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 True cross country fans know our sport is more of a team event than most outsiders realize, yet there are plenty of individual standouts as well.  So, while honoring the tradition we have started at DyeStat with Interval Sessions, which introduced you to the top individuals in both track and XC, we launch Fall 2009 with "Star Squad Spotlight," giving you a chance to get to know not just the top individual runners in the country, but also the best teams.

 squad | iowa city west girls
by SteveU, DyeStat Senior Editor

Every state has its dominant high school cross-country dynasties, but it’s hard to imagine that any could be build and maintained with more intent and purpose, and with more love and care, than that at Iowa City West.  Coach Mike Parker has seen to that during his 15 years at the helm, using a history that included training under Kansas legend Bob Timmons and a present that is reflected by his passion as a motivational speaker.  The Trojans won four 4A state titles in five years from 1997-2001, and had a dominant 2004 where they made it to the first NXN (then NTN) and finished 10th.  The competition in Iowa is fierce, however, with crosstown rival Iowa City High scooping up its share of titles, too, and then Dowling Catholic dominating the last few years with the 1-2 punch of Katie Flood and Ashlie Decker. 

Coach Parker, Assistant Peggy Steva, and the girls feel that this might be their year to move back on top, though, after a thrilling victory at last weekend’s Roosevelt Heartland Invite against a field that included Dowling Catholic.  As they prepared for the Rim Rock Invite in Kansas, the coaches and teammates Sara Stewart (senior leader), Bridgette Novak (junior and top returnee from state last year) and Brett Guerra (newcomer and currently #1 runner) took some time out to share with DyeStat Senior Editor SteveU what it means to be a Woman of Troy.

You’ve had a great tradition, obviously, with 4 state titles in 5 years around the start of the decade, and another in 2004 … then 5th, 6th, 5th, 3rd the last four years.  Now you have beaten a 2-time defending state champion and it seems, with a mix of veterans and newcomers, that maybe you’re ascending to the highest level since ’04.  Is that what it feels like?  What is the excitement level like around the team this week?

Coach Mike Parker (right, with team): Yes, we are having a great year so far.  This group of girls have just been so amazingly coachable, that I have felt all season that they would just keep getting better and better.  I would say that Saturday’s win over a great team like Dowling just shows we are even ahead of schedule.  Everything we do is to set ourselves up for another run a state team title.  As we started this year, we knew we were going to have the biggest team of no-names, so to speak, we have ever had in my 15 years here.  We have had the stars (more individual state champions than any school in state history with 5), but with none on this team, they are all fighting each day to be that star and that kind of effort in practice is what has led us to success.

Sara Stewart (senior leader): We were very excited after winning the Roosevelt meet.  It was a great day for West XC.  We knew with our practices and hard work, that we had a chance at beating the top-ranked team in the state.  But once 3:45 p.m. rolled around on Monday at practice, it was time to get back to work to keep getting better.  West High Girls XC has a great history, and I've had the feeling of success winning certain meets, but I've never felt what it's like to win a state title.  I'd love to end my senior year with that feeling … that's what our team’s ultimate goal for the year is.

Your team has also been successful on the regional and national level, including 10th in the first NXN finals in 2004, and 5th at NXN Heartland last year.  How important is trying to get to NXN Finals and do you sense this could be the year again?

Coach Parker: Our 10th place finish at NXN in 2004 is still the best finish by any team in Iowa history.  When I came to West, one of my top priorities was to build a team that, year in and year out, was recognized as one of the best in the country – so our regional and national success is definitely important.  If we continue to improve from week to week, as we have been this season, I think our girls can make another run at a trip to NXN.

Coach Steva:  Going to NXN in 2004 was amazing.  Being there the first year, and experiencing the meet and events, is something I will never forget.  Finishing 10th in the nation shows us that our program works.  Another trip would be great. These girls have worked really hard and, with their determination, I can see it being a goal of all of them as well as Coach Parker and myself.

Coach Parker, this is your 16th year at West and I can see from your resume that you trained under the legendary Bob Timmons at Kansas.  Tell me how he has impacted you as a coach.

