Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Catching up with Bishop O'Dowd distance coach, Andrew Cheng...

Today we chat with Bishop O'Dowd distance coach, Andrew Cheng (picture to the left was taken at the Arcadia Invitational and is courtesy of  In his first year at BOD (following several years at Skyline HS in Oakland), Andrew has had quite an impact with both the Cross Country and Track and Field teams.  During XC, both the boys and girls teams just missed making the state meet by the narrowest of margins after sweeping every division at their league finals.  On the track, the BOD distance runners have really stepped up their game under Andrew's continued tutelage.  Just a few weeks ago, his relay teams made quite a statement at the Arcadia Invitational with their 2nd place finish in the 4 x 800m. (7:46.43-fastest time in CA)and 5th place finish in the DMR with a 10:12.05 (#3 time in CA).  

1) What sports did you compete in as a youth? Highlights?
I played a variety of sports when I was younger (football, basketball, baseball, tennis).  Football was my sport of choice, but when I got to high school, I realized being 5’7” and 120 lbs wouldn’t benefit me on the football field.  I moved on to tennis, which I started taking very seriously when I made the varsity team as a freshman.  I trained year round for tennis, but when I hurt my shoulder during my junior year, a friend convinced me to run track & cross country and that’s where I ended up staying.

My running career was mediocre at best, but being teammates with guys like Kenny O’Neal, the CA state champ in 100 (10.34) and 4x100 (40.95) in 2004 and racing in a league with guys like Marshawn Lynch and Josh Johnson (both in the NFL now) made things quite fun for me.

 2) Who were the most influential and motivational coaches for you as an athlete? What about mentors for you as a coach?
The two most influential coaches for me, both as an athlete and as a coach, have been Chris Williams, who was my coach when I competed at Skyline and is now the head coach at Dublin High School and Jamal Cooks, who was also a coach at Skyline when I competed there and is now the man I’ve been coaching with for the past 4 years (3 years at Skyline and currently at Bishop O’Dowd).

When I was a senior at Skyline, Chris Williams actually said and I quote, “you’d make a great coach one day” and of course at the time, I thought… “Yeah, right. Me… coach?  That’ll never happen”.  But I’ve fallen in love with coaching and I enjoy seeing the development of each and every kid that I get a chance to work with, it’s truly been rewarding.  There are a few other folks that I’ve had a chance to meet and become friends with, who have been great mentors to me as well, and they know who they are.

 3) What led you into coaching? What else do you do besides coaching?
It’s funny because coaching was supposed to be temporary when I first started.  Chris Williams called me during the summer of 2008 and I had just finished my undergraduate studies at San Jose State the previous winter and had already begun working.  He had decided to make his transition from Skyline to Dublin High and wanted me to be his successor. But being a new college grad, I was looking for something more permanent that would provide me with more financial stability (and most people don’t think of high school coaching as a lucrative path), so I was hesitant because I was set on trying to find a full-time job as soon as possible.  Luckily, my job at the time provided me with enough flexibility which allowed me to start coaching that fall.

Outside of coaching, I’m currently preparing to go back to school for my Masters in Public Health. I’ll be heading back to San Jose State in the fall to start the program, but I’ll still be coaching.  It’ll be interesting to see how everything balances out in the fall, but anyone who knows me as a coach, will tell you that I have no intentions of taking time away from coaching.  I’m all-in at Bishop O’Dowd.

 4) What was your first experience coaching? What did you learn from that experience? Highlights?
I started my coaching career at Skyline High School in Oakland in 2008.  I’ll have to admit, it was a challenge because of how self-sufficient we needed to be each year.  I’m still amazed at the kind of program Jamal and Chris put together at Skyline with the limited amount of resources that they had.  It was definitely a struggle to get kids to come out to run distance.  In Oakland, kids gravitate towards football and basketball because of the history behind those sports, especially in the OAL, so it was always an uphill battle trying to bring the numbers up for cross country.

