Remembering 1987: Drossin, Agoura Overcome Uncertainty

The photos from 1987 are weathered and faded but history is forever crystal clear in that the first six California Interscholastic Federation State Cross Country individual division champions are (l-r) Bryan Dameworth (Agoura, Division I), Scott Hemple (Walnut, D-II), Reggie Williams (River City, D-III), Katy McCandless (Castilleja, D-III), Kira Jorgensen (Rancho Buena Vista, D-II) and Deena Drossin (Agoura, D-I). (Photos by Keith Conning courtesy of Hank Lawson)

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This is the next installment in a series of articles looking back at the 1987 CIF-State Cross Country Championships, the first in California.

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Building a championship cross country team is never easy. There are so many variables: training, injuries, illnesses, and team chemistry can all make or break a team before the competition even arrives. Imagine what it must have been like in 1987 as schools charted their paths to the first ever state meet! Every squad faced significant uncertainty, from the extra week of the season to new courses and opponents. For the Agoura girls, who would go on to finish second in Division I behind an individual championship run from Deena Drossin (now Kastor), the uncertainty was amplified by another factor: inexperience.

Crash Course In Team Building

Most of the powerhouse Southern Section girls teams that competed for the first ever California state titles had a decade of tradition already built up. CIF-SS girls competition began in 1976, so when Palos Verdes toed the line at Woodward Park in 1987, they already had four section titles under their collective belt (including three in a row). That kind of experience breeds leadership, setting the tone for the younger runners.

The 1987 Agoura team, in contrast, was composed largely of freshmen. Some of them (mostly notably Kastor) had experience in national youth competition through the Las Virgines Track Club, but most of the top 7 had never run a high school cross country race. Coach Bill Duley had to face the double challenge of training the team for a different schedule while also bringing the young group together.

Luckily, he had help. According to Duley, "Deena was a leader in many ways, especially with her work ethic and competitive spirit. But she also brought a bunch of friends with her to join the team, which put us in position to compete right away." 

Duley also credits Tiffany York (now Napierala) as being the glue that held the Chargers together that year and for the next three. "I can remember a particular workout, a hill circuit we occasionally ran, and one of the girls began to fall off the lead group. Tiff dropped back, took her by the hand, and pulled her back up with the rest of the team. She just had a special quality about her that drew the girls together."

For Kastor, the clearest memories of that year (and the three that followed it) are small but enduring aspects of the team culture she helped develop:

We had matching blue and gold ribbons -- Agoura Charger colors -- for our hair on race day! We made friendship pins to fasten to our shoes. We drove together in vans and mooned cars as we passed and shot corn pops out of our noses simultaneously to shock other drivers or passengers. Kids those days! We chanted "Gooooooooo Chargers!" on the starting line and hugged each other. It was all fun and very close knit until the gun fired. Then, we fought our hardest for each other. Our camaraderie really set the tone for my sporting philosophy, and that although running seems an individual sport, it is very much a team game. Teammates hold you accountable, inspire you to rise to the occasion and make you feel like there is more reason to fight to the finish.

Training For (and through) The Unknown

Even in 1987, just getting to the State Meet healthy was a serious accomplishment for any Southern Section team. Duley's plan from the beginning was to peak for the State Meet rather than the section final, but there were far too many unknowns to prepare for all the scenarios. 

Adding the state championship meant adjusting to new competition, and not just teams from other parts of the state. The Southern Section had a completely different set of divisions than State, which meant that Agoura did not face one of the primary challengers for the D-1 title at Mt. SAC. Duley says, "We didn't focus on Palos Verdes that much. Maybe that was a mistake on my part, but our rival was Hesperia, and we were focused on beating them at both CIF and State." The race was very close, with the Chargers holding on to win in 2-A by a score of 53-60 behind Kastor's individual title, claiming what would be the first of seven straight CIF-SS team championships for Agoura. Meanwhile, Palos Verdes cruised to the 4-A title, 36-118 over Santa Ana Valley.

In addition to the challenge of competing on a relatively unfamiliar course, traveling to Fresno in late November brought one final unknown to overcome: drastically different weather. In Duley's words, "We got to experience winter conditions for us, and it was pretty neat to have temperatures that were actually good for cross country." Napierala remembers much the same: "We always came prepared for chilly weather and possibilities of mud and rain of November."

Kastor's experiences traveling all over the country in youth competition helped her feel comfortable, and she seemed to be in command from the gun. Running with confidence and poise, Deena pulled away for an 8-second win over Reyna Cervantes, missing out on the top time of the day by one second (Kira Jorgensen ran 17:34 to win D-II).

Agoura executed Duley's plan, with Deena taking the lead while the rest of the team packed up, pushing hard in the final mile. The result was a 21-point defeat of Hesperia, despite the Scorpions' three runners in the top 10 overall. "This race, more than any other, highlighted the importance of the team," says Napierala. "With the best teams from the State competing together and the margins so close, all 7 team members played such an important role. The teams that were united and committed to each other were the ones that would rise up and finish strong."

As it turned out, though, Agoura and Hesperia were battling for second. "Maybe Hesperia wore us out the previous week, or maybe Palos Verdes was just that good. They ran a tremendous race, so you have to give them all the credit," Duley says now. The Sea Kings scored 70, also 21 points ahead of Agoura.

It took three more years for the Chargers to finally stand on the top step of the podium at Woodward Park, but that first State Meet (and the path to get there) still resonates deeply with Duley, Kastor, and Napeirala, who articulates the depth of those feelings:

Looking back now at our young 1987 Agoura High Cross Country team, I can appreciate how it was the start of a unique team culture that carried on to 1990 to eventually win the State Meet. The culture was a simple one: our team always showed up, trusted our coach, worked hard, had fun, and laughed a lot. We had complete confidence in Bill and never questioned his training. Under his guidance and direction, we knew how to get the job done by doing our best one workout at a time. In a sport like cross-country where pushing through pain and discomfort is paramount to your success, our united fun-loving team built a culture with the ultimate goal to be the best. We were out to work hard for each other and if anyone had a bad day, we'd lift them up. Bill never had to force this unity that was starting to develop. It organically grew through hard work, long miles, and light-hearted fun. He coached with firmness and a clear vision but never overstepped into our group culture. As with any group, we encountered struggles and bumps along the way, but we always figured it out and ultimately grew stronger as a unit because of them. I look back at some grueling workouts like our Piuma Hill Run where we ran 3 miles up Piuma Road, squeezed into a VW van to be brought down, just to run back up! We trusted our coach and our teammates, had fun, worked hard, and most importantly loved our sport. Our hard training days were always followed with easy run days where we would laugh explore and return telling stories about some adventure we'd encountered. Bill's style of coaching encouraged us to work hard when work was to be done but also allowed us the freedom to play and have fun.

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Share your memories of the 1987 State Meet

Were you an athlete, coach, organizer who took part in the first CIF-State Cross Country Championships in 1987? We'd love to share your memories of that meet and that experience. Feel free to email