This past Saturday, the Liberty HS boys' Cross Country team finished in 2nd place in the NCS Division I race much to the surprise of many people. His girls also finished in 3rd place putting Liberty HS firmly on the Division I map in NCS. They were led by their young coach, Eric Morford. Here is my interview with him and although lengthy, it's well worth your time to read it.
1) Heading into the NCS meet, what place did you think your boys would finish? What did you tell your boys heading into the meet as far as strategy?
On paper, I thought our boys could finish as well as 6th in the division. I didn’t share that with them though.
From personal experience, and what I've seen from the best teams, it is not very important to get off to a fast start in the first mile on Hayward’s course. Lots of athletes take that first quarter mile straight hard and fatigue too early in the race. There is plenty of room and time to pass runners with a more even split strategy on most cross country courses. Our plan was simple. Pass as many runners as possible after the first mile. Build momentum. This helped keep the boys rolling and confident throughout the more difficult portion of the race. Our #4 (Micah Delgado) & #5 (Chase Oden) runners both passed 30 something runners in the last two miles. It wasn’t because they picked it up, it's simply because others slowed down more than they did when facing the hill in the second and third miles. My go-to line at Hayward is if you aren’t passing runners, you’re slowing down too much.
More important than strategy, it was about instilling the belief that the team can do anything they set their minds too. We watched underdog videos and talked about each for the first 25-30 minutes of practice for the entire week of NCS. We watched videos about Billy Mills (1964 Gold Medal 10k), Miracle On Ice (USA v. Soviet Union 1980), Williams v. Vinci (U.S. Open 2015), and even scenes from the comedy movie “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”. We took lessons from each video about what it takes to be successful as an underdog. My call to action for our program was, “Do you believe in miracles?” Two of the most important concepts we learned from the videos was not to worry about the competition and to make complex things simple. They had a simple race strategy and they understood that they could not worry about how formidable/capable their competition was. They believed that if they ran their race, nobody could stop them from being at their best. They understood that they had the opportunity to be the next miracle. It was bigger than them, both teams had a chance to prove the best in themselves and to be an inspiration by qualifying for state. It truly embodies what it means to be a Liberty Lion.
2) As the race progressed, when did you realize they were in the hunt for a state meet berth?
I didn’t. With only two teams qualifying from Division 1 in NCS, I’ve seen it takes 5 runners in the top 30 to have a chance. We finished with three in the top 30 and no one in the top 10. It never crossed my mind that we would score well enough for second place. All I cared about during the race was if the boys performed well individually. Every one of the boys finished so strong and gave it there all — no matter where they were in the race. None of them really thought about making state during the race, they made it simple and just did their best.
3) After all the boys finished, when did you first realize that they had qualified for the state meet? What was their reaction? What was your reaction?
A lot of our racers were talking with either their teammates that came to support or with their parents at the finish line. I was watching the electronic scoreboard for individual times by myself to see how each of our boys finished time wise. Then I half heard the announcer sharing the team places and I heard, “In second place — Liberty.” There were several thoughts in my head at that moment. Second sounds like seventh right? They must have made a mistake. I didn’t believe it. Then the announcer repeated himself and I then realized it wasn’t a mistake. It was a euphoric feeling. I felt shortness of breath, I rested both hands on the top of my head, and I just stared in disbelief for a few seconds while I saw the rest of the team and parents begin to process it too. Then I put my hands over my face and started crying tears of happiness. My assistant coach, Kaelyn DiNino, came over to me and I rested my head on her momentarily. The athletes came over to me as well and started hugging me and each other. I slowly sank to my knees to take in the moment.
I don’t mean to be too dramatic, but qualifying a team was something I could only dream of when I began coaching three years ago.
After I regained my composure, I went in for some big hugs with each of our racers. I was happy for all of the boys, but it was especially emotional for my senior, Bobby Hodgson. He’s always had the dream to qualify for state. Although he only dreamed he’d make it as an individual, he’s had an up and down career on the course and it looked unlikely that he’d be in contention this season. Off the course, he cares a lot about the sport and brings a positive attitude that is inspiring for all of his teammates. He was a part of the program before I came in and to be able to see him achieve his goal in his last cross country season was so special. Bobby described the moment as “crazy”. All of the runners were in disbelief like myself. It was a moment that I know I will never forget.
