Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Catching up with Livermore HS coach, Eddie Salazar (Part I)

Today we chat with longtime Livermore HS coach, Eddie Salazar (photo of former athlete Diana George and coach Salazar is courtesy of www.livermoregranadaboosters.com). During his tenure at the school, coach Salazar has led the Cowboys, including multiple individuals and teams, to league, section and state meet success. His boys XC teams won 7 consecutive NCS titles from 1990 to 1996. Individually, Micheil Jones won the 1994 XC state championship and teammate Joe Smith won the next year with an amazing finish (more on this later). This past season, Tyler Olson won the NCS Division II XC title followed by teammates Jackson Crose and Todd Olson in 3rd and 4th place respectively. Tyler went on to finish in 7th place at the XC state meet and completed his high school running career with an 8th place finish at the TF state final in the 1600m.

1) What sports did you play in your youth? What was your first running experience?
Albert, first, thanks for asking me to do this interview.  As for what sports I played early on, it’s hard to remember that far back.  I am very far removed from my youth.   I played lots of sandlot baseball, football, and basketball, as did many of my peers back then.  I went to a catholic school in New Mexico for the first 8 years of my early education but there wasn’t much in the way of organized athletics there.  I then played football, wrestled, and ran track in the public schools.  Yes, like so many kids then and now, I deluded myself into thinking I could run the sprints.  Even in football I was miscast, being so slight in stature.  I survived in that sport by being quick enough and low enough to the ground such that I rarely was really slammed.   Wrestling was enjoyable especially because it was one sport where a high level of conditioning made up for a lack of technical skills.  It was also a period where I learned about self-control with regard to eating.  I wisely or not used to ‘cut weight’ to compete at lower weight than my natural weight.

As for my start in running, that didn’t occur until I came to work at the Lawrence National Laboratory here in Livermore.  I had wanted to improve my physical fitness, in the hopes of getting back to my fitness throughout high school.  I began to notice all of the people running around the laboratory during their lunch hour.  That seemed like a healthful activity so I jumped into it.  Once I adapted to the activity and started gaining a measure of fitness, I became increasingly involved in the sport.   Although I hadn’t paid as much attention to the distance events in track, I always was a big fan of track and field.  So once I was running myself it didn’t take much to really follow the distance events in track and later in cross country.  Moreover, the running boom was still going strong at the time (1978).   
By 1986 I had become interested in coaching at the high school level.  It just so happened that a running friend of mine, Nick Winter, was the cross country and middle-distance track coach at Livermore High School.  He was about ready to step away from the positions and I decided this might be a good time to step into coaching.   It also seemed like a good way to improve my own training.   I was so naïve about cross country and the distance events in track.  I only agreed to do it if Nick would guide me through the first year.  He did help me, along with Matt Nolan, another outstanding runner, and that first year’s experience was so rewarding and enjoyable that I continued coaching.  And that I am still doing it all these years later may tell you something about how the endeavor still is so fulfilling for me. 

2) What are the standout moments for you during your high school athletic experiences and what were your proudest accomplishments?
Again, my memory is failing me here, not to mention that my accomplishments in high school sports were modest.  I do recall that in football I earned the respect of my teammates for being so persistent in a sport I was too small for.  It used to infuriate the 1st team, when the 2nd and 3rd string would scrimmage them, that I always scored against the top goal-line defense.  And I remember in both sports that I gained an advantage oftentimes by being able to handle the conditioning phases better than most of my teammates.  That would serve me well when I began my belated running career. 

