What is Great Oak's Place in CA History? Examining the Best Overall Programs of All-Time

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What are the qualifications to be the greatest cross country program in state history? There are so many ways to evaluate a school's all-time success: state titles, section titles, win streaks, cumulative top times, and more. When we began asking this question last year, we considered only single-gender programs (looking at the boys and girls as separate programs, in other words), and we focused exclusively on state championship success. This potentially leaves out some very strong schools that had success before the state meet era began in 1987, but trying to evaluate those teams without a common competition is a really daunting task. (Maybe we'll take that on next year in a section-by-section approach...)

This year, we would like to approach the subject in a slightly different way. First, we want to consider combined programs (putting together the success of both boys and girls). Second, we're also adding the divisions in which these schools won state titles.

That brings up an interesting question: how does the division in which a school competes affect our opinion of their credentials among the all-time best? There are a LOT of ways to evaluate the possible impacts of school size on long-term program success. For example, you can argue that it's easier for a Division 1 program to catch "lightning in a bottle" and build a super-strong team for a year or two, because of the larger talent pool (or transfers.) By that standard you can say it is easier to win a single D1 title, but harder to have sustained success as other programs try to pick off the favorites. On the other hand, Division 1 has the best programs in the state, which makes it harder to win a title (and I think it's pretty clear that it's harder to sustain success over the long term in Division 1).

I tend to think that it's easier to have sustained success in smaller-school divisions, but we should also consider that, competing against teams with much less depth, it might be easier for a school to get 5 runners together to make a run to the title. Is it harder to get your first title at a small school, where building a program from a small student population can be a barrier? We should certainly consider the difficulty of cultivating depth from a small student population (or the art of keeping your limited number of athletes healthy). There are many variables at play here, and I suspect that knowledgeable cross country fans could debate the impact of school size and divisional competition on the value of state championships for days without resolution.

Let's look at the case for Great Oak being the best overall program in California history, and then on the next page we will look at the other schools that are definitely in consideration!