PROFILE The Walt Lange Legacy: 50 Years of Excellence

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Long. Hard. Skeptical.

This was the stare Walt Lange gave a young Matt Strangio when he showed up to an 8th grade open house at Jesuit High School back in 2016. 

Strangio already had a famous last name -- his dad Steve Strangio had a successful high school running career before becoming an All-American at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Lange already had become a legend at Jesuit, leading his all-boys school squad to a slough of team and individual titles at all championship levels, including nine CIF-State Cross Country titles, and 19 top-five finishes since 1988. 

"I had been running middle school track, but at the time was still more of a soccer player," said Strangio. "His style of coaching made me fall in love with the sport and I ended up quitting soccer."

Before Strangio walked onto his team, Lange already knew what a California State champion looked like. He'd coached six of them at Jesuit. 

"Walt could be a professional coach, he could be coaching post-collegiate athletes at a professional level," said longtime Jesuit assistant coach David Zielke. "He has an encyclopedic mind. He can describe in amazing detail a race that took place in the 1960s. He's just full of strategies."

The first State cross-country title at Jesuit was won in 1989 at just the third occurrence of the CIF-State Cross Country Championships. But it was in 1986 at the State Track & Field Championships that Jesuit's own Mastelir twins did the unthinkable -- winning twin CIF State titles -- Mark in the 1600m and Eric in the 3200m. 

Jesuit was on the map.

The Mastelir twins continued to have success even beyond high school and Lange notes coaching them as a highlight in his career.

Lange began coaching at St. Bernard High School in the Los Angeles area in 1964. He taught and coached there for three years before moving north to Sacramento. 

"It was terrific at St. Bernard, we were a little over a mile away from the beach and did a lot of beach running," said Lange. "It was great to get the kids out in that environment."

Lange was hired at Jesuit in 1970 as a teacher and coach, and took over the Jesuit cross-country program as head coach in 1971. He became the head track coach from the late 1970s to 1993, before stepping back to focus on coaching the distance group which he still does to this day. 

"The important thing is making sure that the athletes have a positive experience," said Lange. "We encourage our athletes for what they are doing rather than chastising them for what they're not doing." 

This mindset is one piece of the puzzle that saw Lange winning those nine State Division II cross country titles with Jesuit between 1989 and 2006, and four top-five finishes in D-I since 2015.

Is another top-five finish in the cards for Coach Lange's Marauders on Saturday at the 2022 CIF-State Cross Country Championships? Jesuit comes in off a sub-par performance at the Sac-Joaquin Section Championships, placing second while missing a key scorer to illness. But peaking at full health? Don't count them out.

"We typically do best in the big race situations and a lot of that is due to Walt's preparation and knowledge of the sport, strategizing and knowing what the athlete is capable of," said Zielke. "It's getting them to believe they can be that good, or so and so is better than he thinks he is."

And that's just at the state level. 

Jesuit's success at the section and league championship level is mind-boggling. They've won 29 Sac-Joaquin Section titles in both Division 1 and 2 and 46 -- yes, 46 -- league championship titles. That's 46 titles and 92 percent of Lange's 51-year tenure. 

"So much of our success as a team is developing those 5, 6, 7, 8 runners," said Zielke. "When you're running up front it's only a difference of a few points, but with your fifth man that could be 50 or 60 points. So we spend a lot of time working with kids in the middle and watching them step up is great." 

What's Jesuit's magic formula?

"It's truly an intangible gift Walt has," said Zielke. "Getting kids to believe they can run faster than they think they can run, that's the formula." 

Success to Lange though, is not just about titles.

"It really depends on how you choose to define success -- it has to be a positive experience for the athletes," said Lange.  "Coaches become mentors of young athletes in all aspects of their lives without even realizing it. Having it be positive and realize that the athlete has more things going on than being a runner and all sorts of things that take their attention. 

It's also the runners who continue to choose running without medals versus only those who were successful that catch Lange's admiration. 

"I have a runner who's a freshman in college now whose times were mediocre, but he loves running," said Lange. "I follow him on Strava. He's running while he's going to school, he wasn't in our top seven or even our top 15, but he's carrying on into college (and) it's going to be a life thing for him." 

