Interview with Tatnall Coach Pat Castagno!

DelawareTrackXC had the opportunity to interview Coach Pat Castagno of Tatnall High School.  Coach Castagno has engineered one of the most amazing runs of success of any high school cross country program in the nation the past decade!  The girls teams of late have especially dominated in state and were ranked as high as #3 in the nation last year. 

His teams, both boys and girls have re-written the record books in Delaware and seem to re-write their own records year after year.

Coach Castagno spoke about this past season, what the goals are for the the girls and boys teams at NXN and how to best show case Delaware high school cross country at our culminating state meet. 

Q:  How would you assess the season for the boys and girls this year?  

A: This has been one of the most interesting seasons we have had since I began coaching in 2001.  Our boys and girls teams were at completely different places at the beginning of the season.  We felt we had our work cut out for us to be ready with both teams by season’s end.  However, for the girls team, after placing 3rd in the nation last season and graduating great leaders in Juliet Bottorff, Katie Buenaga, and Katie Oldham, we were faced with developing an entirely new identity as a team.  We wanted to be sure the girls were patient with this process.  Like most teams, we had plenty of ups and downs this season with illness and injury but feel they were fairly stabilized by the end. The expectations remained high.

The boys team had been in the shadow of the girls team for the past 2 years and was ready to break out.  They just didn’t know how to do it or even what they were capable of.  As a team, they were not firing all together until the last 3 weeks of the season.  We couldn’t be more impressed with their state meet performance. That is what this was all about since June; being able to develop enough confidence to be able to run like that by the end of the season.  

We are very pleased with how both teams were able to find their rhythm by the state championship.

Q: What were the highlights?  Lowlights?
A: Our season highlights would have to include strong performances at Joe O’Neill and the state championship.  We also consider it a highlight when the team begins to come together and all of the work begins to show up on race day.  Low points in our season were losing 60% of the team to illness for a full week right after Joe O’Neill Invitational.  From what I heard, most teams in Delaware experienced this same thing.  This was a tough fall for mass illness.  This put a nice whole in the season training.

Q: What were your expectations for this season after such an exceptional season last year for the girls and the graduation of so many outstanding runners?

A: This year’s girls team needed to understand that last year’s team is history and that we needed to begin from scratch with dreams and goals for a new season.  We emphasized not living in the past.  The worst thing we could have done would have been to go into this season thinking we had all the answers and that we were a great team.  Our expectations were that this group of girls perform well in the classroom, manage time well, train hard, and think big.  Last season, we had very good leadership in Juliet Bottorff, Katie Buenaga, and Katie Oldham (all seniors).  Last year, we were sure to often remind the younger girls in the program to pay very close attention to how these 3 seniors handled themselves, because they were always great examples of how to be a good student and a determined runner at the same time.  It is always hard to lose great kids from any program but also exciting to see who will step up to fill the void.

Q: For the boys, did you expect to do so well, winning the Division 2 state championship?

A: Well, we always enter a season with the goal of being state champions.  We do not always reach that goal but why shoot for second place?  We began preseason with a meeting where we defined the purpose and the expectations of each student-athlete and the team as a whole.  Our job as coaches is to keep the ship traveling in a straight line toward that goal.  When it starts to drift off course, we need to react and make changes.  Believe me; we had plenty of things that served as distractions to this team.  However, this year’s boys’ team literally got closer as a group and stronger as runners each and every week of the racing season.  Archmere and Salesianum ran well all season as they always manage to do.  They are tough teams.  We were lucky to have them to go after each time we raced together.  It is always much easier to chase than to lead because you have a reference of what you need to do to win.  The timing of how well our boys were coming together could not have been better this season.  That was fun.

Q: Explain to those who don't know the background what Tatnall's cross program was like before you arrived and how it progressed.

A: When I began teaching at Tatnall (2000), I asked the Athletic Director (Mark Ginn) who was also the boys and girls cross country coach if I could help out.  He told me that they really didn’t need any help that fall.  I asked again in the spring if I could help out with track.  He hired me as an assistant track coach and that was my first coaching season for Tatnall (2001).  The next year, Mark allowed me to take over the boys cross country program.  Things were pretty tough in those days.  We had 2 boys and 4 girls in the program....not enough to even field a full scoring team.  Mark and I began working together with the programs and a few more kids became interested in running.  Having 3 young kids at home including a new baby, Mark asked if I would take over both programs and he would continue with us as assistant.  We eventually built the program numbers up to an average of about 15 runners on each the boys’ and girls’ teams.  In a small school like Tatnall (130 girls, 130 boys) expecting more than about 10-15% of the student body is not realistic.

