six months to achieve it.  We met together about 4 days per week from May 10 to August 1, mostly just putting in miles, with some tempo training about once a week.  For almost 30 years, we have been going to Daytona Beach for a team retreat in early August.  This year it was all about getting ready for a run at a trophy in Tallahassee.  We adopted one of my favorite sayings for our seasonal challenge:  THE PRIZE IS WORTH THE PRICE. 

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

We train on the pyramid principle.  Wide base of distance running at the bottom, lots of long intensity stuff in the middle, stroke volume sprint work to conclude.  We did a lot of repeat 400s, 300s, 200s in the final three weeks, even through the regional meet.  Many of those we ran while emphasizing that final 150 meters coming down the hill to the finish line at State.  It was great fun to coach such a hungry bunch with that kind of mental emphasis.

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

We have a strong 5 year history of running PRs at the state meet.  Our emphasis was to prepare everyone for that kind of effort, knowing that if 5 of 6 guys ran PRs, we'd almost certainly make the podium. 

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

During the season, our most frequent mistake was running the first mile too fast, and failing to finish well.  So we emphasized a pace and strategy that might have us 30 points behind at the mile mark.  We actually planned that each guy might have to get 10 guys in those final two miles.  We were not even in the first 6 teams at the mile split.  I think we dropped about 75 points from our score from the mile to the finish line.

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

Our only senior, our captain, Patrick Sastre, was typical.  He was almost 30th at the mile, and finished 9th.  He was our leader and our emotional example all through the second half of the season.  He challenged our guys every day in the last three weeks to keep our focus, our intensity, our effort.

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

It was utterly and exceedingly fulfilling.  For almost 200 days we had singularly targeted a goal we believed we had a chance to attain.  Yet when we looked at our "less than exciting state meet race times" we thought we might have missed it.  It was an interesting mix of absolute joy and great relief when we found out we had done it.  Some kids just ran around shouting with excitement, some collapsed on the ground in tears. For me, the word was "fulfilling", having coached (or worked as program director and coach mentor) for 33 years in-between cross country titles.

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

The challenge was to stay healthy.  Patrick, our captain, has had a groin condition that may require surgery.  Our #5 finished only two races all season with plantar fasciitis.  Three of our top six are only freshman.   We were probably the most "undertrained" state championship team of the last 5 years.

How would you best describe the group of kids that you coach?
Hungry, goal driven, unified by the desire to succeed together.  And they are a very intelligent, smart, savvy group of young men.  It really was an easy group to coach. 

What role do your assistant coaches play with the program?  

Adam Masterson ran on our teams 20 years ago.  He is a pastor and a former Bible teacher, incredibly smart, and insightful.  He "rescued" me from some potential mistakes and problems a couple of times.  Because he approaches his coaching from the ministry side of things, and because he has a genuine love for the boys that transcends temporary success, he coaches the hearts of our kids, boys and girls.  Alan Crate joined us in August, moving over from Boca Raton Christian, where he was very successful with young girls, and he coached Tucker Hindle for 5 years, the 1A boys state champ just last year.  He brought incredible energy, enthusiasm, and a very scientific coaching philosophy with him.   His sacrifices of time, effort, and energy encouraged me to give more time and energy to my weekends especially.  He "ran" our girls workouts, and was especially valuable in "birthing" confidence in our young ladies that brought about success.  And his "run every single day without excuse" philosophy got some of our boys to add miles to their normal workout week.

What role do your parents have with the program? 
Our parents are our best fans.  They have learned to have confidence in what we do.  They have known how the sacrifices they make for their children pay off when they are in our hands.  They are some of our best "recruiters" (that is within the walls of our school population) as they tell the parents of other potential runners how good our program has been for their family.  They pay for our travel and support us in every way, supplying snacks, drinks and helping out.  One mom (of 3 of our boys) was our kitchen mom for a week at Daytona, and put together our catered meal at the state meet -- invaluable.

Who were the leaders on your team and what was the importance to the squad? 
Patrick Sastre is one of top 3 leaders I have had the privilege of coaching in my 44 years at Westminster, and we've had some good ones.  His ability to transfer his hunger for success into the hearts and minds of his teammates was phenomenal.  He has ALWAYS come through at the biggest moments of a season, and we all knew we could rely on that, and this teammates would try to emulate his drive and his enthusiasm.

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?   
It was the unified nature of setting their hearts on a goal.  Their vision last spring to see what was possible, their ability to draw every single capable boy on the team into their drive to achieve the podium, their tenacity to never quit striving to achieve in all of those 200 days of goal seeking,  They never gave in to doubt that they could get on the podium if they just gave their all. 

What are your expectations for next year's team?  

We will have lost our captain and our number one finisher at state.  But we have two juniors who are very capable leaders, and four freshman and an 8th grader who want to continue to improve.  They have experienced the thrill, excitement, and fulfillment of the top step....AND THEY WANT VERY BADLY TO RETURN TO THAT TOP STEP.  I hope to do this same interview next year.  There is plenty of room in our undertrained boys for significant improvement.   To Mount Dora Christian Academy, Marathon HIgh School, and to Maclay (see the pattern?) as well as others -- come join us in the battle in 2017.

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