Clear Vision Cal's Men's Cross Country Team Has Evolved into One of the Nation's Elite Programs
Oct. 5, 2009
In the fall of 2005, Yosef Ghebray and Mark Matusak bought into a new philosophy. A year later, Michael Coe decided to follow suit. Together, the trio believed they could transform California men's cross country from almost an afterthought that kept distance runners busy in the fall into one of the elite programs in the country.
Although quite ambitious with their plan, there's no doubt that these Golden Bears succeeded. In 2007, Cal earned its first-ever berth to the NCAA championships, where they placed 16th in the country. A year later, the Bears were back at the national meet, this time finishing 22nd.
'In their minds, it was a chance to start something new, a tradition that hadn't existed,' Coe said of his older teammates. 'Then when I came around, I saw that they had that vision, so I just joined in on it. We really turned it around here.'
Head coach Tony Sandoval, who has been part of cross country and track & field at Cal since 1982, offered a small history lesson in his recruiting, selling runners on the success distance runners have had at the school. Among the greats from Cal's past are Don Bowden, who became the first American to run a sub-four-minute mile in 1957; Tom Downs, twice a top-20 finish at the NCAA cross country meet; Richie Boulet, a two-time NCAA finalist in the 5000 meters in the 1990s; and Belota Asmerom, the NCAA runner-up in the 5000 in 2001 and a 2000 Olympian for his native Eritrea.
But the Bears had never put together a collection of runners that would be strong enough to field a highly competitive cross country team.
'Do you want to be just another runner in another program or do you want to be something special?' Sandoval asked the recruits. 'They bought into that.'
The emphasis on cross country actually began to pay dividends before Ghebray, Matusak and Coe suited up for the Bears. In 2005, Cal took third at the Pac-10 meet and posted its first top-10 regional finish in six years, with Ghebray's older brother, Giliat, leading the way. A year later, David Torrence earned all-region honors and qualified as an individual to nationals.
With Torrence as a senior, and Matusak, Coe and the younger Ghebray forming the corps of the squad, 2007 developed into a special season. Yosef Ghebray paced the Bears at both the Pac-10 and NCAA Regional championships, as Cal reached the national meet.
'The first time around, we didn't know what to expect,' Coe said. 'Everything was so new. I don't want to say we were just happy to be there, but we were just soaking up the experience. We knew our team was good, but we weren't super deep.'
Despite the novelty of their first experience at nationals, Cal came through with a 16th-place showing. Torrence was 62nd overall -- best for a Bear since Boulet was 33rd overall 14 years prior.
The Bears returned to NCAAs last season with Ghebray earning All-America honors by taking 36th place and Coe finishing 51st among the more than 250 competitors.
The Bears will be a much younger crew in 2009, but the cupboard is hardly bare. Among the newcomers to join the squad are Chris Vizcaino, a transfer from 2008 NCAA runner-up Iona who hails from nearby Lafayette, Calif., and accomplished high school runners Collin Jarvis, Cody and Simon Schmidt, Matt Petersen and Renaud Poizat. In addition, Englishman James Brewer, a semifinalist in the 1500 meters at the World Championships in August and owner of a 3:54.80 mile, is suiting up for Cal but will redshirt this fall.
'I'm really excited to see what these young guys do this year, because no one's expecting anything out of us,' said Coe, who will return to active cross country duty for his senior year next fall. 'Most people will look at a team that loses its top three guys and think they're not even a factor. I think we'll surprise people.'
Sandoval agrees and, despite his team's youth, does not want to discount the Bears' ability to return to nationals. Besides, Cal returns three runners who participated at the '08 NCAAs -- Kari Karlsson, Steve Sodaro and Matt H. Miller -- and know what it takes to get there.
'We're coming off of a two-year high that has demonstrated that we are one of the elite distance programs in the country,' Sandoval said. 'We're going to be young, but I don't want to give up on the notion that we're not going to get to nationals. There's a level of commitment and professionalism that we have on the team now that had never been there before. We can get it done.'