It’s funny. You can talk about miracles all week long and believe that it can happen. And yes, it’s a possibility. It’s a possibility for everyone. But when it actually happens, it is still hard to comprehend.
I just want to add that there were very deserving teams behind us that we beat out for the 2nd qualifying spot. I have a lot of respect for so many other teams, and I wouldn't work as hard if I didn't. No disrespect to my runners, but 9 times out of 10 those results would show another team with better luck than they had last Saturday.
4) When do you feel that your team first realized that they will have a shot to make state? What do you feel were the keys that have led to their success this season?
Before I explain the keys, I want to share with you something very interesting that allowed our program to even think they had a shot at making state.
I attended the Nike Clinic @ San Ramon Valley HS in July and learned lots of great things. Thank you Coach Tim Hunter for putting it on! One of most important things I learned was from speaker, Doug Soles (Great Oak Head Coach). He spoke of the importance of allowing your team themselves to set their goals. I allowed both programs 2 1/2 hours after school before season began in what I called the “Cross Country Workshop”. One of the workshop activities for both teams was to create their own team goals. I took it a step further by creating a methodical goal setting system. Thanks college! Both teams created three different levels of goals: process, performance, and outcome. The process goals were things student athletes needed to accomplish on a day to day basis. Performance goals were directly related to how they performed at a specific race during the season. The outcome goal is the ultimate mission of the team. In relation to each other, process goals provide the foundation of what it takes to achieve each performance goal throughout the season. Each performance goal sets the standard of what the team thinks it will need to do to reach the outcome goal. Process goals were controllable goals, and the performance/outcome goals were “uncontrollable” goals. The teams didn’t always accomplish performance goals, and that was okay, it allowed them to reflect on what they needed to do better.
Both of the programs set their goals separately, and you could probably guess now what each of their outcome goals were. Qualify for the CIF Championships. It didn’t surprise me that the girls set this goal for themselves. Going into the season, it seemed realistic that they could have their eyes set on that. The girls never wavered in belief and I am so proud of the way they approached this season. They just didn’t get as fortunate with being able to show their best.
On the other hand, the boys setting their goal to make state surprised me. Junior, Elliott Portillo, was the one to propose the goal to his teammates in early August. It was not voted unanimously because some of the boys didn’t want to face a high chance of failure. It took a lot of guts for the boys to frame this goal because it meant taking a huge step forward in the program.
Things seemed to be going smooth and steady as the boys team did well at the Nike Invitational in Concord, and earned a third place ranking in the division via Cross Country Express in September. This was validating for the boys at that point in the season and was the moment that it became more of a reality that they could make state. I’d be lying if I said we had no growing pains though. October was a tough month for the boys as they had trouble holding onto the hope as they saw other teams beginning to improve. The boys often clashed about effort and respect amongst each other. I’ve learned that this happened because they understood the importance of each other in terms of their goal. On our Mt. Sac Varsity trip, I allowed our boys time before bed in the hotel to have a heart to heart with each other the night before the race. Together, we all reflected on how the season was going. I planned the meeting to last 45 minutes and the boys stayed productive and opened up with each other that night for two hours before I eventually had to kick them out to go to bed at midnight. That is the night I truly believed that we had a really special team.
5) What was your own running experience as a youth? Where did you run in HS? Did you run in college? Proudest accomplishments as a runner?
I grew up in Brentwood and attended Heritage High School in 2007-2011 (yep, I coach at the rival school now). As a middle schooler, I shared time doing soccer and track in the spring season and I enjoyed being able to race on Fridays. Going into high school, I didn’t know what cross country was until I saw a flier on campus looking for runners. I was interested because I knew I could use it as cross training to gain endurance in the offseason for basketball. I grew up with a basketball in my hands at all times and I had all intentions of keeping that ball in my hands throughout college. That changed after my sophomore basketball season.
