Delaware's top team relishes its time in the national spotlight
As you walk through the gymnasium doors and past the broom closet slice of a space that poses as Tatnall coach Patrick Castagno’s office, you get an immediate sense of the history. You can’t help but notice the massive display case filled with mementos and memorabilia. The colorful charts, indicating school records and past results, the framed press clippings, the autographed shoes left behind by each of the school’s individual state champions, join an endless array of awards, chronicling a program with a long string of success.
The montage is impressive, to that there is no doubt. But the indelible image, the snapshot that replays constantly in your mind with the duplicity of a late-night infomercial, long after you leave this tiny Wilmington, Delaware campus is the toothpaste commercial worthy smiles on every member of the team.
The school numbers approximately 300 students. Therefore, the 16-member girls’ cross country team, currently ranked No. 4 in the latest MileSplit poll, is appropriately sized.
“We’re such a small group, we have so much fun,” said senior tri-captain Katie Oldham. “It’s one of the best parts about it. I think each girl adds something special to the team that makes us unique. If one person were missing, we wouldn’t be the same.”
If there is a suffocating pressure with being one of the top programs in the country, it certainly doesn’t show on the faces of this squad. Like some stamp or informal seal of approval, these Joker-sized grins, suggest that plain and simply, they are indeed relishing the moment, and most importantly, having fun along the way.
“It gets to a point where the expectation level went up every year to the point where they’re comfortable here,” said Castagno, a graduate of Salesianum High and Delaware University, who raced to a 4:04 mile before hanging up his track spikes. “We’re not pushing them. They’re comfortable living like this and expecting this level of running.”
“You start running for each other, not only yourself,” added senior captain Juliet Bottorff, the team’s top runner. “I think that’s helping a lot with, not only getting better, but the enjoyment as well. We all are just enjoying this and each other.”
To pinpoint for sure when Tatnall ascended onto the national stage is tough. Coming off consecutive trips to the Nike Team Nationals in Porland, OR, it began the preseason with top-20 national ranking. Maybe it was the win at the McDonald’s XC Festival at Maymont in October. On the strength of a better finish by sixth runner Katie Oldham it defeated powerful Collins Hill of Georgia. Surely that victory heightened the senses and raised some brows. But the real eye-opener had to be the second-place finish in the Eastern States Race at the Manhattan Invitational in New York. There they took on the best of the East, succumbing only to the nation’s No. 1 ranked program, Fayetteville-Manlius.
That might not be the day it arrived, but it certainly was the day the team knew, without a shred of doubt, it belonged.
“Now that we have gone to Manhattan and beaten most of those schools, it’s almost like all you have to do is beat them one time and you realize that you belong in that company,” Castagno said.
Of course then there is the day that Castagno and many associated with the program are calling the best ever. It occurred the week following Manhattan, when you can bet nearly all the top teams from Manhattan were home resting. Tatnall chose to run because there was a meet in its home state, the Bellevue Invitational. It’s a meet the kids enjoy and look forward to, and one that Castagno felt, despite his team’s lofty stature, was not worth trimming from the schedule.
Bottorff hit the finish line in 17:34, followed by teammates Haley Pierce and Kate Buenaga; all three bettered the previous course record of 17:56 set by former Brandywine standout Anna Brousell. Kallie Fehr, Molly Parsons and Carly Simmons rounded out the varsity that day, completing the onslaught. The performance at Manhattan was validated. This team was certainly no fluke.
They have long since been the state’s top team. The four consecutive Delaware cross country championships will confirm that. Not to mention, in the aforementioned trophy case, they have more championship bowls from Salesianum, Delaware’s largest invitational, than you will find in a restaurant china closet.
But Castagno and the girls wanted more. The coach, as meticulous as he is affable, had a vision. He implemented a plan and took all the necessary baby steps along the way. For the girls and coaches, the season doesn’t begin and end according to any particular date on a calendar. Sometimes practice is just starting when the running is finished.
Castagno implemented summer distance summits, a forum where some of the former Tatnall standouts would return to talk about their journeys, hoping to encourage and inspire the next generation of greatness. There are also monthly recalibration meetings – a term that infers the precision adjustment of a finely tuned mechanism - during which he meets with each one of his runners to discuss their individually tailored training plans. There are twice-a-week classroom sessions, where among other things, race tactics and mental preparation are discussed. Again, this is all in addition to the inevitable mileage, the workouts, the drills and trips to a weight room facility that would make some small college athletic directors jealous.
Every year they bring in a guest speaker, a former Olympian. Last Friday they were treated to a presentation by 2004 Olympic 1500-meter finalist Carmen Douma-Hussar, the latest in an impressive list of running orators that includes Frank Shorter, Vicki Huber and Billy Mills.
Even the team website, an another impressive example of Castagno’s personal commitment to his team, asks the question upon your arrival to the login screen: How good do you want to be?
The biggest change, though, had to be the decision to travel beyond the Delaware border and see what else was out there in terms of competition. Trips to New York, Virginia and Portland are commonplace now, but it all started in 2005 when they headed north to Philadelphia for the Briarwood Invitational. They finished third in the championship race that year to Philadelphia Catholic League power Cardinal O’Hara, and they were on their way.
“As soon as we felt that we could win some meets here, we decided that we don’t need to be winning all of these meets,” Castagno said. “We need to be getting beat to realize there is better.”
The transformation didn’t happen overnight.
Although you would be hard pressed to believe it after having met Castagno, things weren’t always so orderly and precise. There was a time when they would go to meets as competitors, but acted more like spectators and fans. There was a time when the starting line was akin to the red carpet on Oscar night, and the girls from Tatnall would point to the top teams and giggle like groupies of some box office heart throb.
“We had problems in the beginning years of kids hiding out in the woods not running; kids not buying into what we’re saying,” said Castagno, who is in his eighth year at the helm. “We would do things such as watching teams when they’re on the starting line or after they just won a meet and see seven girls dressed all in the right sweat suits and they’re on their cool down already, and our girls are throwing ice and messing around. Now we’re one of those teams doing the right things.
“That’s part of nudging that culture forward. Saying this is an expectation at this point, reaching for another level. This is how you have to be. The examples are the teams that are nationally ranked last year and the year before that. What are they doing differently as a team? Not necessarily in workouts. Teams that always win are tight teams. They’re really close and they’ve got each other’s backs when it comes time to race.”
There is no doubt that this team takes its cue from its coach. As a unit, they present an interesting dichotomy between seriousness and fun. Secret psychers, tie-die shirts and pool parties add the necessary levity.
By some standards, they are undermanned. They could be overwhelmed. Instead they are remarkably effervescent and self-assured. Also, they are humble, to say the least.
They have been taught that early-season rankings are meaningless, and it is obvious that they understand trophies and medals may get lost or become tarnished. They have learned to enjoy the moment and forge the friendships, because it is these memories, not necessarily the outcomes that will last forever. Make no mistake; they are extremely serious about their craft. They work hard. Playtime ends when the race begins.
“On the starting line, it’s just about us,” said Buenaga, the team’s third captain.
Added Castagno: “We’re not doing much different than anybody else. We take it seriously, but we have a lot of fun. We don’t think we’re better than anyone else. They’re working hard, these kids around here [in Delaware]. We’re riding a wave of confidence right now and we want to keep it going and see where it takes us. The kids are willing, the parents are willing and the school is extremely supportive of us.”