Thursday, February 05, 2015

Catching up with Bella Vista HS girls XC coach, Melanie Cleland

Today we chat with Bella Vista HS (located in Fair Oaks)  Head Girls Cross Country Coach, Melanie Cleland (holding trophy). This past season, the Bella Vista girls were moved up to Division I in the Sac-Joaquin Section (SJS) which already fielded two of the best teams in the state, Davis HS and St. Francis, Sacramento. Despite the daunting competition, Bella Visa more than held their own by winning the SJS team Division I title. At the state meet, they were led by junior Kendall Derry who finished in 6th place in the always tough Division I race. The team also recorded their first podium finish by finishing in 2nd place behind the powerhouse Great Oak team (second place team at NXN).

1.  What was your own experience in sports?  When did you start and what sports did you play?  Standout moments?
I grew up in a small town in Tennessee where the only two sports that girls could play were basketball and softball.    I played some basketball, mostly as a bench warmer.  When I went to college, my best friend talked me into running track and field.  She gave me a 400 m and 800 m time to give to the coach and I started as a 400/800 runner.   My junior year I decided to try cross country and soon realized that I was much better in the longer distances.  In addition to the fun experiences of being on that team, the highlight from college was going to IAAF Cross Country Nationals in Saratoga Springs, NY as an individual.  After graduating, I moved to California where I did a lot of whitewater kayaking and rafting, backpacking, biking, and Ultimate Frisbee.   It was moving to the Bay Area and joining the Transports Adidas Running team that allowed me to run competitively again.   My standout moment during that time was making three US Ekiden teams.

2.   Who were your coaches and what lessons did you take away from them?
My college cross country coach, Mike Johnson, helped create a love of running.   Cross country running was much more fun than track!  Our college course was beautiful on wooded trails with a bridge and a stream crossing.  The coach that helped me succeed the most in post-collegiate running was Leonard Sperandeo.  He was also a great mentor in getting me started in coaching.   I enjoy his passion for the sport and his dedication to details.   Another great mentor and inspiration for me was Magdalena Lewy-Boulet when I was on the Transports Adidas team.  She is very focused and knowledable in her training, and I can really relate to her adventurous side. 

3.  What led you into coaching and did you have other coaching experiences before Bella Vista?
During an early morning group run, I mentioned to the group that I would enjoy coaching and giving back to a sport that has given me so much.   Harold Kuphaldt, who helped with the boys at Bella Vista, was part of that group and remembered that conversation the next year when a girls coaching position became available at Bella Vista.   I was reluctant to take on the responsibility, but Brett and Jinee Sargent did such an incredible job with the administrative and leadership part of both the boys and girls program, that it was an easy transition.   Many years prior to Bella Vista, I was an assistant coach at the College of San Mateo for a year with head coach Joe Magnan.

4.  What are your summer expectations for your girls?  What about the winter?
For both summer and winter break, they take two weeks off.   Winter training is informal until our preconditioning starts the second week in January.   In the summer, the girls and boys meet regularly starting the last week in June.  We have a fun summer culture with breakfast runs, lake swims, and a summer camp.  This last summer we had fun meeting the Whitney girls team for long runs on Mondays or fartleks with several teams organized by Charlie Brenneman on an occasional Thursday.   I would like to continue to develop even more of this community atmosphere next summer. During our breaks, our focus is on building aerobic threshold limits and capabilities while increasing mileage.

