* Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a three-part series looking at the state meet-bound Davis High cross country squads. Friday features a chat with Blue Devil head coach Bill Gregg about what makes the local program so popular — and successful.
Not to say there’s anything Mickey Mouse about being a high school harrier, but some believe that people who run long distances, alone against the clock, are a little goofy.
But Davis’ storied cross country history speaks volumes about how longtime coach Bill Gregg has set up his acquired-taste sport.
“We really foster that team-building and togetherness in an organized fashion … and sometimes in subtle ways,” Gregg explains, pointing out that a beginning-of-the-season team retreat goes a long way toward making cross country colleagues comfortable with one another.
Also, word is out about a 25-year-old tradition when the Blue Devils head south for the fall Mt. SAC College Invitational. They run like crazy during the day, then head over to Disneyland for some serious entertainment.
Speaking to the social element of his program, Gregg says: “This works … because if kids didn’t know anybody before joining the team, over time the kids start feeling comfortable and can really be themselves.”
Social connection aside, the more than 120 DHS runners this year have found the sport a terrific way to stay physically fit. The way Gregg sees it, a majority of his athletes are there to stay in shape — occasionally for another sport — or to get in shape in the first place.
The Devils can compare times to see improvement, too.
“That’s worked really well because we know if the kids run … they can’t help but improve their fitness just by doing what we ask them to do,” the 14-year head coach continues. “They can all look back in November and say ‘Wow! I’m a lot better than I was in August.’ ”
But over the years, Gregg has sent more than 50 athletes on to competitive situations in college while Davis squads have captured 20 cross-country Sac-Joaquin Section titles (11 for the girls).
So why the success? Why so many NCAA Division-I quality runners?
“Two reasons,” Gregg says. “I talk it up more and more about how being a collegiate athlete will enrich your college experience. ‘So few college students get to be collegiate athletes, so you ought to think about it’ I tell them.”
The other strategy is that Gregg nurtures his athletes’ love of the sport.
“Because kids love what they’re doing, they want to keep doing it,” he adds.
Gregg’s approach, while an athlete is still at DHS, relatively is low-key:
“We’re not training at such a high level at high school, so the kids are not burned out. They still have potential to be explored when they’re in college. We do our best to prepare the (athletes) for the collegiate experience. We have an obligation to do that.
“We could probably run more miles to be faster in high school, but I don’t think that’s in anybody’s interest to do that.”
Besides, all the pieces of the Gregg Cross Country Puzzle seem to be fitting nicely. Why fix something that is far from broken?
Notes: While it may be that the DHS boys are the reigning CIF section champs, it is the runner-up girls team that Gregg believes is the best female team he’s ever had. “The whole state has just gotten so much faster. As far as cohesion, for sure this is my best team. I still don’t think the girls have put together their best (day) yet.” Gregg likes the chances of freshman Fiona O’Keeffe making the podium in Saturday’s state finals in Fresno. And if teammates Giulia McIsaac, Sophie Meads, Laney Teaford and Maggie McManis run within 10 to 15 seconds of each other with personal bests, the Blue Devil girls could climb over a powerful St. Francis (2012 Sac-Joaquin champs) to register a top-10 finish, according to Gregg. It just may be that the girls saved a little of Tinker Bell’s fairy dust from their last Disneyland visit. … Jack Scranton is the two-time section all-terrain champion. With Matt Petersen (2008) and Trevor Halsted (2010) also winning individual titles, the Devils have four of the past five Sac-Joaquin champions.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8047.