To be successful in the sport of cross country running, one must take the long view. No one ever won a medal for running the fastest first mile in a 3-mile race.
Since every course is different, each new race demands a new game plan, one that takes into account course conditions and varying terrain.
The same can be said for building a successful cross country program.
Kieran Mahoney never set out to fashion a team that might occasionally challenge the Greater Spokane League running hierarchy. The Central Valley coach’s game plan, from the day he took the job, was for the long haul.
“What’s the cliché? We don’t ever plan to be in a rebuilding year; we just want to reload,” he chuckled. “This year’s team has been the biggest challenge we’ve faced yet. We graduated five of our seven runners from last year. We’re young in a couple ways. We’re young in that our older runners don’t have a lot of varsity experience. The rest of our runners are just young age-wise.”
Mahoney didn’t so much build a successful running program that his athletes follow as he grew a culture that creates an environment in which his runners can thrive.
“We took our lumps the first couple of years,” Mahoney said. “The idea is that when freshmen come into the program, we have seniors there to show them the way. The first couple of years, we as coaches had to do most of that. But then it finally began to grow.”
It starts with runners at Greenacres and Evergreen middle schools. When either has a cross country or track meet, Mahoney is there to watch and encourage. And he frequently brings along his CV varsity to help inspire and to be role models. He meets with the kids, shakes hands and encourages them to keep running.
After the eighth grade, when a young runner indicates that he wants to turn out for Mahoney as a CV freshman, the coach sends each a hand-written letter welcoming them to the program and inviting them to join the summer conditioning program.
“I learned that one from (long-time Mead) coach (Pat) Tyson,” he said. “I don’t ever send them a form letter. It’s a long process, hand-writing all those letters, but it’s worth it.
“But there’s more to it than just that. When they show up to work with us we make sure they’re welcomed. No teasing, no hazing. They’re a part of the team. It’s the same when they start classes – they have upper classmen there to help make sure they find their locker and get to the right class – because when they were incoming freshmen they had upper classmen there to help get them find their way.”
The turning point came in 2011, when CV finished third at regionals and then placed fifth at the state Class 4A meet.
“It’s about racing with a team concept, and that’s what we stress from Day 1,” she said. “You can’t be selfish. What you do outside of practice, with sleep and with nutrition, matters to all your other teammates. The kids hold themselves and each other accountable.
“This year I finally put together the five core values of this program and we stress a different one each day. Monday is appreciation: appreciate your gifts in life as well as athletically. Tuesday is enthusiasm: be enthusiastic when you buy into the program and to excellence and success. Wednesday is competitiveness because that’s the day we usually run against other Greater Spokane League schools. Thursday is teamship: making sure everyone has bought in fully and is aligned with our goals. And Friday is about accountability – to teammates, to coaches – and to make sure everyone takes responsibilities for those values.”
The values are deeply engrained in the program now, and it’s paying dividends.
“This freshman group is probably the most talented group of freshmen I’ve had,” Mahoney said.
This year’s freshmen have broken every course record every time they run. And when they’ve been called on to race with the varsity, they’ve attacked courses and performed extremely well.
“That’s the thing about this group,” Mahoney laughed. “They don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know they aren’t supposed to show up and win.
“And you know what? I’m not going to tell them.”
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