5.  What does a typical week look like for your runners during cross country season?  How often are you in the weight room?  Any morning runs?  What else do they do that you feel contributes to their success?
We are not in the weight room, but we do general strength/body weight exercises in addition to hip activation/mobility work.   We incorporate this supplemental training every day, but in small doses of about 15 min/day in integrated routines that will allow us to finish workouts quickly so that the girls can get back to academics.  I don’t like doubles during school because they make it difficult to get enough sleep and recover properly.  Our weekly pattern depends on the time of the year or season.  This is an early season week that was done on the 3rd week of August.
Sunday – off
Monday – Steady State Run + Strides
Tuesday – 3 mile Tempo Run
Wednesday – Easy Run
Thursday –  6 x (~700 m hill)
Friday – Steady State Run
Saturday – Long Run (If we had a meet on Saturday, we would do a long run on Monday)
Like any successful program, we encourage summer running and consistency with training.    I try to be structured in my training, as well as being creative in using the resources that are around us.   Just as important as providing the tools and the structure that they need to succeed, we provide a place where they can belong, be part of the cross country family, and have a lot of fun together.

6.  Heading into the season, what were some of the team goals?  Did goals change throughout the season?
Our team goal this year was to focus on the journey.  But of course you have to have a focus or a target.  I gave each team, Fr/Soph, JV, and Varsity a target with a bulls-eye and three circles around it in which they were to write their goals.  Then they drew an arrow with the three points of the arrow tip being hard work, enthusiasm, and excellence.   The three stabilizing feathers of the arrow were faith, patience, and love.   The varsity team goals on that target at the beginning of the season were to finish with 7 in the top 10 individuals at our league competition, top 3 in the Section, top 5 in the state, and to bond like sisters by incorporating a non-running event each month.  The goals did change as we headed into the season.  We realized that a podium finish and a section championship were not out of our reach. 

7.  The SJS Division I was quite competitive this year with 3 of the top teams in state.  How did that kind of competition help your girls throughout the season?
Our team captain, Kaitlin Derry, describes the news of moving up to the big leagues of Division 1 this summer as being thrown a curveball.  At first, we were a little frustrated, and then it just empowered us more.  We enjoyed being the underdogs to powerhouse programs like Davis and St. Francis.   The girls were excited to beat Davis at Lagoon Valley, but only because they won t-shirts.  They knew not to put too much weight on the outcome.  When we tied Davis at Stanford, but lost to a tiebreaker, we decided that it might be possible to beat a team we had ‘idolized’.  We really prepared for the Section meet, and let’s just say that everyone knew her role that day.   I think that competing with these two tough teams that we highly respect fueled a fire in us to prove something.  It brought out the best in each girl on the team.    

8.  Heading into the state meet, where did you think your team could potentially finish?  When did the team find out they finished in 2nd place?  What was the reaction of the team?
Our goal was to podium at States.  We had gained a lot of confidence at Sections and we were ready to race.   After mile two of the race, we were positioned in 2nd place.  Soon after that, Kaitlin Derry dropped back with legs that felt heavy and wobbly.  She courageously made it across the finish line, but all of our attention was focused on her in the medical tent.  At that point, we did not believe that we would make the podium, but we were proud of our effort.   All of the girls raced hard and our 5th place girl, Renny Castanon, ran a great race to complete our scoring five.   I was still in the medical tent when we got the news that we had finished in 2nd place.   I was so overcome with emotion that unlike Sections, where I was jumping around in excitement, all I could do was cry.  It felt like a dream.    Some girls were smiles, some tears, but all embraced each other, and gathered around the medical tent with Kaitlin.  I will never forget that moment standing on stage with the opportunity to introduce our assistant coach, Mike Gottardi, and the eight wonderful girls that made up our varsity team, Kendall Derry, Hannah Wohlenberg, Cessair McKinney, Brook Eberle, Renny Castanon, Emily Smith, Kaitlin Derry, and Sedona McNerney.   We were overcome with gratitude for everything that had to come together for us to be standing on that podium.

9.   What do you feel were the keys to your just completed season?  Any challenges along the way to that podium finish?
This year’s cross country journey started the year before after we finished 7th in the state in Div. 2 in 2013.  At the awards banquet that year, I gave them a poster that listed the results and times of individuals for the top seven teams in Div 2 that year.  At the top of that poster, it simply said “I believe”, and “Let’s go get ‘em sisters” with an amazing picture of them on the Willow Hills course.  They could see all year the times that they needed to finish on the podium.   In addition they saw the message all year that they needed to work together like sisters and to believe that they could do it.  So here are the keys to our season….we had a vision that started early, we worked hard, and we had fun.  And we did it having faith that we were prepared to do our best despite tough competition, having patience in our training by working on aerobic capacity, and and having a genuine love and support for each other.

