Pre-Season National Girls XC Team Rankings Countdown

The Great Oak High School girls return six of seven varsity runners who placed runners-up at the 2014 NXN Championships. Add a healthy Destiny Collins (9:53 3200m PR) and Illinois transfer Skyler Bollinger (10:35 3200m PR), and the Pack looks not only unbeatable - but up for comparison as one of the best high school squads in history. Piece on Bollinger transfering to Great Oak

Check out their track stats. Not including Bollinger, the entire top seven broke 11 minutes for 3200m and top three broke 10:45 this spring. Four girls ran 4:56 or faster for 1600m. Expect the Pack to set team course records this season, led by Pre-Season U.S. No. 3 Collins, who has some unfinished business in her final high school cross country season.

The rising senior was a top runner last fall before faltering due to injury in the middle of the season. The California state 3200m champion will likely take a slower start to her season due to that history, as well as an extended track season this summer that saw her gain international experience representing Team USA in the 3k at the IAAF World Youth Championships. She will will look for her first individual state cross country title vs. fellow national contender Fiona O'Keeffe (10 flat 3200m talent, Pre-Season No. 2) in DI. O'Keeffe is the two-time defending state champion, while Collins hopes to stay healthy for her team.

Behind Collins, head coach Doug Soles claims that no one's varsity spot is guaranteed. The sheer depth of this squad makes the Pack hands-down the team to beat in 2015. But can they do it in December? Scroll down for a Pre-Season Q&A with Soles.

Top Returners from 2014 XC Season:
1) Destiny Collins16:57.003
2) Kiyena Beatty17:59.8240
3) Emily Clause18:00.9942
4) Desiree Stinger18:23.51114
5) Sandra Pflughoft18:28.00130
Average Time: 17:57.86 Total Time: 1:29:49.32 1-5 Split: 1:31.00
6) Evelyn Mandel18:33.05163
7) Sydney Belus18:40.00210

Top Returning 3200m Times from 2015 Outdoor Season:
1) Destiny Collins9:53.791
2) Kiyena Beatty10:36.2011
3) Sydney Belus10:42.7625
4) Evelyn Mandel10:47.8532
5) Sandra Pflughoft10:48.4634
Average Time: 10:33.81 Total Time: 52:49.06 1-5 Split: 54.67
6) Desiree Stinger10:48.4735
7) Emily Clause10:53.9147

Top Returning 1600m Times from 2015 Outdoor Season:

1) Destiny Collins4:40.341
2) Sydney Belus4:50.268
3) Evelyn Mandel4:55.7917
4) Kiyena Beatty4:56.2119
5) Sandra Pflughoft5:07.3684
Average Time: 4:53.99 Total Time: 24:29.96 1-5 Split: 27.02
6) Emily Clause5:07.8688
7) Desi Stinger5:09.4697

Great Oak warms up before the 2014 NXN Championships (photo by Lisa McArthur).

Pre-Season Q&A with head coach Doug Soles:

MileSplit: Great Oak has a massive target on their back. The country knows they are the team to beat considering the girls got 2nd at NXN and return their top 6 from that team? How are you and the team dealing with that pressure entering the season?

Doug Soles: We don’t feel any pressure at all. Our program was designed from day 1 to be the #1 program in the country so it feels normal to us. The most important thing when you are ranked highly is to understand that is someone’s interpretation of the data you have given them. We just go about our normal work, which is to focus on being the best team in the country every day, every workout, whether people have us ranked there or not. I actually feel more relaxed as a coach when we are ranked #1, because I feel like the things I’m seeing in practice are being shown through the data we are putting out.

How has summer training been for the girls? What weekly mileage are some of the top girls running? Can you share some insight on the XC team camp Great Oak does and the purpose behind it?

Most of the top girls are running 60-65 miles a week. Some of the top senior girls hit 71 miles last week, where Destiny Collins ran about 12 miles and EliptiGo’d another 15 or so. We have a lot of athletes in different phases of training, but the very top end is running around 65 miles a week right now.