Coach Parker: There is not a day that goes by that I’m not reminded of how extremely blessed I was to be coached by that amazing man.  Other than God and my own father, no one has had such an impact on my life as Coach Timmons.  I am fiercely loyal to his training philosophies and commitment to practice time; they have played a big part in building the foundation of our program.

In each of the 10 team state titles we have won (5 in XC and 5 in track) over the last 12 years, I have always reflected on the impact that Coach Timmons played in them all.  Yet, maybe even more so in the 7 runner-up finishes we have had at state during that 12 years, as well, because he always taught us no matter how tough the loss, to be respectful of the victor, keep your mouth shut and get back to work so it doesn’t happen again. 

As we prepare this week for our meet at Coach Timmons pride and joy – Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence, Kansas – I am always overflowing with memories of working on the course during my time at KU and the hope of seeing coach at the meet.

Coach, I’ve also read on your team's web site that you are a professional motivational speaker and have seen a lot of sayings and slogans on your web site.

Coach Parker: If there is one thing that separates us from other teams, it is our focus on the mental aspects of performance.  I have been a motivational speaker now for over 12 years, and I spend just as much time deciding how we will motivate and inspire our team at today’s practice as I do planning today’s workout.  Both of my passions, speaking and coaching, complement one another.  My speeches are jam-packed with true stories about my team’s effort, teamwork, sacrifice and commitment. Similarly, my focus at every practice is to motivate and inspire our girls to ignite their full potential, just as I would a room full of 100 business executives.

Every slogan on our website has special meaning to us as a team.  One of my former assistant coaches and I spent about a half a year collecting and writing the affirmations that – and those are the ones that made the cut.  Our official team and coaches’ affirmation is one I put together many years ago: “Our success is not found in yesterday’s achievements but in today’s effort.”  That belief always has and always will drive the Iowa City West coaches and team members.

Can you tell us some of the key principles of your training program?

Coach Parker: The key principals I stress to our team is that everything we do is important – every stretch, every sit-up, every drill, every run, everything.  We do all we can to limit our “junk miles.” When we run, it’s at a pace that is useful to race the 4K.  Our interval workouts are all done with each athlete given a pace to run and, once the workout starts, we never walk until after the last interval.  Also, I hire the best assistant coaches in the business.  My current assistant, Peggy Steva, the 2005 State Assistant Coach of the Year, as well as my past assistants have all worked tirelessly to assure that each and every girl reaches their full potential.  I never lose sight of how vital of a role they play in our programs success.

We average about 40 miles a week during the summer and during the regular season.  Our 20x200 with 60 seconds jog recovery in between the first 15, then 15 seconds jog recovery in-between the last 5 – that’s one key workout.  Another is 5x4 minutes hard, then 2 minutes easy. Both are done on the beautiful U. of Iowa XC course just 5 minutes from our school … I also evaluate recovery every day, talking with the girls in small groups and individually about how they feel before each workout. What the girls say has led me to change many workouts.

We spend a lot of time on race tactics.  On race day, I have a one-on-one conversation with as many of the girls as I can about what I think they need to do during the race.  Each team member – varsity, fresh/soph and JV – is given a team race strategy as well.  Those conversations will then be put to paper later in the season on what we call a Strategy Planning Sheet, that has detailed instructions for the start, the 1-mile mark, the 2-mile make and the final 800 … as well as a “What if” section that covers what to do if this or that happened to them during the race.

Coach Steva:  We have built a lot of our program on the principle of motivation. We try and inspire the girls to be the best that they can humanly, possibly be. We use visualization, which our team loves, and incorporate motivation into our practice each day in some way.
Our teams train year-round.  It’s important to them and they hold each other accountable when someone is missing, from the JV through the varsity.  Nothing is better than training with your team, and the girls know and respect that, and that’s why our off-season attendance is almost the same as our in-season.
Nutritionally, we talk of the importance of good food choices to make you stronger.  Getting good nutrition is vital to getting better each day.  We believe it’s important to get to food within 30 minutes of training, so we try to have granola bars or fruit for the kids after each practice.

