Thursday, February 13, 2014

Catching Up With St. Joseph Notre Dame Coach, Tony Fong...

Today we chat with St. Joseph Notre Dame coach, Tony Fong.  This interview is a follow up to my March 29th, 2012 interview with him.  Since that interview, his boys won the 2013 NCS Division V title for the 3rd year in a row and repeated as state meet champions.  For those of you that like to scoff at the Division V talent, the SJND boys finished as the overall #1 team in NCS when you merged all the results.

1) We will start with the state meet the previous season (2012). Your team won the CA state meet Division V race by 1 point over Flintridge Prep (86-87). Tell us a little about the plan going into that race, how the race progressed and what was the team's reaction when it was announced that your team won? 
After a 3rd the year before (first time on the podium) we knew that with some hard training over the summer and peaking for the state meet we had a shot at our first ever state title. Without one of our top runners (Nick Ratto) we would have to run well as a team to have a chance. Our strategy was to train through the season (including the invites like Mt. Sac and Stanford) and league champs and NCS. We would only taper the week of State. We knew we could match up well with Flintridge up front with Gabe and the Murphy’s and the ever improving Louis Rodrigues. The key was the number 5 runner, Sam Levy-Wendt, James Lafollette, and Chris Melendez were all capable of running close to 16:30 which is what we calculated was needed to have a shot at the state title. I saw the Flintridge team and our runners at the 2 mile mark and we were clearly behind (10 points) and I was preparing my speech for our 2nd and know how they worked extremely hard all year and they would have been disappointed if they didn’t win so I decided not to greet them at the finishing coral instead waited for them at where we camped out a few hundred meters from the finish. About 10 minutes after the race I heard the SJND Varsity girls basketball team (traveled from Alameda to cheer us on) cheering, I asked myself why would they be cheering for our 2nd time I saw Louis Rodrigues and Sam Levy-Wendt rushing towards me with the news. The entire team gathered around and dedicated the race and the team title to my wife (Denise Fong) who passed away just 10 days before from breast cancer. It was one of the proudest moments I had for the team, a state title and they were humble and never forgot those things that were truly important.

2) Following that season, what did you feel went well and what did you want to change in terms of training? 
I learned a lot from the end of the season. What works for one runner will not always work for another. I know that heavy mileage was perfect for Gabe yet it was not a good strategy for several of our runners. I know that some of our runners needed the taper where with some the taper was not the best way to prepare for a big meet. This was a very important strategy for the team this year. I was able to have everyone peak at the right time. It may have been a week early since we ran our best race at NCS where our team time was about the same as DeLa Salle. I would change the way I structure workouts in the middle of the season so that I keep the entire team fresh and ready to run fast during the championship season.

3) What was the plan for the summer? Workouts? Mileage? Races? Camps? 
Not much has changed over the last few years. After coaching for 19 years I have learned a lot from fellow coaches in the area (Jeff Rogers from St. Mary’s, Chris Williams from Dublin, Doyle O’Regan from Piedmont, Peter Brewer from Northgate, Chuck Woodbridge from Campolindo, and many others). We used the summer to build mileage, place and finish. In fact I knew the team had the workouts were designed to have several interval workouts a week, a tempo run, a long run, and plenty of recovery runs. Mileage would vary depending on the age and grade, in the summer we would hit 90 miles for one week but during the season we would max out at 60-65. We run the same races every year and we use these races as benchmarks to see what we need to work on (endurance, strength, speed). We never taper for any of the races! The summer camps is a great way for the team to bond and it gives the younger runners a chance to learn about what is expected during the regular season and the different workouts we will be doing.

4) You added a very talented group of freshmen this year. What did you do to help them ease into high school training and competition on a fairly competitive team? 
A few years back I was fortunate enough to have a very fast freshmen (Gabe Arias-Sheridan) join the SJND cross country team. I learned a lot about that year about allowing a talented runner to run the same mileage and workouts as the seniors. This may work a few times but at the end of Gabe’s freshmen year he was a little burned out and had a slight stress fracture. Knowing that I had a similar group of freshmen that could run fast I was very careful with their training. I would ease them into the workouts probably running about 75% of what the more senior runners and would run less intense on the interval sessions as well as the tempo runs. This of course would change during the latter part of the season where the entire varsity team would run every workout and all the mileage together. It was important to have team captains that would reinforce our goals for the year and keep the team together.

5) What were the team goals before the season started? Was there a specific goal setting meeting? 
Many years ago our goal was just to make it to state but that has changed dramatically the last 3 years. Our goal now is to make it on the podium and this year we wanted to repeat as state champions. We would have varsity team only meetings probably once a month and at the beginning of the season we would discuss our goals. We would talk about league meets, invites, NCS, and they as a team understood that we would only taper and work towards running our best at the STATE meet in Fresno.

6) You faced Flintridge Prep at Mt. SAC. What was the plan going into that race and how did the race unfold for your team?
Again, we knew that Mt. Sac was probably more of a race to measure how we stacked up against one of the favorites to win state. We did not taper for this race nor did we change the mileage or intensity of our workouts. We wanted to run hard and see how each of our runners from 1-7 ran against their 1-7. Gabe was going to go out with the leaders and see if he could get the win. I wanted Cooper Teare (freshman) to run with the Murphy’s and this was a great test for Chris Melendez to see how he has recovered from his ankle injury that kept him out for 3 weeks. We knew from this race that we had a chance at repeating as state champs. We ran well with no rest and we knew that we would get stronger and faster towards the end of the season. The race was definitely a confidence builder for our team.