The girls looked great at camp this season! We were a lot further behind conditioning wise than we usually are because we had many athletes go deep into the track season, but we are starting to come together. The purpose of our team camp is really 2 fold: 1. to team bond and continue to learn how to be a great teammate, and 2. to focus on winning State and National team titles and what it will take to do those things. I’ve seen a lot of other programs that are not outcome based, but it is quite the opposite for our team. We are very focused on reaching the goals/outcomes set by the athletes each year. I’m not sure how to guide athletes somewhere if we don’t know where we are going. This year we had some great conversations about shooting for those titles and what sacrifices it will take to win.

After the spring Destiny Collins had, including a US #1 9:53 3200m and some national and world competition, how has she grown as a runner this past year and what can we expect from Great Oak’s low stick this cross country season? What are her goals for her final XC season?

We were pretty sure she would compete for the individual title at NXN last year, but she developed tendonitis in her foot last year around Mt. SAC and she wasn’t able to race at full speed at the end of the season. I think she showed in track where she was capable of finishing had she been 100% at the end of the XC season. Winning NXN is goal #1 this year with her and we are designing her season around it. She went really late into the summer so August and September, and a bit of October will just be base months for her. She will probably only run 6-7 races total in XC this year, if that, preparing for State and NXN. She has really grown in experience and I think any time you take on the best in the world in makes high school competition just that much easier to face. More than anything I think as a senior she is ready to take on anyone that she has to this season to reach her goals.

How has a great talent like Collins helped elevate the team’s capability?

Anytime you have an amazing athlete like Destiny setting the expectation, you are going to see the others around them improve. She works hard, but also has really high expectations on herself and her teammates. She gives them the confidence that we can run with anyone in the country and shows it through her actions. She is an amazing teammate and cares about those around her. Other athletes see that and think if she is doing that then so should I. We have all been blessed to have such an awesome team player helping lead this team the last few years.

On the same token, the 2-5 scorers are just as important as the #1 scorer. Who/what group of girls do you think will be the most important/crucial runner(s) on the team to help the Great Oak girls achieve what they want to?

We have about 9 girls so far that have shown they are ready to run state and NXN level races. We have another 5-7 girls that are just on the cusp of doing that and should be able to contribute in some point in the future as they develop in the program. Kiyena Beatty (11), Sydney Belus (11), Evelyn Mandel (11), and Sandra Pflughoft have shown consistently this season that they will be very hard for anyone to beat. These 4 girls are critical I think for this season and next season for us to be at the level we want to be at. We also have 4 senior girls in Desi Stinger, Skyler Bollinger, Emily Clause, and Taylor Walker that have shown they are in the conversation and will be working hard to make the top 5. I honestly have no idea what the end of the season will hold roster wise. I know that we will have at least 9 girls at this time with a legitimate claim to a top 7 spot. Fortunately our 1st invite on September 5th (Cool Breeze Invite) gives 10 varsity roster spots to help find your top 7.

Great Oak poses on the awards stand after their runner-up team finish at NXN 2014. (Photo by Tracktown Photo)

Depth. Great Oak is known for how deep the program is. How do you decide who is going to represent the team come post-season? Does you top seven change throughout post-season?

It is truly a shame we can’t enter a B team at State, because they would do really well. Being the #8 girl on this team isn’t fun, especially when you know you would be top couple on any other team in the state. We spend a lot of time talking about roles and how to handle getting a role you may not have wanted or planned for. The girls set the goals and want to have the fastest 7 on the line so we will do our best to decide who that is. Our top 7 can change in the post season, but we will try to find the 7 we believe are the most ready and stick with them if it is possible to do so.

Regarding depth, one of the biggest problems we run into are 5:25-5:35 range 1600 girls thinking they aren’t any good and deciding to go do something other than running. They lack perspective on how good that is for a young runner because of how many good athletes we have. Each season I lose a couple of those girls because they don’t feel good enough to stay on the team.

Great Oak won some big 4x1600m races (Arcadia and Mt. SAC) and nearly set the national record. How does the way this past track season went impact the team's outlook on the fall?

We go after each season with high goals determined by the kids. They set the goal to break the national record in the 4x1600 last year, and we came up just short. We had 1 junior and 3 sophomores on that team so it was exciting for us to think about how fast they will be this year as a team. We use year round development to try to improve from one year to the next, and I think our track season shows that these girls are getting better. We were very young last year, but I think they are older and more focused this year and that experience should show both in XC and in track this year.

Any impactful freshmen or transfers to join the team this season?