After I took the position at Skyline, I spent a ridiculous amount of time (and I still do) reading articles, magazines and books on coaching distance runners.  It actually became an addiction because there’s just so much information out there and many different training philosophies. So I kept reading and searching, thinking there was that one training program or philosophy, that Holy Grail of coaching, which would make me a great coach.  It took me a while to realize that every coach needs to find their own way and discover what works for them, because what works for one program, won’t necessarily work for another.  You’re really a product of your environment. For example, at Skyline, I had access to a full size, 8-lane track, I had trails right outside the campus and all of our training locations were a short ways away.  At BOD, we don’t have access to a full-size track, there aren’t many trails and everything around the school is cement, so a lot of adjustments had to be made on my part when I arrived.

In reality, coaching is really about being creative.  I’ve been experimenting with new things over the years to see if fits into my system and I’ve learned that I need to able to be flexible based on what I see unfolding during the season.  If a group walks into practice flat one day and I have a workout scheduled, I feel that it’s better to adjust a few things so the kids can walk away feeling good about what they’ve accomplished at practice, rather than having them walk away feeling demoralized about what just took place.  

One of my biggest highlights at Skyline was having a kid like Cameron Trinh, who wasn’t incredibly talented but was extremely committed to me and the program.  I had him as a sophomore and from the first day I worked with him until the day he graduated, he missed zero days of practice.  Yes, zero. The days he took off were the days I had to force him to take off.  But having a kid like that who trusted me as a coach, made things very easy.  I had a chance to shape and mold things for 3 years and because of him, I developed a solid training program and had a chance to tinker with workouts that I wouldn’t dare do with other kids.  And as much as I helped him, I’d have to say he also helped me grow as a coach.  He ended up running 9:18 in the 3200 as a senior and it was an absolutely joy to see how far he had come since I started coaching him.

 5) How did you end up at Bishop O'Dowd? Biggest difference between coaching in OAL and now at O'Dowd?
After 12 years at Skyline, Jamal Cooks, the man I had been working next to for 3 years, decided to make the transition to become the director of track & cross country at Bishop O’Dowd.  He then offered me a chance to continue working with him at Bishop O’Dowd and it was one of those opportunities that weighed very heavily on my mind.  At the end of the day, I realized that the relationship, the coaching dynamic and the program that Jamal and I had developed over the past few years was truly priceless.  If you ever see Jamal and I at a meet together, you’ll understand. This was the man that has supported me as a coach, trusted me completely with the distance program and has had my back since day one.  So after much consideration, I decided to step down from Skyline and made the transition to Bishop O’Dowd.

I’d have to say one of the biggest differences is the amount of support we’ve received from the Dragon family, from the students, parents, alumni, faculty, administration, to our amazing principal, president and athletic directors. I’ve felt right at home since my first day on campus.  In the realm coaching, there’s no doubt that the level of competition has changed.  There are so many incredible programs in the NCS and if I just look locally in the east bay, schools like De La Salle, Campolindo, to the smaller programs like St. Joseph Notre Dame… it’s amazing to see what these teams have done over the years and how much success they continue to have.

 6) What was the state of the BOD program when you arrived? Who were the athletes with untapped talent?
I didn’t start at Bishop O’Dowd until August and because of the timing, I had no chance to establish a summer program for the kids so I really had no idea what the kids had done up to that point.  A lot of the kids had been running on their own for most of the summer without much structure, so it was difficult for me to gauge the level of fitness of the kids and the team as a whole when I arrived.  For me personally, it was a bit chaotic because of how quick the transition was, so I had very little prep time.  I actually spent an entire week, wheeling out running routes, mile marks, distances and I spent probably 4-6 hours a day during the week, just walking the streets around BOD trying to figure out what I could do with my workouts.  After that week was over, I sat down at home and thought to myself, “man… I’ve got some work to do”.