3) Who were the coaches that had the biggest impact for you and what did you learn from them?
I will define ‘coach’ very broadly so as to first mention the two people who have had the biggest influence on me, and that would be my parents.  Each of them had their own way of getting my siblings and me to do the ‘right thing(s)’.  My father was firm and to the point, whereas my mother was more circumspect with her expectations of us.  Those two approaches in many ways describe the continuum for coaching approaches and strategies.  It would take way too much space here to acknowledge the many coaches I have observed and admired over the years, and from whom I co-opted something of value. My high school wrestling coach probably made me see that coaching could actually be fun.  He had a way of getting on with us wrestlers but still be able to maintain the distance necessary between a coach and an athlete.   Initially I learned much from Nick Winter, as he showed me some of the technical and logistical issues involved in coaching high school sports.  Moreover, he was a mild-mannered fellow and yet had a very firm control of his teams.  Another person who had a significant influence on me from those early years through the present is Peter Brewer.   His knowledge base and ability to execute on so many levels humbles me.   During my early coaching years in track, Don Neuss and Stuart Lawson taught me so much about the complexities of track and field.  They especially enlightened me as to the many routes to winning league dual meets.   The late Bob Vincent at San Ramon was a real gentleman and helpful to me in my first years.  He also knew how to keep his ‘eye on the ball’ nonetheless.   Joe Stocking’s 1989 cross country team at De La Salle was my first observation of such an immensely talented group.   Then over the years, once Rico Ballati took over there, he and I traded many thoughts and observations concerning the sport.   Although I didn’t see his teams that often, I admired the successes Walter Lange and Jesuit achieved over the years.   In the pre-internet days it wasn’t so easy to get results immediately.  In fact, it was impossible.  It meant trips to the library and hoping the local library had papers from Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego, etc.  But in perusing the sports pages I remember how deep the Jesuit teams were at the 4th-7th positions.  You could see them everywhere, in the F/S, JV, and varsity races.   For many years Livermore was in Division III.  So from that vantage point we regrettably witnessed Ken Reeves’ Nordhoff teams of the1990’s.  Ken had to be the ultimate motivator in terms of guiding teams to championships.   There were some years there where I didn’t think Nordhoff was the most talented team in DIII.  But in the context of the state championships, they sure raced that way.  As I suggested before, there are many of my coaching peers that have and are doing excellent work.  So my kudos goes out to them too.  I will close by mentioning a final coaching influence on me, John McDonnell, the former coach at the University of Arkansas.   ‘I am the communicator’, is something he once said, the context of which I can’t remember.  But it seems so appropriate for a coach to espouse.  I do remember really enjoying his pre- and post-race comments.  No matter how much they sounded like fodder for the fans, he had an ability to aim his statements at his athletes.   It wasn’t harsh, just pointed. 

4) How long have you coached at Livermore HS and what was the state of the program when you first started there?
My only coaching experience has been at Livermore.  I just concluded my 28th year coaching cross country in the fall and track in the spring season.   The boys program was doing quite well upon the time I entered as head coach.  They had as recently as 1981 and 1982 been the NCS 4A and 3A champions, respectively.   Moreover, the boys had been outright EBAL champions in 1984, as well as co-champions in 1982.   The girls’ team was still developing and it would take awhile for us to gain respectability there.  Even before Nick’s tenure, Livermore’s distance programs had seen some very remarkable runners.  Cheri Williams, I believe, was one of the finest female runners to ever compete in California.   Every so often I still hear of such exploits as running a sub-11 min 2 mile 2:15-ish 880, and a 1 mile in the high 4:40’s, all done in the same dual meet and on a dirt track.   The elder Spies, Jessica, also had an outstanding LHS track career, including finishing 2nd twice in the 800 at the state meet.   Moreover, her younger sister Becky won two 1600 meters state championships in the early 1990’s.  Steven Lloyd and Rob Wentworth, among others, were elite runners back in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s.  Wentworth, during one three-week period, ran the equivalent of three sub-9 minute 3200’s.    

5) Who were the first runners that really bought in to your program and helped get Livermore to an elite level?
I am not sure that I ever had a ‘program’ as such.  My coaching approaches, strategies, and ideas have evolved from my first year, and continue to adapt as the years have gone by.  On-the-job training certainly has helped me with being more efficient at many of the administrative/bureaucratic tasks and responsibilities.  So I think what has been remarkable about the vast majority of teen agers that I have coached is their desire and determination to improve as runners.  How I tried to help them do that was secondary to their intentions.  

