First published in the Sept. 17 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
Year three into his tenure as cross-country head coach looks as promising as ever for Mike Parkinson and his squad of South Pasadena High School runners.
This season kicked off months after the 2020-21 season wrapped up in the spring, when it was lumped into essentially one big high school sports season thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. After Parkinson coached that squad to a Rio Hondo League sweep, he said he’s aiming for the real deal after an admittedly “asterisk” season.
“Now that we’ve tasted it, we want to say we’ll continue our streaks in the league championships,” Parkinson explained during a practice last week. “We want to go to the next level consistently and we want to be a contender in CIF.”
As part of that journey, Parkinson takes his team to Norco this afternoon for the Irvine Woodbridge High School Cross Country Classic, with the girls’ team ranked No. 6 in the CIF-Southern Section Division 4 by Prep Cal Track and the boys ranked ninth. The team continues to ride the momentum from how the so-called “COVID season” ended, even as the boys and girls lost some of their top runners — including Andrew Villapudua and Lindsay Michels, who set the SPHS two-mile record eight times in track — to graduation.
There’s no shortage of talent with this squad, however, with the returning stars being buoyed by a surge in new runners after the program hit a low in participation during the COVID season. Parkinson said he anticipated lots of new personal records today — Silverlakes Sports Park is considered one of the fastest 3-mile courses in the nation.
The boys had five runners finish below 18 minutes at the Cool Breeze Invitational at the Rose Bowl earlier this month, with senior Brady Nakamura leading the pack at 15:20. Seniors Liam de Villa and Noah Kuhn followed at 16:00 and 16:54, respectively, with junior Jason Baek in fourth at 17:08 and senior Kaden Chai at 17:48.
For the girls, senior Sydney Morrow finished at 17:39, followed by freshman Abigail Errington at 18:21, senior Kerrigan Riley at 19:31, senior Miranda Liu at 20:28 and junior Kaile Fernandes at 20:30.
Parkinson’s training has been adjusted over time, particularly in the interest of minimizing injury risk. After initially pushing heavy weekly mileage, Parkinson now segments his expectations by grade level: 20-30 miles a week for freshmen, 30-40 for sophomores, and so on. (Individual runners will sometimes exceed that, the coach added, as their bodies allow.) When the dreaded shin-splints begin, it’s aqua jogging for practice, Parkinson said.
The team also has made extensive and smart use of the weight room to help build up muscle strength for the long hauls.
“The cross-country team is probably in the weight room more often than the football team, because we use it all year,” Parkinson said. “We’re so naturally not strong. Some people say we’re too skinny, so we get in the weight room so we can do all the things we do. You better have strong legs so they can take that pounding.”
The balanced approach to training is borne of Parkinson’s inaugural coaching year, when his lofty expectations for CIF in 2019 fell victim to widespread dead leg among the varsity squad.
“I trained them too fast and too hard for two weeks before CIF,” he said. “All my fault.”
The team’s veterans have seen and lived the results of these adjustments.
“Our culture has changed so much. Sophomore year, I remember all the guys would be dropping dead from the workouts, because practices would be like races. I raced bad because of it,” Nakamura said. “Because our culture has shifted toward injury prevention, we realize where our limits are and ease up as necessary to give our legs a break. Now I can hit 60-70 miles a week and still feel fine. Guys that were chronically injured their freshmen year can easily crank out 50-60 miles a week.”
“He knows what he’s talking about,” Morrow said, highlighting that Parkinson is a physical therapist. “He’s really good about figuring out why people are injured and how to prevent that in the future.”
Leadership has helped glue the team together as it moves past the COVID season. Senior captains are Nakamura, de Villa, Liu, Morrow, Joshua Ramirez and Lilian Zhu, and a number of others have assumed informal leadership roles as well.
Nakamura is often the boy who will compile stats or rankings and shoot them off in group chats with the team, to help motivate, according to the coach.
“Brady leads a little bit more quietly and by hard work,” Parkinson said. “He’s a stat junkie, like me, so he leads in that.”