As for untapped talent, you would think that most of the untapped talent I’d find would be with my underclassmen but I’ll have to say, a lot of my juniors and seniors had huge potential.  For my younger group, sophomores like Andrew Melendez & Emily Fieberling and my freshmen group (the Burke twins, the Cooke twins, Alyssa Byer, Meredith Nix, Ashley Ryan, Alison Heywood, to name a few) have shown tremendous potential.  I’m very excited to see how Andrew and Emily grow and develop these next couple of years and how this freshmen group will follow.

But it was actually my upperclassmen that have really blossomed this season.  My seniors, Marie Diaz, Sam Kane, Jonathan DeGroot and Karsten Kaufmann have made tremendous strides from their junior year to their senior year.  A kid like Karsten Kaufmann, who reminds me a lot of Cameron Trinh, has made some incredible improvements and I’ll argue that he’s one of the most improved kids in the NCS from last season to this season.  I’ve also found a diamond in the rough with my junior boy Eugene Hamilton, who I first discovered in cross country as a sprinter that just wanted to “stay in shape”.  He was purely a 200/400 kid last year during track season but because of the time we’ve had together, I’ve had a chance to work with him more in the middle distances and he’s developed into an incredible 800 meter runner and is one of the big reasons why we were so competitive at Arcadia in both the 4x800 and the DMR.

 7) What have been some of your team's accomplishments in XC?
Although many people may not consider this an accomplishment and as heartbreaking as it was, I think missing out on the state championships as a team by just a few points was definitely an accomplishment for our program, because I don’t think many people expected us to even be in contention before the season began.  And even though we didn’t qualify as a team, I still had my amazing senior, Marie Diaz and a sophomore, Andrew Melendez, qualify for the state championships and they performed very well there.

Another big accomplishment during this past fall was when we swept all 6 division titles (boys & girls varsity, junior varsity and frosh/soph) at the Hayward Area Athletic League (HAAL) Championships which happened to be the first time in school history we’ve done that in the HAAL.  That was an incredibly exciting moment for our program and I think it gave a lot of the kids on the team, especially the older ones, confidence that this program was heading in the right direction.

8)  What did you and the team learn from the experience of just missing the state meet for both boys and girls and how do you think that experience will help in future seasons?
Like I said, it was heartbreaking.  But no one will understand how far we came as a team and as a program.  I was proud of each and every one of my kids that fought their hearts out at the NCS Championships.  I really couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Because of how close we were to qualifying (3 points on the boys side, 4 points for the girls), I think it definitely drove home the idea that “everyone person counts”, whether you’re the #1 or the #7 kid.  But I think the most important thing the kids learned, was that in order to succeed as a team in XC, you have to be selfless… because in reality, you’re not just running for yourself, you’re running for your teammates and this experience, no matter how painful it was, helped them to understand that.

9) Your runners have had an outstanding season but really made a statement at the Arcadia Invitational. What was the plan going into that meet and how did those races unfold? What were the splits of the Boys DMR and 4 x 800m teams?
I told the boys that we weren’t going all the way down to Arcadia just to say we were there and to participate, we were going down there to compete.  And it was just one of those meets where everything clicked for us.  We actually had a pretty rough start to our year because a couple of the boys were banged up and sick, so the four boys really couldn’t see what we had in place early in the season. But once everyone got healthy and as we went through the progressions in training, the boys started seeing the potential that we had as a group and when our 4th boy dipped under 2:00 in the 800 in late March, they really realized that we could have something special.

The plan for Arcadia was simple: be confident, run like you belong and trust that your teammates were going to put you in the best position possible… and they did just that.  On Friday, we led the 4x800 for 3 legs, due to some stellar running by Eugene Hamilton and Jonathan DeGroot and our youngest member, Trevor Ruth, who’s a sophomore.  By the time Sam Kane got the baton, we had about a 10-15 meter lead on the field, but Centennial High (of Nevada) was one of the teams that was in contention and when you have a sub 1:50 kid anchoring your team, there’s only so much one can do.  Sam put up a great fight and we ended up in 2nd place in 7:46.43.

