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This is the latest in a series of articles looking back at the 1987 CIF-State Cross Country Championships, the first in California.
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The state meet made the 1987 season different for every team and individual that competed at Woodward Park, especially the title winners. For the D2 champion Walnut boys, though, family made that year even more magical - family both literal and figurative. Coach Jim Polite's son Coby was a senior on the 1987 Mustang squad, adding an element of closeness that was mirrored in the overall team chemistry. Simply put, the 1987 Walnut team was special.
Confidence Navigating a Challenging Path
From the outside, getting to the 1987 state meet looked like an uphill battle for the Mustangs. In their favor: they had won the Southern Section 2-A title in 1986, Scott Hempel was developing into a star, and the team had strong depth in their pack. Despite that, the '87 regular season brought a series of defeats to other CIF-SS powers like nearby rival Arroyo, Palos Verdes, Upland, and Corona Del Mar. At the Mt. SAC Invitational, for example, Walnut finished 6th.
Coby Polite says, "Mt. SAC was never going to be a good race for us, based on where we were in our training. [Dad] was getting a little worried after that meet, but it didn't bother us. It didn't faze us that those teams beat us by a little bit. We were like, we're still going to state, and we're going to win. The whole season, we were looking at state. We were looking to win. What did shock us was the CIF race, because it was so close."
One obstacle in Walnut's path was the Southern Section's division structure. The Mustangs would not face either Arroyo or Corona Del Mar in the CIF-SS finals, but instead would have to take on a surging Agoura squad with their own star upfront, Bryan Dameworth. The outcome was in doubt all the way up to the announcement of the official results, with the Mustangs squeaking by the Chargers by a measly 2 points to secure their place at the state meet despite a sick top 5 runner. Had Walnut lost that race, they might have been knocked out of the state meet entirely - only the division winner was guaranteed to advance, with other teams moving on based on total team time.
One of the keys to the victory was Hempel's defeat of Dameworth, which might have been a nerve-wracking assignment for many runners. "Scott was oblivious to just about everybody," says Coby. "He was a fierce competitor and he would bust a gut, but he didn't really worry - he was too cool for that." That calm, confident approach trickled down to the team, helping just as much as the two-point swing in the team scoring.
Only one negative came out of the CIF-SS finals for Walnut: Corona Del Mar posted a faster total time, establishing themselves as the favorites for the D2 championship 2 weeks later.
Executing the Plan
In interviews after the first state meet, Jim Polite talked about the team's strategy for the race: get out fast in the first mile, get in position in the second mile, and then use the energy of the crowd to pull through the third mile. "He would take us through where each of us needed to be in the race. We all had that person that we had to beat. We did what he told us to do," says Coby. The team also worked all season on a 300 meter kick to the finish, which was specifically with an eye on the state championship.
Watching the D1 race helped Walnut's confidence. Seeing Arroyo win the team title reinforced to the Mustangs that they were also a championship caliber team, as they had been back and forth with their rivals over the last two seasons. In addition, Dameworth won the D1 race, giving Hempel additional assurance that he could bring home an individual title.
The team ran exceptionaly well in the D2 race, bringing it all together with their best effort of the fall. After a season of frustrating losses and a nail-biting win in the previous meet, Walnut took the state title by 21 points, posting the 2nd-fastest total time of the day (behind only Arroyo). Hempel won, with Coby finishing 8th overall. Based on the score, it's hard to envision Walnut as the underdog entering the race - the team ran like favorites because they thought of themselves as favorites, allowing them to stay laser focused. Coby says, "We didn't even think about anyone else at the state meet. It was us and Corona Del Mar, and that was all we were focused on. It could have been a duel meet between us - that was the way it felt in our minds. I honestly don't remember anyone but CDM in that race."
Family and Great Timing
Something beyond winning made Walnut's 1987 even more magical: family. Cross country teams often talk about being families, but for Walnut that was literal. What better way for Coby Polite to end his cross country career than to share the first ever team championship with his father?
Looking back on it now, Coby doesn't recall a big emphasis on the father-son aspect of the team. "As a son, it was just 'make him proud.' I don't know if I thought too much about it, honestly. We were so focused on the state meet, and it worked out. I wasn't crying in the corner about my last season running for Dad.
"With 3 seniors and the Hempels being juniors, it was going to be a special year for all of us. We were lucky because we had such a big range of guys - a socialite party guy, a Jim Morrison type of guy that was into his poetry - but we all got along. We ate lunch together every day. We had a bond."
Coby Polite is now the coach at Don Lugo High School, and he remembers a very simple legacy that his father left him:
Always be humble. No matter how good your kids are doing, always be humble, and always be nice to the other team. You're friends with the other team.
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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? Please share your memories of that meet and that experience. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.