My running coach at Heritage, Dennis Tracy, gave me the confidence that I could be a great runner if I focused solely on my running. Without other commitments, I was able to take the next step in my running where I ran 4:40 in the 1600m as a sophomore and a promising 16:27 at Hayward’s NCS course as a junior. I overtrained after my junior XC season, and suffered from constant knee tendinitis. This limited my running from December 2009-February 2011. During that time, I rarely ran — never eclipsing 10 miles in a single week. There were times during my injury that I thought about giving up the sport because it stressed me too much to perform well when I couldn’t. With the help of my amazing parents, coaches, friends, and physical therapist, I recovered slowly and gained enough strength to start training when track season began my senior year. Fresh off my dream date saying yes to my prom proposal, it was truly a magical spring season! The time I took to bike and physical therapy appointments not only kept me in shape, but were big in my progression as an athlete. Mentally, I understood the true beauty of the sport of running and it gave me a purpose that was not just proving to others I’m the fastest. It was about proving it to myself.
My proudest moment in my running career came during my senior year, when I competed in my first NCS MOC. I qualified and ran in the 1600m Final. My goal was to qualify for state, but I also knew that if I ran 4:18 or under I could punch my ticket into Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to run competitively for their cross country & track programs. Talk about pressure! I ran the race of my life and missed state by one place, but I ran 4:17.51 and knew at that same moment I was going to attend a prestigious program and college. I ran for the Mustangs for 1 1/2 years — one redshirt year and one competitive year. The one and only race I ran in a Cal Poly uniform was at the Stanford Invite 8k in 2012. Before I could enjoy my first comp track season in my 2nd year, plantar fasciitis derailed my training. College was not the greatest experience for me, nothing against Cal Poly SLO, it is just not a great fit for some people. So I left to go back home in Brentwood with my family after my sophomore year.
6) What led you into coaching? When did you first start coaching at Liberty? What was the state of the program when you first started coaching there?
When I left Cal Poly SLO for good in the summer of 2013, my first order of business coming back home was to find a job in the meantime. Before I left school I was already job searching back home. I checked the old movie theater I worked at in high school. Turned down. I applied to work at a couple local gyms. It was promising, but I was turned away. Kohl’s, Jamba Juice, Sports Authority. Nope. Teenagers and young adults, you know how it is! Then I was sitting with my family on Father’s Day and my mom insisted that I try searching for coaching opportunities in the local school district. I checked and the position for Cross Country Head Coach at Liberty High School had been available. I always had dreams of being a sports coach in the future. I consider myself a leader and I’ve always enjoyed helping others, especially in running. I immediately applied, but I didn’t have high hopes as I thought they would immediately turn me away as another 20 year old looking for a job. Then, a few days later I got a call from the newly hired athletic director, Curtis Cunningham. He talked to me about my running background and the rest is history.
I was hired for the 2013 cross country season at the age of 20 years old. So much credit goes to Curtis and the rest of the Liberty Union High School District for believing that I could do a competent job at Liberty High School. The combination of their belief in me and all the other minimum wage jobs turning me down motivated me at the beginning to do the very best with the opportunity given to me. Or, they just needed a coach really bad! LOL
The state of the program was like most programs in our league. Small. The year before I came in, there were 9 boys and 3 girls on the team. We had 12 decent uniforms, plus some uniforms I coined as “drapes.” Not to mention the old cheerleader tops for some of the girls to use. We had a district issued $400 in our budget.
7) What changes did you make immediately and who were the kids that bought into your program and helped you get the ball rolling?
The most important change I wanted to make was to increase interest in the sport of cross country. So right after I was officially named the cross country coach in July, I spent 7 hours a day for three days straight to tell people about cross country at the school’s Walk-Through Registration. My goal was simply to spread the word about the sport, and if anyone was interested they could join. When starting a program, I did not want to over encourage any student to join because I wanted all of my athletes to “want to be with the team”. They should never feel pressured or forced to join. Only negative will come of that. My effort at Walk-Through paid off as I was able to increase the team size to 36 students in my first year coaching.
My second change had to happen day 1 of season. That was instilling a positive and encouraging atmosphere. The following are some of our team standards for a positive atmosphere.
