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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 | brookwood ga boys
by SteveU, DyeStat Senior Editor

When you talk about high school cross-country in Georgia, you should know the power in this state is concentrated in a fast-growing, heavily-populated county northeast of Atlanta.  Gwinnett County has produced every boys state champion in the biggest classification (5A) this decade, as well as much of the 1990s, and is home to the dominant Collins Hill girls program.  Brookwood has won eight titles on the boys side since 1989, including seven in a 20-year stretch from 1994 through 2003.

That 2003 title, won under Jerry Arnold, was the most recent, but the Broncos are looking awfully good again in 2009.  You can become pretty tough to beat when you keep it in the family and that’s what his program has done.  Coach Joe Carter, who led four of the title teams in the ‘90s, is an assistant on a program directed by his son-in-law, Ben Dehnke, since 2003.  Brookwood has stayed in state title contention throughout Dehnke’s tenure, but the young coach now not only has the top-ranked team in Georgia, but the entire NXN Southeast region.  The Broncos rose to that level early the season, then backed it up with a Race of Champions win at Great American.  Continuing the tradition of great depth without a dominant leader, the Snellville GA school has won with its selfless pack – which is focused on reclaiming that 5A crown before thinking about getting to Portland.

Coach Dehnke, as well as seniors Zack Robinson and Tyler Anyan, took some time to talk with DyeStat Senior Editor SteveU this week about this season, the program, and competing in their tough part of the state.

Coach, would it be fair to say you came into this year having been a school that’s almost always been in the hunt for a state title, but had not really been quite at this level since the last state championship year of 2003?  Can you talk about how the program has ascended to this level again?  I’m interested in your thoughts both of the big picture – how the program has evolved since you took over – and the specifics on this year’s team.  Who came back from last year and who has made the key improvements?

Coach Dehnke: Our program’s success, this year and in past seasons, is simply a result of the hard work of our boys. The athletes in our program continue to raise the bar regarding the amount of work they are willing to put into it. We’ve got a group of kids now whose desire for improvement has really driven them to an uncommon work ethic, even by our standards. They have made deliberate choices congruent with our team goals.

Zack, what has it been like for you guys to get to this level this fall, of winning everything so far (including Great American) and getting to #1 in the region?  Did you guys come into this fall feeling like it was going to be a big year, and a better year than last year?  Or has it been more of a happy surprise?

Zack Robinson: Going into this season, we knew we had potential. We all worked extremely hard in the summer and had a pretty good idea of where we stood. Coming off of a somewhat disappointing conclusion to our ’08 season, we felt like we had a lot to make up for. It has been a little surprising having the success that we have had thus far, but it's not at all time to celebrate. We have yet to reach our main goal, which is a state title, and we’ll stay concentrated on that.

Coach, looking at the season so far, what have been the keys for you in getting to this level of being #1 in the region, winning all of the meets you’ve won, and especially taking the Great American title?  How have you found the kids have responded to prosperity?

Coach Dehnke: So far this season, we’ve had different guys step it up at each meet, contributing in different ways. This success can be attributed to the fact that they train hard, but also that they pay attention to the details: sleep, nutrition, recovery, time management, race preparation, etc. It also doesn’t hurt that these guys get along well and have a lot of fun together. Collectively, we’ve improved each time we’ve raced this year.

Heading into our region and state meets, I know the team feels confident, but they are also focused on their preparation as much as any group I’ve coached. The rankings are fun, but they don’t really get too wrapped up in that. Our guys know that, regardless of past success, they need to be ready when that gun fires at 8:30 a.m. on November 7. Our primary pursuit is the state championship.

Since you’ve been at Brookwood, how has your training plan – both big picture and week-to-week – evolved and what have been some particular workouts and aspects of the plan that the kids have responded particularly well to this fall?

Coach Dehnke: The varsity group has made a deliberate decision to train hard each year I’ve been at Brookwood, but this year, they seem willing and eager to do more. Our teams always work hard in the summer, when we emphasize mileage and long runs, threshold runs and hill work. These same workouts are keys in the fall. In particular, our kids seem to have responded well to the progression aspect of our training this fall.

During the bulk of the regular season, we have only scheduled races every other weekend, so that we can work like we need to, and recover adequately. This has been one key to our season so far.

We also try to use an athlete-centered model, individualizing workouts and mileage, depending on the individual needs of our athletes. We try to emphasize their responsibility in the process, which ultimately seems to give them more of a sense of ownership and pride.

Coach, you’re part of a unique team of coaches that includes an assistant who was the former head coach – Joe Carter – and who won four state championships in the 1990s.  What are the dynamics of this unique arrangement?  How do you work together and what has Coach Carter been able to contribute to you as a coach?  How does the dynamic work with the kids?

Coach Dehnke: I really should point out that Coach Carter and Jerry Arnold really made our program what it is now.  From 1989 to 2003, they led our teams to eight state championships. What David Thompson and I do now is focused on trying to honor that tradition set up by those men.

