On the eve of the State Cross-Country Championships at Fresno last year, tension filled the air. Nervous runners paced the halls and lobbies of their hotel, trying to ease their jitters. Coaches shooed their athletes back to their rooms, scolding them to get to sleep.
But a few blocks away, in an establishment called the Blackstone Bowl, members of the Newport Harbor girls’ cross-country team met to partake in what would become, for them, a serious pre-race ritual.
The Sailors went bowling.
The next morning--after getting back to the hotel around 11 p.m.--they went out and won a state championship.
Worries? What worries?
It is all part of the low-key, no-pressure system that has seemed to characterize the Newport Harbor program--in training and overall philosophy--for most of the decade.
Because of this, and a significant amount of talent, Newport Harbor has one of the more successful Orange County girls’ cross-country programs of the 1980s.
Six Sea View League championships, a 50-2 dual-meet record, appearances in six Southern Section finals, a Southern Section championship in 1984 and a state championship in 1987. . . . The last 6 years have been good ones for Newport Harbor, coached since 1981 by Eric Tweit and Bob Van Sickle.
Today at 10:35 a.m., the Sailors will attempt to defend their State Division II (medium schools) title at Woodward Park in Fresno.
Led by senior Stacy Pando, ninth in last year’s meet, Newport Harbor returns as the No. 1-ranked team. Leading challengers are second-ranked Los Gatos and third-ranked Archbishop Mitty of San Jose.
“Since we’re going in as the favorites, I just have to put faith in whoever does the rankings,” Van Sickle said. “Whatever happens, I just hope they do their best. Then if they win, great. If they don’t? That’s fine, too.”
Van Sickle, 47, and a captain in the Costa Mesa Fire Department, was a standout miler and cross-country runner for Newport Harbor in the late 1950s. Tweit, 40, coached at Excelsior, Bellflower and St. Paul high schools before taking a teaching and coaching position at Newport Harbor 9 years ago.
Other county coaches continually point to coaching as one of the key strengths of the Sailors’ program.
Said Villa Park Dick Brunt, a longtime friendly rival: “I think one of the major reasons they’re always good is great coaching . . . Hey, if they give you some tips, I’d love to hear them.”
At the Orange County Cross-Country Coaches Assn. meeting last week, Tweit was asked to give a brief presentation on the Sailors’ training secrets. And after last Saturday’s Southern Section finals, El Toro Coach Diane Hale questioned Van Sickle on the same matter.
“She said, ‘Boy, you guys must be doing speed workouts three times a week, right?’ ” Van Sickle said. “She didn’t believe me when I told her we don’t do as much as some teams. . . . As far as mileage goes, we’re probably a lot lower than most.”
OK, coaches, grab a pencil or a pair of scissors. A typical midseason training week for Newport Harbor goes like this:
Mondays--Hills, generally a 600-yard loop that includes two long, steep uphills, a downhill and a bit of flat ground. Run on the trails of the Upper Back Bay, the loop is run four times at race pace, trying to simulate conditions at the Mt. SAC cross-country course.
Tuesdays--Easy run (no racing) of about 6-7 miles. Five or so easy strides on track afterward.
Wednesdays--Four-mile run with several surges at race pace.
Fridays--Easy 4 miles. Strides.
Sundays--Three miles if you feel like it. Otherwise, rest.
In comparison to programs such as Tustin’s or Foothill’s, where heavy mileage--including a 100-mile week during the summer--and morning runs are advocated, Newport Harbor averages 30-35 miles weekly.
Morning runs? Never. Injuries? Seldom.
“The important thing is consistency,” Van Sickle said. “To me, it doesn’t have to be a whole lot because they’ll get hurt.”
Ask the Sailor runners what they think has led to their success, and they point to the low-pressure, ever-encouraging team atmosphere instilled by their coaches. Runners are met with hugs or handshakes after each race--no matter how they performed. A close-knit team atmosphere prevails. Pep talks are limited to a few words of encouragement.
“No matter what, our coaches always just say, ‘Do your best,’ ” Pando said. “They don’t give us any pressure. I don’t think they’ve ever raised their voices at us once. That helps a lot.”
Dana Hills, which won its second consecutive Southern Section boys’ 4-A title by edging Camarillo last Saturday, will meet Camarillo again in the Division I (large-schools) race at 10 a.m. The Dolphins, ranked fifth in the state, are led by identical twins Mike and Andrew Tansley and brothers Steve and Daniel Niednagel. . . . Santa Ana Valley’s Jimmy Rodriguez, who barely qualified for the state meet last Saturday, will compete in the Division I race as an individual. . . . Corona del Mar, third in the 4-A final last week, is the top-ranked team in the boys’ Division II race, and Laguna Hills is ranked ninth. Corona del Mar finished runner-up to Walnut at last year’s state meet. . . . Freshmen Tanja Brix of University and Shelley Taylor of Edison will compete as individuals in the Division I girls’ race. Other county entrants: Foothill (girls’ Division II), Whittier Christian’s Tony Bergman (boys’ Division II), Orange Lutheran’s Mary McKiernan (girls’ Division III) and Eric Strand (boys’ Division III).