* The New Orleans Jesuit (LA) boys take off from the line at a recent cross country race this fall
Photo Credit: Submitted
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"I tell them, 'If you think you're the fastest guy in the room, you're just in the wrong room.'"
By Cory Mull - MileSplit
Cullen Doody believes it's important to quantify success.
In fact, on one of his first days on the job working with the New Orleans Jesuit High School boys cross country team, he delivered a rather succinct declaration.
"Look, we can make NXN," he said.
The only problem?
"The first thing they said to me was, 'What's NXN?'"
Two years later, it's fair to say the boys of Jesuit have learned a thing or two. But as we know, Rome wasn't built in a day. And so it's also taken some time for this program to break past the notion of what success really means beyond the state lines of Louisiana.
Doody, 32, is a big reason why.
Brought on by head coach Rudy Horvath two years ago as an assistant who works and writes training primarily with the team's top runners, the New Orleans native has challenged the traditional ideas of success on most high school cross country teams around the United States: That state championships are the be-all, end-all.
While for some states that may be the case, in Louisiana that's not so close to the truth.
"Jesuit may have won some state titles, but Louisiana, generally speaking, is an extremely weak distance running state," Doody said. "We have a lot of history at the state level. But nothing of national prominence."
Over the last decade, Doody is pretty close to the truth. The Jayson secured two state cross country titles in 2014 and 2010. But both of those teams did not compile composite averages faster than 16:18 for three miles. And at the national level, no boys team from Louisiana has ever qualified for Team Nationals.
Fast forward to now.
Doody's squad -- all juniors or younger -- are averaging 15:43.89 for 5K.
The youth and depth on this team is hard to ignore. With two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman in the scoring five, the program is ranked No. 22 in MileSplit's overall database for combined 5K averages.
For a time, too, the Jayson were even ranked nationally on the MileSplit50.
In December, Jesuit will test itself even further as it travels to Huntsville, Alabama, for the RunningLane Cross Country Championships. The meet will represent the country's single team championship for the 2021 season -- though the only qualifying the team will have to do is be within the top 30 averages in the country to make the elite section.
"Getting them to buy into the 1-, 2- and 3-year plan seemed kind of crazy at first," Doody said. "But that's what I sold to them. And they did buy in."
Just a season ago, with a full year under Doody's tutelage, the Jayson finished second at the Louisiana state championships and lowered their 3-mile average down to 16:02.
Slowly but surely, that work was paying off.
And yet, Horvath deserves some credit, too.
Back in 2019, the 53-year-old received a note from his principal, former Jesuit cross country coach Peter Kernion, asking whether he needed some help. Horvath had been coaching for eight years at that point, but he felt like he was struggling organizationally.
With over 80 to 100 athletes on the squad most years, he didn't have the time to tailor training specifically to every athlete.
"I felt obligated not just to our best runners but also to the mid-packers," Horvath said. "I was spread too thin."
So Kernion eventually asked, 'Why don't you call Cullen?'
The situation was right for Doody at the time, too.
The lifelong New Orleans resident had grown up in the Big Easy, had endured various hurricanes -- including Katrina, which left 14 feet of water in his family's home and displaced them for a time -- and had gone to school at Jesuit. Moderate success came in high school -- Doody finished 27th at state in his senior year as Jesuit finished second at state -- before he went on to LSU, where he began to find his form.
Doody eventually would go on to run 3:50 for 1,500m and 14:30 for 5K in the NCAA. Those marks were well beyond any of his high school PRs.
"It made me realize there's a bigger picture out there," he said of training.
But whether it was life or other responsibilities, Doody just didn't get into coaching until 2019.
"People have been telling me for awhile that I should go coach at Jesuit," he said. "I finally found the time."
Turns out, Horvath and Doody were a good match.
"We work really well together," Horvath said. "I sort of give him the green light to do what he feels. We break it down weekly and monthly."
After all of New Orleans and the Jesuit team endured yet another hurricane in August -- Hurricane Ida knocked out power in the city for a long stretch -- Doody and Co. refocused and found themselves hunting down their season debut performance.
In September, the Jayson had their breakthrough moment, winning The Southern Showcase in Huntsville, Alabama with a 15:43 average.
The win came over talented programs like Satellite (FL), Houston (TN) and Brentwood (TN), boys programs which are likely to contend for state championships in their states in 2021.
"I wasn't sure what to expect," Doody said. "But our guys all came together. Our 4-5-6-7 guys and even my eighth in the B race, they all ran well. I don't want to say it was the culmination of our efforts, but it was the result of these guys working 12 months nonstop."
Since then, the team secured another win at the Catholic High Invitational on Oct. 9.
While postseason in Louisiana looms, with Districts set for the 28th and the state championships on Nov. 16, it's not the end goal for Doody and Co. -- although it should be said that they do want to win the state championship.
From the jump, his mission has always been to develop this team beyond state lines.
Back in 2007, after Doody's team finished second at state, he traveled to Team Nationals South, which at that point was only three years old. He felt, at least at the time, that his squad could compete with any team in the Region.
Jesuit's group of runners eventually landed in 17th, behind an onslaught of Texas teams.
"We just got destroyed," Doody said. "I think part of it was that I believed that we were just as talented. We were a school that had the right amount of kids to do it. But you just have to have a program where kids buy into that idea."
Over a decade later, that idea still remained in his mind as he began coaching his alma mater.
"I really like to take my guys to out-of-town meets," he said. "It shows them how much more is out there. Take Newbury Park, for example. Our top guy might not be in their six or seven.
"I tell them, 'If you think you're the fastest guy in the room, you're just in the wrong room."
That honesty ultimately has kept this program grounded, Doody said.
"We kind of live in a bubble in Louisiana," Doody said.
One of the first things upon his re-entrance into the school was burying a tradition. Before he came on board in 2019, there was a club at Jesuit. If you broke 16 minutes for three miles, you entered into an elite club.
"I didn't want to be mean, but when I first came here I had to tell them, 'That's not really fast. That shouldn't be our goal," Doody said.
"The biggest thing was changing our culture and changing the idea of what was really fast."