The very first year I encountered on the boys team some very talented runners.  And they would comprise the core of the 1987 team that off-and-on that year may have run the best team performances I was associated with at LHS.  Even with my inexperience in guiding them, their efforts were exciting to witness.  Those young men included Brian Dorward, Craig Schlicher, Mike Periera, and Shawn Mulqueeney.  The team was runner-up to San Ramon in EBAL.  From there we had hoped to qualify to the first state meet, along with San Ramon, but missed out by placing 5th, 21 points short of 2nd place.  As I implied earlier, one learns much from real-time experiences.   The next group of young men that came along would include members of the team(s) that started the 7 year run of NCS Division III championships.   I must tell you that the turnout for LHS cross country has, during my time, never been so large that I had to consider try-outs (not that I would do that in any case).  So in 1988 when seven 9th graders showed up for the first day of practice, I cannot tell you how I excited I was.   This allowed me another luxury, entering the 9th graders in F/S races for most of their initial season.

In terms of the initial runners that were important to getting LHS into the elites of NCS Division III teams, the above group of the F/S 1988 team would definitely fit the profile.   By 1990 they would make up the bulk of the 1st championship team we had.   And the most talented and successful of that group was Ahmik Jones (aka ‘Cosmic Ahsmik’).  He would also be the first of the Jones siblings that had such a tremendous impact on the subsequent LHS team (and individual) achievements from 1988 through 2003 (Micheil and Donovan), and again from 2007 through 2010 (Skyler).  Ahmik had efficiency in his running gait, a smoothness and grace that was really a treat to observe.  Coupled with that was a huge desire to win races.  He would adapt to the difficulty of the cross country courses so adeptly, taking advantage of his strengths and minimizing his shortcomings, as the course would allow.  As an example of this I remember him qualifying to the state championships at Oak Hill Park in Danville.  He knew the course well enough, which is a very challenging 3 miles, to master it such that he finished ahead of a number of very talented rivals.  He would win NCS the next year in a similar fashion, at Garin Park in Hayward.  So with Ahmik leading the way, the first two NCS DIII team championships transpired. 
Having experienced those championships I thought what more could there be?  Well the next era would bring another Jones (Micheil), Aaron Daniel, Steve Immel, and Joe Smith, among another group of outstanding runners and memorable people.  Micheil would be central to the next four NCS championships.  He had a work ethic that I still marvel at today, as conscientious a person as I have ever known.  His teammates picked up on his dedication and that was vital to their successes during that period.  No surprise there but it’s always so enjoyable to witness and be a part of.

I mention the above names because they had the most notable achievements.  However, cross country is a team sport, a point I have belabored so much over the years.  Thus, there have been a host of other LHS athletes that aren’t mentioned here but were integral to our successes. 

6) What are some of your proudest achievements as a coach and who were some of the standout runners and teams and their accomplishments?
The last NCS championship in 1996 was really memorable because it was the least likely.  I recall that only our team and I believed it could happen.  We had lost the bulk of the team that had placed 2nd at state the previous year. We spent most of the 1996 season developing and preparing for the post-season.  To the boys’ credit, they were patient and persevering throughout the season, in taking their defeats and disappointments.  But then with Nathan Martin and Tim Ricard leading the way, we surprised the field that day and won the race by 5 points over San Ramon.   If you know the Newhall Park course, I was up by the flagpole for the entire race.  When the runners came by the flagpole, maybe 1½ mile into the race, I took note of our positions and realized that we were winning.  So the excitement and satisfaction of knowing this group of young men were maintaining the legacy of the 6 teams before them, was overwhelming.  Once the race ended and I sensed we had won another NCS DIII championship, I came down the hill very slowly because my emotional response of what this team had done required that I compose myself before getting back to them, and congratulating them.  It’s strange how this particular championship, which was seemed initially to be so unlikely, could be so remarkable as I now look back on that era.  But I think that it was so memorable because in fact the 1996 team indeed understood the legacy they were asked to try and perpetuate.  I now think that was so important to them and served as the motivation to their unexpected but amazing accomplishment that season.  

I will later follow up on responding to the remainder of your questions.  For example, I still would like to discuss the Diana George era, and the Masked Man and Ray Charles (better known as the Olson twins).  And the 1995 DIII state meet race merits discussion, not only for Livermore’s part in it, but also what the Nordhoff team’s performance that day. 

Thank you very much for your time, Eddie! AJC


Anonymous said...

Great to see a story on Coach Salazar one of the best ever in Nor Cal History

Jseven1 said...

Thanks for kind remarks about DLS's 1989 team. They were fortunate to have Joe Stocking coach them. I wonder if their NCS Div I finish of 1,2,4,8,12 has been matched since.

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