Q: How have you been able to build a perennial championship program?
A: I think for us, it began a few years ago with one or two kids who were interested enough to listen to what we were saying about the possibilities of being the best.  In the beginning, we started with small goals like having individuals win state championships – like Meredith Lambert and Kyle Kershner in 2001.  That provided an example to other kids that that level of racing and winning was possible even at a small school like Tatnall.  Then, when we had a few more kids interested, we set the goal of being team conference champions.  We were able to do that.  Then we had the right to dream about being county champions then state champions.  We won our first team state title in 2003 when our boys came from behind in the last mile to overtake Archmere.  After that, the sky was the limit and we had a certain level of expectation of kids in the program.  We decided in 2005 to bring a few nationally ranked high school runners into a team meeting to discuss what it takes run at the national level.  In that meeting, we decided it was time for us to think bigger and shoot for the Nike National Cross Country Championship for 2006.  We made it to Portland Oregon that year and placed 12th in the nation.  That was an unbelievable experience. Since then, our girls team has been fortunate enough to go back to the National Championship in 2007 (20th) and 2008 (3rd).  

Q: What are the main ingredients for any program to be successful and specifically what have been the necessary ingredients for you as the coach at Tatnall.

A: One important ingredient is to surround yourself with great assistant coaches.  I have been very fortunate to have a group of coaches who were/are accomplished runners who know the sport and who love working with kids.  We all work very well together and have lots of fun at practice.  We are always bouncing ideas off each other and each of us has different strengths that complement each other.

Another ingredient of any successful program is a year-around training plan that progresses in workload each of the 4 years in high school but still leaves plenty of enthusiasm and room for development during college years.  This training plan has very important built in break periods.  One thing that we do is insist on down time for all of our runners.  This is more for the mind than it is for the body.  Physical breaks are important but nowhere near as important as mental decompression from training and racing.  You could be the most well prepared, physically fit runner at the state meet but if you are mentally fried from a long season, you will not be able to perform.  Since many of our runners run XC, winter track, and spring track, we make sure they put the shoes in the closet and shut the door for 10 days to 2 weeks between each season.  We tell them to go be a kid after school; ride your skateboard, shoot baskets, go to a movie with friends, etc.

Q: Is anyone planning on running at NXN or FL this year?  If so, who?  What are the goals?

A: Prior to 2005, we competed every year in the Footlocker Regional Championship in New York.  There is no team competition associated with this race but has great competition.  In this race you can qualify as an individual for the Footlocker National Championship.   Since 2005, we decided that we would stick with the team concept in post season competition and compete each year in the Nike South East Regional Championship.  The first two teams in each of the 8 regions in the U.S. automatically make the Nike National Championship held in Portland Oregon.  We are sending 18 runners this year (8 boys and 10 girls) to Cary, North Carolina for the November 28th race.  The goals are different for our boys’ and girls’ teams.  Our boys will be without our #2 runner, Patrick Manley, who has been running with knee bursitis all season.  He is resting and healing.  Our goals are to be competitive in the championship race, get used to this level of competition, and to come home with a bunch of personal best times!
On the girls side of the competition, we are one of about 5 teams that are in contention for the top 2 spots for NXN (Nike Cross Nationals).  Our goal is to win the race and make it to National Championship.  The kids are excited and we’ll hope for the best!

Q: Lastly, you mentioned in a News Journal article earlier this year when it was decided that Padua would change from division I to division II that you don't think the state should have divisions because it is so small.
What would you suggest be the format of the season if there were only one division?  Should all the teams be lined up and may the best team win?  Or should teams have to qualify?  What about having a public school championship and a private school championship?  What are your thoughts on that?

A: I just feel that in Delaware, we are keeping ourselves down in this sport when we get to the end of the season and we are not putting our best teams head to head against each other.  I think we have to have some “division” because we cannot put 45 teams in one race but the division should be based on strength of team not on enrollment.  Competition drives better performances.  The state championship is the place for the strongest teams to race each other.  Many coaches feel that the New Castle County championship is a more competitive meet than our state championship.  This should not be the case.  

One idea would be to have a ranking system throughout the season whereby you qualify the strongest 15 teams (for each gender) to compete against each other in one race at the state meet.  The remaining teams would also compete against each other in a separate race.  I would also like to see an open race at the state meet for any team’s top 5 JV runners to race in without team scores.  
I am not in favor of public school vs. private school championships for the same reasons I do not agree with divisions based on enrollment.  Again, the best teams need to go head to head.  Public vs. private would do nothing but water down the level of competition and make our state that much weaker in this sport.  We need to think of ways to always raise the bar in cross country in Delaware not make decisions based on convenience, what state park officials think is best, or what other sports in the DIAA system do.