You guys have covered Skyler Bollinger (piece on Bollinger transfering to Great Oak) moving here, but we also have a very deep freshmen group of girls this year. Sarah Lyon just set our frosh time trial record, and Jessica Janecek finished right behind her. Both girls were ahead of Sandra Pflughoft’s time from last year, and she ended up running 5:07/10:48 last year so we feel pretty good about where those girls will be. Kolonnie Green looks to be an amazing addition to our middle distance squad this year, and I think we will see her running amazing times in the 1600/800/400 races this year as a frosh.

All these girls have run sub 17:45 in the 3 mile: Kiyena Beatty, Sydney Belus, Skyler Bollinger (transfer), Emily Clause, Destiny Collins, Cassidy Hylton, Evelyn Mandel, Sandra Pflughoft, Desiree Stinger, Alyssa Ungrady, and Taylor Walker. What to you attribute to the incredible depth of the Great Oak program?

We have been blessed with a lot of talent, but like most programs most of those girls were planning on playing a different sport. If I have been successful at one thing, it has been getting athletes to see how great they can be on the course/track and getting them to shift their focus there. We have a few more girls to add to this list this season so we could end up with 15-20 girl under 18 minutes this season. It is amazing to be a part of it and having the ability to work with so many top athletes is a blast!

Great Oak returns 6 of its top 7 from last year’s 2nd place team at NXN. Will those six be in the top 7 again? Who do you anticipate will be the top seven?

The top 7 is wide open at this point. Clearly Destiny Collins is a lock if healthy, but everyone else is jockeying for position. Our #8 returning girl from track PR wise ran 10:53 (if you include Skyler) for the 3200. Many of those girls are just a second or 2 apart. My best guess is it will end up being the girls with the best health (illness, injury) at the end of the season that will comprise the top 7 from this deep group. This is by far the best team we have ever fielded so our expectations off of a 2nd place finish last year are pretty high for 2015.

How would you describe the culture of the girls team that has made them so successful?

We always say that a culture of success is defined not only by what you leave results wise, but also by who you prepared to take your place when you are gone. Our culture is to develop our younger athletes right alongside our superstars and to encourage them to teach the younger girls what it will take to replace them in the future. We are never focused on one team at a time, always 3 teams; the current team, next year’s team, and the future team. Each one of these teams is just as important at any point in time in our program so that we are always going to be able to put out a top level team each season.

Who are your team captains or leaders and what stands out about them as examples for the rest of their teammates?

Seniors Destiny Collins, Desi Stinger, and Taylor Walker, as well as Juniors Evelyn Mandel, Sydney Belus, and Kiyena Beatty are our captains this year. We also have girls like Courtney Lonsdale (12), Alyssa Ungrady (12), Skyler Bollinger (12), and Cassidy Hylton (11) who have a lot of experience and are leaders for the younger athletes by example. Truthfully, the majority of our kids are really good kids and the biggest thing with captains is helping to make sure we get everything done each day, cleaned up, roll taken, etc.

Milesplit interviews Great Oak after their runner-up finish at NXN in 2014. (Photo by Tracktown Photo)

What are some of the top goals for the girls team this fall?

Winning NXN. That is the goal.

Who else helps you on the coaching staff? What are their roles?

Coach Dan Noble founded the program with me and is the other varsity coach with me in XC and track. He teaches science at Great Oak and is an amazing coach! We plan practices together and he has done an awesome job designing our core strength program. Vicki Espinoza has been with us for 7+ years and she works with our mid-level athletes working to develop them into varsity kids. Coach Kylee Martin is a first year coach for us and she is doing an awesome job developing our frosh athletes. She ran for league rival Murrieta Valley back in the day under all-time great coach Steve Chavez.

What will this particular group of girls need to focus on most to achieve their goals?

I think the 2 big things are health and being a good teammate. If we stay healthy we should be the most talented team in the country. If we focus on being good teammates we will be there to support each other through the good and bad. More than anything good teammates are ready to perform for their team. We want to be ready in December.

What are the top invitational meets that your team will be attending this season?

We will be attending Woodbridge, Bob Firman (ID), Clovis, and Mt. SAC this year with our top athletes.

Doug Soles poses with Great Oak after the girls placed eighth at the 2013 NXN Championships. (Photo by Image of Sport)

What makes this group special compared to other Great Oak girls teams in the past?