The next night, it was the same plan, but the race played out differently.  Eugene moved up very well in the field during the 1200.  Trevor did his best to fight off some great quarter milers but Jonathan ran one of the toughest legs I’ve ever seen.  He put us right back in the thick of things and Sam followed that up by doing much of the same.  Sam caught up to the lead pack and was there all the way till the end.  We ended up in 5th in a time of 10:12.05.

As for splits, my 4x800 team went 1:54.3, 1:56.1, 2:01.0 and 1:54.8 and for our DMR, we went 3:07.9, 52.1, 1:56.2 and 4:15.7.

10) What do you feel have been the keys to your team's improvement? Key workouts? Supplemental exercises?
Consistency… and the understanding that every day counts.  I’ve told the kids since day one that intentionality is key.  The focus and approach that you have going into meets and races should be the same focus and approach you have at every practice, whether it’s a workout or just a recovery day.  You can’t choose when you want to run well like you have an on/off switch because it really doesn’t work like that.  It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve had a great group of senior kids (Marie Diaz, Grace Scott, Jonathan DeGroot and Sam Kane, Karsten Kaufmann) that I’ve had the pleasure to coach, who bought into my coaching and my program immediately upon my arrival.  There were definitely a few bumps in the road in terms of adjustment, but to have them step up and become such great leaders has made my transition so much easier.  It definitely sucks for me because I’ve only had the opportunity to coach them for one year but I’m proud of each and every one of them for everything they’ve done for me and this new program at BOD.  They’re going to do some amazing things in the future.

So I can’t say there’s a key workout that has really spurred the program’s improvement but I’d have to say the consistency and the time that these kids have committed to the program is one of the main reasons why we’ve had such a great year.

11) If you can take a peak for a moment to cross country. Who are the state meet contenders in Division III and how do your teams stack in that mix?
Even though this was my first year in the NCS, I’d like to think that Division III is one of the tougher divisions in the NCS.  Any time you have to face up against programs like Campolindo, Miramonte and all those schools from the DFAL, not to mention schools in the North Bay like Piner, Redwood, etc, it’s going to be tough.  But if I were to take a guess at who the contenders are, I don’t think anyone can argue that Campolindo will always be the favorite until someone actually beats them and that’s always a tall task because of the coach and the program they’ve established over there.

As for us, I’ll be graduating a great group of seniors this year, so next season, we’ll be young and we’ll be rebuilding.  This happens to all programs, so we’re just going to have to work through the growing pains, but I’m confident in my core group of underclassmen and the potential that they have, so I think we’ll be OK in the next few years.

12) Anything else you would like to add.
Phew. I think I’ve said enough. I guess for my final words, I’d like to thank everyone who has supported me over the years, especially my older sister, Angela, who has been my #1 supporter since my first day as a coach.  And shout out to Alex Teekell, an alum of BOD, who was an all-state runner in cross country and a state finalist in the 1600, has been an amazing assistant coach, for both me and the program this year.

And thank you, Albert, for the opportunity and for maintaining such an amazing blog.

Thank you very much for your time Andrew!  AJC


Craiggypop The Angry Panda said...

I met Coach Cheng one time and I could instantly tell that he was a great coach. Keep up the great work, Coach!

Craig Lee
Archbishop Mitty HS XC/T&F

Anonymous said...

Coach Cheng is currently coaching my son, Eugene Hamilton III. In the short time they've been together, I have seen a tremendous amount of growth in my son as a man, an athlete and a student. Coach Cheng is effective because he's concerned about the "person" not just the athlete. He's involved in all levels of my son's life to ensure success on and off the track. We're lucky to have him!!

Tiffany Dustan said...

Coach Cheng is an awesome coach! He is so dedicated and meticulous in everything he does and never gives less than a gazillion percent to the kids he coaches. It was a pleasure to work with him while he was at Skyline. I'm sure that he will make the BOD team an annual contender.

Rob Collins said...

Great Interview Albert!

Albert Caruana said...

I agree and Andrew deserves most of the credit! :D

Andrew said...

great interview of an excellent coach. I look forward to meeting him next year when we face BOD.

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