Lange's own coaching awards and accolades are too many to list. His most recent award is the USATF Pacific Association's Legacy Coaches Award, which he received in 2013. He's been inducted into the Sacramento Meet of Champions Hall of Fame, the Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame and the Mt. SAC Cross Country Invitational Hall of Fame -- just to name a few. 

"The other aspect of Walt that I admire as an assistant is his willingness to always learn, he's always talking to former athletes getting good results," said Zielke. "Walt's constantly quizzing them and one of his nicknames is 'Guru' because of his vast knowledge and he's still a student of the sport even though he's 80 years old now."

Perhaps one of the most famous Jesuit State titles was won in the 1600m by then-junior Michael Stember in 1995 in a wildly unexpected come-from-behind win. Old tape of the race is a Youtube sensation -- a mashup video made of the footage entitled "Godspeed" has generated over 25.5 million views on the social site. 

"That's where Walt's coaching expertise comes in," says Zielke. "Stember ran a 4:04 1600m, and a 1:56 for the last 800m." 

Zielke recalls sitting in the hotel room as Lange went over three different strategies with Stember and himself for how to handle the race. 

"It was decided then and there that if the pace went out too slow in the first 800, he should pull a Steve Prefontaine at 700-600 meters and run for broke," said Zielke. "We were confident that Michael could win if it went slow like a 2:08 -- and I think Walt and I were the only people who didn't laugh when he took off at 700m."

Stember's win was definitely one of the more memorable moments in his career, although he also enjoyed watching him develop over the years as an athlete, said Lange.

The video's description declares Stember's win as the beginning of a high school distance revolution, stating that "after two decades of mediocrity, U.S. high school runners will see that in order to be great you need to do great things."  

Stember went on to make the U.S. Olympic team in the 1500m in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. 

And then there's the most recent Jesuit star, Strangio (at left above)

Not far from being the skinny 8th grader Lange stared at skeptically in 2016, Strangio won the State 3200m title his sophomore year. He then won back-to-back SJS and Division I State cross-country titles his junior and senior years, leading a Jesuit squad that would finish in the top five at State both years.

"Walt did a really good job of getting us the tools to succeed -- not burning us out mentally which I really appreciate now as a NCAA runner seeing some of my college teammates burning out faster," said Strangio. "He was always making sure we were enjoying the sport."

Strangio returned his junior year to win the 1600m title at State and podium in the 3200m in third for an impressive double. 

"I was nervous and called Coach Lange at 4 a.m. to talk about the race. Lange having already coached guys like Stember and the (Mastelir) twins and having anecdotes about those guys really helped in setting it up," said Strangio. "Not only did it make me want to be that caliber runner -- but it taught me to be ready for anything." 

His senior year would have allowed him to go after another title, but like many athletes his track season was scuttled by the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Strangio now runs for the University of Portland. 

"For me and a lot of the other varsity guys (Lange) is like a grandpa for us, so whenever we're in town my team of guys will get breakfast with Coach Lange" said Strangio. "He's someone that's greatly impacted all of us and made a lot of Jesuit alumni who they really are, and it's something I'll appreciate the rest of my life and he's just a positive influence in so many young runners' lives." 

Walt Lange's Top Tips

Advertise the sport: "You have to advertise the sport because so many kids are clueless about the sport -- one kid thought cross-country was cross-country skiing and then came out and did very well for us. You have to sell the sport in all sorts of ways."

Be a student of the sport: "Keep on top of what's going on and test training methods to see what kind of effect they might have. Be open to a change in the training system."

Keep training logs: "I'm a huge believer in Strava or some other form of recording -- back in the day we kept training logs with little tiny pencils and notebooks. We require our runners to have watches and record everything. It helps set goals." 

Stay informed: "Coaches need to become informed with not only what's going on at the high school level, but college, national, world. What would make the task more interesting to athletes, what will motivate runners more?"

Melody Karpinski is the coach at Montgomery HS (NC) and a regular contributor to MileSplit

California MileSplit State Editor Jeffrey Parenti contributed to this article.