This article originally appeared in the winter 2013 Harker Quarterly.
Last spring, as track and field season heated up, a funny thing happened: Harker records began to fall en masse. With 2013 now drawing to a close, the cross country team has kept the streak alive, making the past calendar year one for the record books for Harker runners.
It all started in March at the Willow Glen Track and Field Invitational, when Corey Gonzales, now grade 11, topped his own Harker record in the 3,200-meter run by 40 seconds. Isabelle Connell ’13, then a senior, broke her own record in the 200 meter, and Michael Chen ’13 broke his own record in the shot put. A week later, Connell set a new Harker record in the 100 meter, while Julia Wang, now grade 11, set a new shot put record, then posted the second-best mark in Harker history for girls discus. A week after that, Gonzales set a new Harker record in the mile run, Connell set a new Harker record in the 400-meter run, and Sumit Minocha ’13 set a new Harker record in the 100-meter run.
A month later, Cheryl Liu ’13 broke a Harker record in the 100-meter hurdles. Then, three minutes later, Nadia Palte, just a freshman at the time, broke Liu’s record. That same day, Chen broke a Harker record in the discus competition. A few days later, Minocha broke a Harker record in the 100-meter run, and Palte broke her own record in the 100-meter hurdles. At the WBAL championships, Minocha won the 200-meter race, Gonzales won the 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter races, Claudia Tischler, now grade 12, won the 1,600-meter race, and Connell won the 100-meter and 200-meter races. A relay team of Tischler, Palte, Connell and Ragini Bhattacharya ’13 also came in first place. Discus throwers Wang and Chen all advanced to CCS.
All told, Harker sent more athletes to CCS and saw more athletes score points at CCS than ever before. Minocha won the CCS championships in the 200-meter run, becoming the first runner in Harker’s history to win an individual CCS championship and the second Harker athlete ever to achieve such a mark. Minocha and Connell became the first athletes in Harker history to qualify for the state meet, and they and Gonzales all set personal records at CCS. Minocha was recognized as athlete of the week by the San Jose Mercury News.
It was an incredible finish to an incredible year. Spring 2013 was a breakthrough season for the program, unlikely to be rivaled. The seniors graduated, and Minocha’s and Connell’s new records were noted in the Harker gym.
When the returning athletes came back to school in the fall, an amazing thing happened: the cross country team picked up right where it left off. Tischler was now the team’s senior statesman, and Gonzales was freshly saddled with new expectations to continue his record-breaking streak. They were joined this year by a new phenom: freshman Niki Iyer.
Running cross country in September, Iyer won the first race of her Harker career. In her next effort, her first varsity race, she ran the best time of any female runner in Harker’s history, coming in second place by a single second. In her next race, she racked up her first varsity win, setting a new school record with one of the 10 best times for a freshman in the course’s 70-year history, an achievement that Harker’s athletic director Dan Molin called “truly elite level.” That race won Iyer athlete of the week recognition from the San Jose Mercury News.
In the first WBAL meet of the year, Gonzales set a new course record, while Iyer won her race and missed out on setting a new course record by, again, a single second. At Baylands, Iyer won another race, beating the previous year’s league champion and setting a new course record. At Crystal Springs, Gonzales and Iyer both set new Harker records. Both runners came in first at the WBAL championships. They and Tischler all qualified for the CCS championships, where Iyer placed third in her race and Gonzales won his, making him the new Division 4 CCS cross country champion. Both qualified for the state meet, where Iyer took seventh and Gonzales finished 85th. See the Eagle Report, page 36, for details.
One of the things that changed Harker’s fortunes was a new head coach. The 2012- 13 school year was the first for Scott Chisam, who had run cross country and track at UCLA, then coached UCLA’s women’s track and field team to two NCAA national championships. All told, Chisam has coached 36 NCAA All-Americans and Olympians, and coached the U.S. women’s cross country team in the 1984 World Cross Country Championships.
“He’s as good as it gets,” says director Molin. “The Chisam name in cross country and track is well known.” The team agrees.
“I really could not have asked for better coaches,” says Gonzales. When Chisam arrived, he took naturally quick runners and made them into smart runners, teaching them techniques to improve their times and their stamina, ensuring that not only would they improve, but improve sustainably.
“It’s amazing how little they knew. They could run fast, but just things like starts, staying near the line on the turn. Just the things that make differences, to the hundreds, to the tenths,” said Chisam.
The team’s success has been contagious. “Last year’s team has been such an inspiration,” says Iyer. “They used to break the records like every week,” she remembers. Iyer, in turn, has inspired her teammates. “She’s more tenacious than any runner I’ve ever seen,” says Gonzales. “Being able to have Niki at practice has made me more tenacious as a runner as well.” He has kind words for Tischler’s leadership, as well. “I’ve always looked up to her,” Gonzales adds. “She’s the real captain on the team. She keeps everyone together. We all look up to Claudia.”
The inspiration of last year’s team, the expertise of Chisam, Gonzales’ ascendance, Tischler’s leadership and Iyer’s sudden emergence have created a great vibe among the runners.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better team this year,” raved Iyer. “The dynamics of our team are just so amazing.” Iyer can recall walking into the gym and gaping at the records set by the team the year before. Now, she is proud to see her name on that list as well. When, at a recent race, an athlete at another school asked Iyer if she’d prefer to be at Simi Valley, one of the state’s top cross country programs, Iyer cut her off mid-sentence. “Once an Eagle, always an Eagle,” was Iyer’s definitive reply.