We have had a lot of amazing groups through our program over the years, but this one is exceptional full of tough girls. These girls are not afraid of anyone or anything and I think we will see that as the season progresses. They really enjoy competition and want to take on the best. That and I think this the deepest we have ever been. Our #40 girl this season projects to run around 19:40 for 3 miles…

All other states in the country have their state meet well before California does, usually the last weekend in November. How do you manage to get this team through such a long season? What are the positives and negatives of that?

We have the advantage of a very big and deep team and we are able to run our league meets and selected invites with B or C teams. This allows us to race our A team when we want to, but to train and focus on the end of the season when we don’t want to put them on the course. It has become clear that we need to be able to rest as many of our top kids as much as possible during November to be able to compete with the teams in NY in December. We feel like we have a solid plan in place to be fresh and fast at NXN this season on both sides, and we’ll utilize a lot of our roster to do it.

You also coach a great boys team that won the Division 1 California State Championship last year and is ranked #8 in pre-season rankings. What have and what do the guys teach the girls team? What have and what do the guys learn from the girls team?

I think the girls showed last year that the course change should help our program vs. running at Portland Meadows at NXN. This has allowed us to switch our focus more to NXN and hopefully will result in better results in Portland. I think our girls have taught our boys that you have to put the work in consistently year round if you want to be competitive. I think our boys have showed the girls that they aren’t afraid to do what is necessary to compete with the best teams in the nation, and that XC is fun and it doesn’t have to be a complete lock down situation for teams to be successful.

Do you ever see any healthy (or not so healthy) competition going on between the boys and girls teams?

Unfortunately these teams do compete a lot. Coach Noble and I coach the varsity teams and we see a lot of back and forth between the boys and girls as they jockey for attention on the team. There have been meets where our boys have run really well, only to be overlooked because of the girls success. I think it pushes the boys to try to catch up to where the girls are at which is great for us as coaches, but it can cause animosity sometimes. In 2011 our boys team finished better than our girls and it was a bit of a reversal that year, but usually the girls set the standard and let the boys know it.

From a coach’s standpoint, what challenges do you face coaching two programs? What is the most rewarding aspect of coaching two programs instead of one?

It can be very difficult to coach both teams because one team may win a title and the other may struggle. You can be torn between pure joy and the pain of loss which is tough. We have always had both teams so we have a pretty good handle on it at this point. The hardest times are at meets that schedule the sweepstakes races right on top of each other and we have to split up as coaches to cover both teams. I would prefer to be on the line, at the finish line, and in the awards tent with both teams but that isn’t always feasible. Coach Noble and I switch off on which gender we will take to the line and have fun coaching both. Winning the state title on both sides last year was very rewarding because we have wanted that for the boys team for a long time and you could feel the pure joy out of the kids. We have been blessed to be at such an amazing school with such awesome kids. I can’t imagine coaching just one side or the other as both genders bring such different things to the table each year.

Why do you think Great Oak has seen a lot of success considering it is a relatively young program that you helped start in 2004?

I didn’t end up at Great Oak by accident. I was searching for a 1st year school that I could mold into a national contender over time. Great Oak was at the top of my list so I was very blessed to get the job. Our girls made the state meet year one and established that we would be good early on. I had an outline in place for what I believed we could do and where we could get and we have followed it pretty closely. We have been ranked top 10 in the nation on the girls side since 2009, and the boys have been catching up in that department too. I think a big reason for our success has been to have a lot of people from assistant coaches, parents, administration, press, etc. supporting us and believing in our team. We have pretty much improved every year since we opened in 2004.

What else aids you in coaching cross country at Great Oak?

I have been blessed personally to be a technology teacher at the school. Having solid tech skills has allowed me to accomplish a lot of work in limited time and given me a bit of an advantage over some of my tech adverse peers. I think understanding technology helps with communication, getting kids to join the team, keeping kids out, etc. As a team we have also invested in technology like Garmins, EliptiGo’s, etc. to help our kids training wise. The only thing we really want for is a little more dirt to run on, as we are pretty landlocked with cement. Our administration has always been supportive which really helps us travel and do the things we need to do each season to improve.

Anything else to add Coach Soles?

Remember that you will never regret eating a doughnut, but you will always regret not giving 100%.

Each season is a blessing; go after it with all you’ve got!