Bridgette Novak (junior and top returnee from state last year): The coaches tend to stress closing gaps and, ultimately, running as a pack.  We also want to take every opportunity to get better every day, and never settle for less than our best effort.  We celebrate our successes until it’s time to get back to work and improve.  Also, they stress that being positive and taking care of yourself are important to your success and the success of the team.  The coaches make a point that every girl on the team affects the final outcome – every girl pushes the girl in front of her to keep her position, and to do her best every day. 

I think the simple phrase, “challenge yourself,” sums up a lot … You can’t be afraid to do what’s challenging if you want the great feeling of accomplishment after achieving your goals.  If you challenge yourself, you’ll soon be doing what you thought was impossible.

Brett, I understand this is your first season at West.  What have you learned about the way the team trains and the attitude that has made this a championship program?  What does it mean to be a Woman of Troy?

Brett Guerra (soph and current new #1 runner, moved to Iowa City from Louisa-Muscatine in Iowa)I’ve learned that everything we do is important and has a purpose.  Whether we are doing our “Big Ten,” our circuit, or our goal times, we need to be trying to get everything out of what we do to, to make us as fast as we can be at the 4K.  I have also learned that we all need to make cross-country stick in our minds, not just during practice but in-between, to prepare us for our next workouts and upcoming meets.  What it means to be a Woman of Troy is living up to the legacy, and caring on the tradition of the Women of Troy.

I’ve noticed over the years that the Iowa City West-Iowa City High is one of THE best cross-town rivalries in HS sports.  True?  How intense is it in girls XC?  Is it friendly off the course?

Coach Parker:  The Iowa City West – City High girls cross country rivalry is one of the top sports rivalries in the country for many reasons.  First, is the success of both teams.  Since 1997, either West High or City High has won the state team title every year but twice, and almost every year West has won, City High has been the runner-up and vice versa.  So our rivalry is played out at the highest level; to be the best in town, you will need to be the best in the state as well.  In the most recent Heartland rankings, Iowa City has two teams in the top 3 when no other city has even two in the top 10.  But that’s nothing new – it’s been that way for the past 12 years. 

Two, the respect.  I have a lot of respect for the coaches and girls at City High.  It doesn’t matter who they lose from the year before, I always count on Coach Mittman to train the team into a state championship-contending team. 

Finally, it’s fun.  What coach or athlete doesn’t love intense elite-level competition for all the marbles?  The last two conference team titles have finished in a tie and were decided by the 6th runner.  In 2007, we tied and West had a better place from our 6th runner, so we won and, believe it or not, last year the exact same thing happened in reverse – we tied, but City had a better place from their 6th runner, so they won.

Bridgette Novak:  On the course, Iowa City girls XC is definitely intense – but off the course, there’s a lot of respect.  I think we could have a good time if girls from the two teams got together – we’re all high school girls who love to run.  We just live on different sides of a river.  We’ve been through a lot of similar experiences, and could definitely understand what they go through on a day-to-day basis.

What are some of the things that West girls XC does to try and create team unity and strength off the course?

Brett Guerra:
At the beginning of the season this year, we had a campout at Coach Parker's house (a log home surrounded by over 50 acres of open land). This was a great time; we played fun team-building games, told stories around the campfire, and slept in tents in his yard.

We also have a spaghetti dinner the night before each meet.  This is a time where we have fun, but also our team meeting to start focusing in on the meet for the next day.  After Saturday morning practices, we usually go out to eat at Perkins, and sometimes go shopping.  After meets on the weekends, we go to someone’s house, and we watch movies, have fun singing to some of our favorite tunes, and sometimes go out for ice cream.  Our team has a very strong team unity, and sometimes it feels weird if I don't see all my teammates for a day. 

I want to thank the coaches for all they do – they put in a lot of time and effort to make our team the championship program that it is.  Not very many teams have what we do and being on the Iowa City West Girls cross-country team is a great honor.

Photos (from top): 1st and 3rd photos from Luther Invite (post race meeting, then awards); 4th photo, from team camp out at Coach Parker's home - all courtesty Peggy Steva.  2nd photo by Laurie Canady, from Susie Engelhardt's photos (front to back): Molly Leveille (1408), Sara Stewart (1425), Bridget Novak (1414), Taylor Fehlberg ( purple headband), Paige Engelhardt (back).