-No explicit language - because WHY?
-No whining - don’t complain about a prescribed workout (why did you come to practice if so?).
-Be each other’s biggest motivators.
Another change we made was to establish two mile time standards to make the varsity team. Looking back, they were modest but very crucial in our team success moving forward. The time standards were: Boys (12:00) & Girls (14:00). Believe it or not, we had only six boys & two girls make the time standard before our first cross country meet of 2013, and that’s who we ran. Nobody could even qualify for varsity until they broke the time standard in practice or at a meet.
Then we had to put some money in our account to go to races, and most importantly have enough uniforms for the team to wear. I thank the team tremendously these first few years as we have fundraised very well to get nice uniforms and go on team trips together.
I’ve got to say it was difficult for me to sell my high expectations to the athletes at first. On one hand, I had 8 athletes that had been a part of different program than I had projected for mine. On the other hand, I had 28 brand new athletes who didn’t know what it took to be successful (mostly all sophomores and freshman). Walking and hiding at gas stations during runs were regular. When I was running with the team, I would sometimes backtrack to see what was going on behind me. If I caught a group of walkers being lazy, I told them to walk back to school and have their parents pick them up. I would tell them to only come back to practice the next day if they wanted to continue the sport. Yeah, we lost a few athletes, but I believe walking on runs is one of the most self degrading acts a cross country athlete can do.
My first year, Bobby Hodgson was a returning sophomore and I appointed him the captain of the boys team at the midpoint of the season after I knew I could trust him to be a good role model for the new runners. Emily Wylie was the girls captain since day one, and was challenged to take on the role as a sophomore to lead a very young team. Bobby and Emily, along with all of their teammates, had to learn and adjust along the way. I learned in my new position along with them everyday—still do honestly. My fourth year of cross country is next year, and that brings along with it following the Class of 2017 all the way through. Heading the class will be two of our school’s top runners— Kai Bohannon & Elliott Portillo.
BONUS! We took our atmosphere even further this year with what we call the L.I.B.E.R.T.Y Way! The athletes all know this by heart as we practiced it at least once a week together.
It stands for:
(L)ive it up: Immerse yourself only in the things that positively affect your life.
(I)nspire others: Your role on the team gives you the opportunity & tools to learn that you can make a difference.
(B)e the best you: Be better than you were yesterday. Don’t compare yourself to others.
(E)veryone is important: Our most important priority is to become a TEAM. A team that is encouraging. A team that bonds together. A team that feels like a family.
(R)ally: We are the loudest and proudest team wherever we go. Our team does not just preach teamwork, but shows it in our commitment to each other’s success.
(T)ry: Success is defined by giving 100% effort. Success is achieved regardless of a medal or individual place. Greatness is within you.
(Y)=Why?: You are an important part of this team. Focus on the important reasons for your involvement, and you will become a more motivated person because of it.
8) Who were the coaches that had the biggest impact with you as a competitor and what did you learn from them? Who are the coaches that have been mentors for you as a coach?
As previously mentioned, the coach that I attribute to my success as a runner is my high school coach at Heritage, Dennis Tracy. Coach Tracy coached me for my sophomore through senior years in track. He was the first one to tell me that I could have a real talent in running. His passion and effort were so inspiring to me. He once came to practice with a large bloody bandage on his arm, and he explained that he had fallen off of his horse and the horse stepped on his arm earlier that day! As a competitor, he always wanted me to strive to do my best and gave me the confidence that I could do better. He was so proud of my success. It was reciprocal; I was happy to make him happy by doing what I loved. Dennis Tracy coaches both cross country and track at Heritage High School still.
Another coach I attribute to my success as both an athlete and coach is Jennifer Derego. Coach Derego is currently the head coach of the Heritage cross country program and assistant in distance track. She helped me a lot mentally through my injury in high school by helping me take the injury one step at a time and stay confident in my abilities. She was a reasoning voice when I got frustrated and offered opportunities for me to cross train with her. I remember getting up at 5:00am to meet her at cycling class at the gym before school. And her taking time to teach me how to aqua jog to improve my fitness as well. As a coach, I often contact her when I have need any advice.
