Maria Carillo cross country coach Greg Fogg, right, is pictured with senior Pierce Kapustka. Fogg's boys team has won seven consecutive league titles with a long-range eye on a shot at history come the CIF-State Championships in late November. (Credit: John Page)
SANTA ROSA -- It's a late Tuesday afternoon in early September at Maria Carrillo High School, and the sun is beginning to set on the Rincon Valley hillside that the campus backs up to. Cross country head coach Greg Fogg is speaking to his boys varsity team about sports psychology.
Fogg is the pastor and he's in the middle of delivering a sermon -- his team, acting as a quasi-congregation, are sitting down on the ground in a circle.
Today's message is about mental strength and performance at the highest level. Terms like "beast mode," a metaphor used to describe an athlete's unstoppable form, are used. Fogg wants his team to be able to flick on that mode and stay in that zone once that gun goes off come race time. Because, as Fogg emphasizes, the running becomes intuitive and fluid once you're in that zone.
His tone is serious, and so is his preparation -- his speaking notes fill up an entire page. Fogg is able to keep the atmosphere light though with some well-placed humor, and throws in a reference from the movie Secret Life of Pets 2 near the end of his speech .
"The first step of not being afraid is to act like you're not afraid," Fogg preaches to the team. "Then eventually you'll convince yourself that I can do this. And it is a rehearsal."
The team heads off for their one-mile warm-up. There is a special guest for the evening -- Andre Williams, the 2018 California Division V cross country state champion who attended high school at nearby Sonoma Academy. Williams will be helping with pacing duties. The workout is a four-mile tempo run on the track, with decreases in time coming every mile.
There's a clear-cut top three (seniors Colton Swinth, Pierce Kapustka and Rory Smail) who lead the Maria Carillo boys varsity squad, which came in at No. 11 on MileSplit California's top 100 ranked teams for 5K. Fogg refers to this trio as "C-P-R," and it's this group that will be the deciding factors into the team's postseason success.
With the Woodbridge Cross Country Classic coming up on Sept. 20-21, the nighttime setting is ideal. The Pumas are one of the teams in the sweepstake races, which are slated to begin after 8:30 p.m. Fogg is preparing for his team to be ready to race in the dark.
At 8:09 p.m., the Pumas begin their tempo run. The lights surrounding the track are deliberately turned off -- Fogg says that running in the dark is a little bit easier because your brain can't really process the distance in front of you. With Williams in the front pack alongside the trio of Swinth, Kapustka and Smail, the group rattles off splits of 5:30, 5:16, 5:15 and 5:04.
Swinth, Kaputska and Smail are all aiming for the same goal at Woodbridge: To run in the 14:30's. And Fogg thinks they can do it. For reference, last year at Woodbridge, Kaputska ran 14:52, Swinth ran 14:53, and Smail ran 14:58.
Rounding out the current Pumas "A" squad are seniors Owen Pugh, Elijah Ettedgui and Omar Alavarez and sophomore Oswaldo Rodriguez. Each own PRs of 4:42 or faster in the mile, and all of them have run sub-10 in the two-mile. From top to bottom, the talent is clearly there. But the talent extends deeper -- and younger. Jacob Donohue and Noe Vierya are two of three sophomores on the team who have also run sub-10 in the two-mile.
That collection of talent is a testament to Fogg and the program he has built. Starting out as an assistant under former coach Danny Alridge, Fogg has crafted Maria Carrillo into one of the more respectable teams in all of the North Coast Section.
"He (Fogg) knows what he's talking about," Kaputska said. "He's been there before. We can trust his word. He's not afraid to make you hurt in a race. He's not afraid to tell you that you screwed up, or that you did really well. I like that straightforwardness. And he's definitely straightforward, because he has a big team and needs to get onto the next person."
The team has thoroughly dominated the local running scene under Fogg, capturing the last seven consecutive North Bay League cross country championships on the boys side.
This year carries more weight to it. The Pumas are stacked. Assistant coach Russ Pugh said this year's squad is one of the best he has seen during his time at Maria Carrillo. No team from the NCS-Redwood Empire has ever won the Division III state championship on the boys side. Quite literally, a chance at history is at stake. Don't tell that to Fogg though -- he wants his team's focus right now to be on the day-to-day. But, internally on the team, the chatter is definitely there.
"Every day," Kaputska said. "Every day we talk about State and what it means to us, and how badly we want to win, how much we're willing to work to win."
Following the tempo workout are four sets of 300m strides. The clock is past 9 p.m. and it's nearly pitch-black. A subtle breeze has rolled in, and all you can hear is the pounding of spikes hitting the track.
It's the sound of the Pumas hard at work, inching toward their goal of a championship.
Inserted photos by Logan Stanley