7) Your best team race of the season was the NCS MOC meet. Tell us a little about that race and why do you think your team ran so well at that meet?
The race was right in our backyard so we ran on the course quite a few times. We would run mile repeats and run tempo runs as workouts after our league championships. Instead of getting out to the course early for one of the last races of the day I had the team get there about 75 minutes before the start. I think this helped with not having the kids waste a lot of energy sitting around and running around watching the other races. The team was still aware of the conditions, the previous 2 years has been muddy and raining. The team was excited to run in conditions that they could potentially get PR’s. Also hearing how Blair Hurlock ran and the team from DeLaSalle ran and how their friends from Alameda High, Bishop O’Dowd, and St. Mary’s ran and the fast times got them excited about going out and running for time. The team was focused and they wanted the team time record and they had lots of family, alumni, and classmates all along the course. This was a huge motivating factor and I was well aware that they were running one of their best races of the season. I had no idea that we had the fastest time in the combined results.

8) Your team entered the state meet as prohibitive favorites to win their 2nd state title. What was the mood of the team prior to the state meet? Confident? Nervous? What was the plan going into that race? What went well? What didn't go well? What did you learn from that race? 
The last two years we were also ranked fairly high and we didn’t run well as a team yet still it was enough to place 3rd in 2012. This year the team was confident because we knew our 1-5 runners could match up well with any team in the division. The plan was to have Gabe go out with the front runners and place hopefully in the tops 5. I knew that Michael Murphy was prepared and running well all year and that he had a shot at the top 10, his brother Matthew and Cooper Teare was going to pace off him and finish in the top 20, the key was how our number 5 runner Chris Melendez would run. If he could place in the high 20 or low 30’s we would probably win with a total score of 75 or less. We ran well as a team but individually I would have liked to have the team time under 81 minutes. Again this was probably due to one runner that should not have tapered and one that should have been running less mileage with 2 weeks out. I would also have the team back off from running NCS all out and have them save their best race for state.

9) What was the reaction of the team and yourself when it was announced your team won? 
Winning the state meet for the first time will never be matched but winning two in a row was our goal at the beginning of the season. It was the end of one of our most successful seasons including the invites and league meets. It was great to see the freshmen and seniors both enjoying the moment. They all worked hard throughout the season and they all ran many many miles over the last 25 weeks. This was a wonderful reward for all the sacrifices over the season.

10) What did a typical week look like for your team in terms of training? Typical mileage for the experienced runners? Freshmen? Key workouts? Length of long runs? 
The varsity team (including the freshmen) all had base mileage over the summer so it was advantageous to be able to run intervals and timed workouts in week one. We would run one short interval workout a week, one long interval workout, one long run (build up to 90 minutes). We would incorporate triangles every other week and once a month throw in a 16 x 400 workout with CORE recovery (no rest). Also the season is divided into 3 sections, endurance phase first, followed by strength (hills), and speed (last phase). This does not mean we don’t do hills or fast intervals the first phase but the emphasis is on those listed.

11) What changed during the post season? 
During the post season we would eliminate the core and leg circuit workouts and the interval sessions would be shorter. We would also cut out the time trials and maximum recovery for most workouts. Also during the post season the long runs will be far less than during the regular season.

12) Tell us a little about your assistant coach Alex Mason. What are his main contributions to the team? 
Alex is one of the keys to the success of our program! He ran for me many years ago and was one of our most successful cross country and track runners. He was also the first to win NCS in cross country and MOC in track in the 800. He has helped to incorporate weight training, core workouts, leg circuit training into our daily routine. He is also fast enough to train with the team on specific days. The core and leg circuit has helped eliminate injuries and has helped the team with proper mechanics and strong internal core for the latter stages of a race. Also, Alex has incorporated the importance of leg speed and leg turnover and during the track season the team will do plenty of hill repeats with a multiple of workouts. This has been quite evident and impressive as I see the team running faster year after year.

13) Looking back at the past few years. What do you think were the keys to building a two time state cross country championship teams? 
One of the biggest keys to our success the past 3 years is the commitment of the runners on the team. Guys like Nick Ratto, Louis Rodrigues, Gabe Arias-Sheridan, James Lafollette, Chris Melendez, Michael and Matthew Murphy has made this program successful. They all have the full support of the school and the community and at the same time they make it fun. I could see that other students that were thinking about joining cross country are now giving it a shot and those that are looking to join the team will come out for a few training runs and will eventually join the team. Of course having a freshmen class with a handful of runners that can run sub 4:50 for a mile helps. We may have a shot next year with a couple more surprise young runners.

14) Anything else you would like to add. 
Thank you Albert for all you do to promote cross country and track. This site is useful in so many ways and keeps all the coaches, runners, and schools well informed about our sport. Best of luck to everyone this track season.

Thank you very much for your time Tony!  AJC


Anonymous said...

Yes, I love this. I think that you should continue to do these type of follow up interviews.

Anonymous said...

Yep - gotta love this guy. Great ability to learn, improve, inspire. and then Repeat.

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