I have been able to learn from many other coaches in the section through clinics our Norcal Coaches’ Roundtable (highly recommend). I truly appreciate the coaches allowing me to be involved in this circle and learn from the best. It’s amazing how open everyone is about helping each other get better as coaches and people, that is something I will always remember and take with for the next generation of coaches.
My most influential coaches have been my parents though. I can’t say enough about them. They have allowed me to begin my coaching career at Liberty High School while living with them. They have given me the opportunity to do this while being enrolled in online school at Central Michigan University where I currently am studying Integrated Leadership Studies. Without this, I would not be able to even coach today. Most of all, my parents have taught me that the most important quality to inspiring others is to truly care for them. I’ve learned that personally everyday with the care and support they give me in everything I do. They were at every single race I competed in high school. And they come to as many cross country meets that I coach in to support the team. My mom tells me that she is proud of me every night before I go to bed still! I love them so much!
9) Aside from your state meet qualifying team, what have been some of your proudest achievements this season?
-Our varsity boys beat the Heritage varsity team and snapped their 21 win dual meet winning streak in league with a score of 27-29 back in September.
-I am proud of the dedication from our junior varsity athletes for stepping up in many of our dual meets. After our first dual meet, we ran our #7-13 girls in the rest of our dual meets. These girls did not come into the season thinking they were going to compete in varsity, but they stepped up to the challenge. The girls won every dual meet we had the rest of the season. They went through tough times as they began to learn I had high expectations of them, but it helped them become much better runners than they could have even dream of this season.
-One of the girls’ team performance goals was to place 8 runners in the top 10 at BVAL Championships. It was a lofty goal they set, but they knew they needed to be good enough to do that in our league to have a chance to compete with the best teams in our section. They didn’t put 8 in the top 10 in league, but they sure did come close by placing 8 of the fastest 11 times on the league’s three mile course at Contra Loma Regional Park. Most importantly, they scored 16 points as a varsity team, which ties the lowest point total by any team in BVAL history.
-I am always aware of how many athletes we retain from the first day of the season. We have improved in our retention rate every season. The boys retained 29 of 33 athletes. And the girls retained all 26 runners! Not a single girl quit the team!!!
-Emily Wylie also became my first athlete to ever sign a National Letter of Intent. She has signed with University of the Pacific to run with Tigers in cross country and track!
-And of course! Our girls beating a great team at Amador Valley narrowly for 3rd place. This marks the first podium finish for the varsity girls at Liberty in school history!
10) What would your advice be for a coach taking over a young group with hopes of section success in the future?
First off, as a young coach myself, this is only advice from what I have learned from my little experience. Thank you if you have made it this far in the interview.
If you have aspirations of section success in the future, you have won half the battle! Below are the following steps in my opinion:
1. Believing that you are a great coach. a) Your self confidence is contagious with the team. b) Team trust is much easier to earn if you are viewed as competent.
2. Have a philosophy. Don’t ask ‘what’ your team stands for? Ask WHY your team exists? It certainly does not exist for section success. You’ve got to make it something much greater than that. If an athlete is on the team, they must feel that they serve a purpose much greater than the win-loss column. This will also make the buy-in of any standards you set for the team easier to swallow because there is a big picture.
3. Define the process. Have a goal of section success? Work backwards. What needs to be done to give your team the opportunity? Be methodical in your planning and share why you believe it will work with the team. Increase and spark their interest in the sport.
4. Be a role model. Often I catch myself forgetting that we are coaching children with no previous knowledge of the sport. If you expect your team to be great, you must lead by example as well. I run with the team as often as I can, and I believe if you are capable of it still, you should try it. On top of that, be a role model by being the most conscientious and caring person you can be.
5. Tell them that they can be great. Let them know that they are capable of great things if they put their mind to it. Draw from past races and celebrate the little things like PRs. This is especially important because you never know if you are the only person in a child’s life that lets them know this. They’ll want to prove this to you.