Parkinson recalled coaching Nakamura first at South Pasadena Middle School. At the time, Parkinson said Nakamura had all the raw talent and had to educate him on the techniques to build endurance and stay healthy.
“He was talented from the get-go,” Parkinson said. “The biggest thing I had to tell him is to hold back, if you can believe it. He leads by example in that he wants to push himself, but as a coach I kind of had to reel that back. Brady is very enthusiastic.”
Nakamura reunited with crosscountry late this summer, on account of continuing the remainder of his junior year of track at the nationals meet in Oregon. As a result, taking over the captaincy from Michels and Villapudua ended up being a “really abrupt” switch, although ultimately he said it came naturally to him.
“They were super, super fast. They both went to college with scholarships for running,” Nakamura explained. “To have to all of a sudden be in that captain position, it was tough for me. When I came to cross-country [this season], I didn’t know all of the drills, so I had to study what they were doing and figure it out really fast.”
De Villa has picked up a hype man quality to his leadership, Parkinson said, often rallying support for younger runners among his older peers and directly encouraging people. He also recorded various drills and workouts for the newer runners to use as a reference point, the coach said.
“He’s a vocal leader,” Parkinson said. “He likes to embrace that as a team captain and leader.”
De Villa said he approaches leadership with a mind on how he benefitted from it as a younger athlete.
“I used to ask these questions all the time — I was short, not the fastest but you improve when you have good leaders,” he said. “All the captains contrast each other very well. It sounds cliché to say, but that’s how it worked out.”
Parkinson praised Morrow as being one of the Tigers’ most talented runners ever, having set an unofficial time trial mile of 5:02 in the spring — what would be the school record for girls — that Parkinson hopes she can formally set (or best) in the forthcoming spring. She holds a similar unofficial school record for the three-mile and the official record in the distance medley. In Parkinson’s first season, Morrow was the only Tiger to qualify for the state meet.
“She was No. 1 her freshman year and she’s constantly improving,” Parkinson said. “She has range. She doesn’t have the 800 record, but she could have it next year. She’s good at all of that and she has the talent to do all of it. This is her year.”
Morrow said her confidence has also improved since 9th grade, which has helped her be a captain this season. She said she was proud of how the team showed up to the Cool Breeze Invitational.
“It was really nerve-wracking because, for a lot of us, this is our first big meet or race since 2019,” she said. “I think we all handled the pressure well.”
Riley, the No. 3 girl going into today’s meet, said she concurred that a shortened season with only a handful of smaller races added some restlessness for older athletes coming into this season. For younger runners the seniors are taking under the wings, she said she works to show them what hard work accomplishes.
“I let them know that it’s a process, that every practice matters and counts, but also make things enjoyable,” Riley said. “We’re really committed and have a lot of traditions that make it enjoyable. It makes you want to participate and work harder. We’re really good as a team with pushing each other.”
Parkinson praised Zhu’s growth since he first coached her at SPMS. This afternoon’s invitational represents a strong opportunity for her: she previously set her personal record of 19:42 there in 2019.
“Hard worker. Loves running, loves the high of running,” Parkinson said of Zhu. “She’s a behind-the-scenes leader. She’s constantly communicating with me — ‘Coach, can we do this? Coach, we have to do that.’”
Liu, as a captain, also has recorded drill videos to help along younger runners — “She has the quiet leadership quality,” Parkinson said of Liu — and the coach also highlighted Kuhn as a non-captain leader for the team — “He’s always making sure teammates are recognized. He’s got like 10 ‘put-ups’ every time because he’s always looking for someone to congratulate and elevate,” Parkinson said.
Parkinson said to look out for freshman Errington, junior Fernandes and freshman Amelie Geoffron as future leaders for the girls, while juniors Baek and Jack Ishibashi, sophomore Keeran Murray and freshman Rocket McDonald have bright futures for the boys.
Especially if they keep up this trajectory.
“What makes the team fast is the training,” de Villa said. “What keeps the team together is the traditions.”
Photos by Zane Hill / The Review