We did have challenges that we had to overcome.   One of our top five runners, Sedona McNerney, had an injury that took her out for most of the season.  Although she made a valiant effort, it was tough to get back into shape for the end of the season in the limited time that she had.  In addition, another one of our top runners, Kaitlin Derry, was dealing with health issues that took her out of the scoring for Sections and States.  So two of our top five were out for the end of the State meet!  If you notice, I mentioned eight runners that made up our varsity team.  That is because even though Sedona did not run, she fulfilled her role as an inspiration for the team as alternate all season long.  The night before, she gave a speech to the team that emphasized the message that I tried to convey after the Section race: run with gratitude.   To each girl on the team and myself, she gave a ribbon with one letter on a bead that spelled out the word “gratitude.”   This was the most calm that I have been at a State Meet, because I went to bed knowing that that each girl was so thankful for the all the special moments in that season and each girl was looking forward to the opportunity to race at the State meet.  The next day, before the meet, our team captain, Kaitlin Derry, prayed with the girls and encouraged them to seize the moment, and to use the gifts that God had given them. These girls could not have achieved what they did without Kaitlin’s leadership all season.   It was a true team effort.   Even when obstacles got in our way, each girl continued to believe and encourage each other.  Girls stepped up like Renny Castanon and Emily Smith, knowing that their team needed them.  It was beautiful!!  It was what cross country is all about!!  A truly unforgettable season!!

10.  As you turn your attention to the track season, what are the races that you and your team are most looking forward to in the spring?

We are really looking forward to Arcadia to run in the 4 x 1600 and the DMR.   Last year, Andy Wu, a great sprinter on our track team was in a terrible diving accident at Folsom Lake.  He broke his C5 vertebra and is now quadriplegic and confined to a wheel chair.  The team has so many good memories of Andy at Arcadia last year that they have raised funds for him and his family to go to Arcadia.   I know that each Bella Vista track athlete that makes it into Arcadia will be running for Andy.   In addition, we are looking forward to championship season, and getting as many athletes as we can into the masters meet for the opportunity to go to state.  If Kendall makes it to state again this year, we would like her to have some company.

11.  What would your advice be for a coach who aspires to get their team to podium at the state meet?
I believe the first step in your goals should be to look at your athletes’ growth and needs.  Is your team ready to make a goal to podium at state?  Too many coaches use their athletes to meet their personal need for validation or status.  The best way to describe our aspirations has been a journey that has built off of the girls before them.   The first year that I started coaching, the top three teams in our section went to state and we were number four.    The next year, we made it our goal to make it to the state meet.  When we went to state that year and we finished 22 out of 22 teams, we celebrated just as much as we did when we made podium this year.   In 2012, we wanted to win our section and represent our section better at state.  We accomplished that goal and we finished 11th in the State.   In 2013, it was time to go for a top ten finish, and we placed 7th.    We knew podium would be our goal for the future, but we made it a year early.   Now can we make Nike Nationals next year?  It will sure be fun trying.  Running is a development sport and training is cumulative.   If I have done my job properly, these girls will continue to run and improve even more in college.   So my advice is to make progressive goals and to enjoy the team that you have. 

12.   Anything else you would like to add.
Thanks for the opportunity to share our story.

Thank you for your time, Melanie! AJC


Selena McKinney said...

Great interview, Coach Cleland. Thanks Albert.

Anonymous said...

It was my pleasure to work with Melanie! She is an outstanding coach and a fantastic lady! Bella Vista XC is lucky to have her!

Former BV Boys Coach,
Brett Sargent

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