6. Ask Lady Luck for some help. Your athletes have good days and they have bad days. Sometimes things don’t come together the way we feel it should. It is a part of life. Without the bad times, why would any good moments feel any… good?
11) What do you feel you have learned from this season as a coach?
There are three very important things I have learned since I began coaching.
1) We, as coaches, have a lot of power to affect other lives. It is extremely empowering and I do my best to make every athlete on the team feel important.
2) On the other hand, we cannot control everything. Once you let go of the fact that not everything will be perfect, a lot of stress will fall off your shoulders. We cannot force our athletes to work hard. We cannot force them to want to be a team of sacrifice, commitment, and one that aspires to be successful from a competitive standpoint. I have begun to cherish this idea that we cannot control everything though. It is so much more satisfying to know that these athletes have all done it by themselves in the end. We just guide them, it’s their choice to listen.
3) The role of a parent in an athlete’s life is crucial. More often than not, a successful athlete has a solid support system. I can attest to this. Their parents make time to make it to all of their races. Parents who contact the coach to keep up to date with how their child is doing. More often than not, a parent that cares about their child’s success will inevitably lead to their child caring more about his or her own success.
This season, I learned a couple new things.
-I learned the importance of allowing your athletes control. Empower your athletes, let them be ignorant. And I mean that in the most positive way. Often times, we limit our athletes because we try to keep them from failing. Almost every bit of me wanted to tell our boys team to set a “realistic” goal. They set the goal to make state, and I tailored the program to reflect that goal. I trained them at paces that challenged them tremendously. We had less recovery days throughout the season. Added weight training. Occasional morning practices. They sacrificed because this was their goal. The girls did all of this too, they just weren’t as lucky as the boys were on race day, they worked just as hard though and I proud of that.
-Another thing I am continuing to learn is how much I am going to start to miss my athletes when they graduate. We’ve got a pretty decent sized senior class this year, and it will be even bigger next year. I’ve known these runners for three years now and it feels like a large portion of my young life. I’ve told both of our varsity teams this year that they make me nervous that four years from now I will not have a set of students that care as much as they do. I’ve got great students. I’ve got great team parents. I know I don’t have anything to compare them to as a coach, but I know as a person I am thoroughly enjoying this opportunity and the people around me.
12) Anything else you would like to add.
I'm 22. It is not about how much you know. You can always learn. It is about how much you care. Passion is greater than experience. Age is just a number. No matter how young or old you are, find your passion and snatch it. I wouldn’t spend as much time working on my coaching skills or spending time with the student athletes if I didn’t find it thoroughly enjoyable.
Since becoming a young adult, I’ve wanted nothing more than to prove my competency as a leader and professional. The teams I’ve coached have had some success, but I don’t want to be known for that. I want to known for the way that they were led and the reasons that drove them to want to be successful. As coaches, we are often judged by our athletes on-course success and I just think that isn’t fair. My athletes make me look good. Their success is ultimately up to them. I can guide them, but I don’t move their legs for them. I can’t make them work hard. Most of all, I can’t make them care for each other. They do all of those things thankfully and I am grateful for that.
I want to be an inspiration to young adults and all student athletes that you can find a passion and follow it at a young age. Young adults can make a difference when given the opportunity. Every single one us can become a successful leader by simply caring for others. Looking back, I’m so glad I wasn’t offered a job at a gym so I could’ve spent the last three years folding towels. I’m so glad that I wasn’t offered a job at the local movie theater so I could've spent the last three years scooping popcorn or cleaning toilets. The experience I get on a day to day basis in coaching has been the greatest opportunity I’ve ever been given.
I’ve had so much support in my life. So many people in my life are to thank for helping to give me the confidence and resources. My parents currently give me the resources to attend online college at Central Michigan University while I coach. After graduating, I plan on becoming a teacher or working somewhere in the running world, but always want to continue coaching. I am a really lucky person.
Albert, thank you so much for allowing me to share this with the cross country community. Also, happy birthday today!
Thank you so much to all of the readers who spent the last 15 minutes reading my thoughts of the beginning of my coaching career. I enjoy making coaching connections and am happy to answer any questions from coaches, parents, and athletes:email@example.com