We really do have a great coaching staff, and each of us loves working with the kids. Because we have a team of 94 boys this year, we really need three coaches (Coach Thompson, Coach Carter and me). We have a good time working with each other, and we enjoy working with both the varsity and JV guys.

Coach Carter, in particular, has been a great asset to our staff. He is a successful age-group runner on the roads and on the track, and still trains seriously, which the kids really respect. His success and longevity in coaching, training and racing is remarkable. More importantly, he has a great rapport with the boys, and he is the reason that they get motivated to work hard as freshmen.

I should also point out that Coach Carter is my father-in-law, and my brother-in-law, Chris Carter, is the girls’ coach. As you can imagine, distance-running conversations dominate our family gatherings.

Zack, kind of the same question to you: You guys have a unique situation with a very young head coach in Coach Dehnke and with an older assistant, Coach Carter, who coached in the 1990s and won several state championships.  How do each of them help you guys as a team and what is that dynamic like of them working together to coach you?

Zack Robinson: Coach Dehnke has been critical to our success this season. He, Coach Thompson and Coach Carter have played a key role in getting us into shape and race-ready. Coach Dehnke is very dedicated to the team and puts a lot of time into the program. He is very organized and he sees to it that we follow through with our precise training schedule every week. Coach Carter is a very experienced coach and runner. He provides us with a lot of his wisdom and knowledge – about staying healthy and race strategy, especially. Each of our coaches have made great sacrifices for us.

Coach, it seems like your team has been pretty successful without clear front-runners, but with 2-4 kids sharing the 1-2 spots on the team and mixing it up.  Has that been common for your teams here or is this unusual?  Does this type of balance seem to work well with this group?

Coach Dehnke: At Brookwood, we’ve actually never had a male individual state champion in cross country. We try to emphasize the team aspect of the sport in training and racing, hoping that they will learn to rely on each other in both. It’s strange, but in each meet we’ve run so far this year, the order of our top 7 has been different. One benefit of a group like this is that no one kid has the pressure of having to carry the group. Instead, they seem confident that their teammates will contribute equally, and this idea gives them comfort.

Zack, again, similar question: It seems like you guys have had at least two different #1s and 2-3 different #2s in different races.  What has the leadership been like on this team and what has it meant for different guys to be able to step up in the top spots in different meets? 

Zack Robinson: We all have run pretty close to each other this season, and in practice we remember to try to close the gaps. If one guy is feeling good, and on that day is outrunning the rest of us, we try to make sure that he won’t be far ahead. We also tend to communicate during the races. This helps on a few levels; we can discuss how and when we're going to move up, and it gives us a sense of comfort. Good team chemistry has also led us to some victories. We're all pretty close and can push each other..

Guys, if you were to mention “Gwinnett County” cross-country to a lot of folks around the country, it wouldn’t mean much to them – but Georgia folks know that it’s extremely competitive every year and that the county champion really means something.  How would you describe what it’s like competing here to an outsider?

Coach Dehnke: Coaching in Gwinnett County has been great. Most of the coaches are supportive of other teams and are willing to share ideas. In addition to Jerry Arnold and Joe Carter, I’ve taken a lot of ideas from Chris Carter, our girls coach, Andy Christie of Mill Creek, Andrew Hudson of Collins Hill, James Tigue of Parkview and others. It’s been fun being a part of this group of coaches.

At Brookwood, we consider our county meet to be one of the most important meets of the season, because the level of competition is so high. We know that if we can win the county title, we’ve got a good shot at a trophy in November. In fact, the boys’ team state champion has been a Gwinnett school every year going back to 2000.

The bar has been consistently set high by successful teams in our county. Parkview’s dominance in 2004, 2005 and 2006 really motivated our team to work hard at that time. Collins Hill and Peachtree Ridge have also been an example for the rest of us to chase in the past couple of years. I think that the athletes from Gwinnett schools seem to have a sense of collective pride, based on the success of so many of our teams, and there is a sense of camaraderie among athletes from rival teams which is rare in high school athletics.

Tyler Anyan:  Well, for one thing, it is extremely competitive and tense. Running in the Gwinnett County Championships is similar to the state championship. Many of the top teams and top individuals in the state, and even some in the Southeast region are here in Gwinnett. All the local races are set up similarly. They all feature most of the top teams and individuals in the state, so it's usually pretty epic, with battles among rivals.

Tyler, every year Brookwood at least has an eye on a state title, or at least being in the running.  But this year, making it to NXN in Portland is a real possibility, too.  What is it like knowing you have to keep grounded and focused on winning state, yet having this great post-season opportunity to dream about too?  How big has it become to try and make it to Portland?

Tyler Anyan:
We try not to jeopardize our immediate goals by focusing too much on our distant goals. Instead, we focus on humbling ourselves and focusing our thoughts and energy on each race. The most important goal for us is a victory at state. NXN may be an exciting possibility for us, but our focus now is centered on a desire to win state. After state, we’ll shift our focus to the NXN regional race.

Photos: First photo from Walter Pinion at Great American; second from Coach Wood Invite from brookwoodxc.com.