You’re the leading runner on the Hinsdale Cross Country team, and you’re all alone—not a teammate in sight—amidst dirt trails that crisscross like railroad tracks shooting off in every direction. But you’re not really all alone.
In fact, you’re surrounded by a sea of green—the green singlets of your competitors, the astounding Dukes of York High School. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling.
In fact, it is all too familiar to almost every cross-country runner who faces off against the Dukes of York. Their superiority of numbers is breathtaking, their discipline of mind truly Spartan, and their margins of victory—simply amazing.
For 50 consecutive years, the Dukes of York have unleashed a dominant army onto the cross-country battlefield, an army that leaves other teams quacking with fear. For those same 50 years, Coach Joe Newton has been the general driving that army to victory.
York is but one example of a small and very special group of elite high schools that seem to have discovered the secret to building consistently successful high school athletic teams.
Caramel High School in Indiana has a record streak of 23 consecutive state swimming championship titles in a row, in a state where every school competes in one single division.
Reading Memorial High School in Massachusetts had a dual meet track and field win streak that lasted 29 years. Long Beach Polytechnic High School in California has sent more players to the NFL than any other school in the country, and is nationally lauded year after year for its achievements in athletics.
And Maryland’s Mount Hebron girl’s lacrosse team has won 15 state championships in the last 20 years.
How do they do it? What is the secret to success for these dominant athletics programs? What allows an otherwise ordinary high school in Elmhurst, Illinois, to field the finest cross-country team in the nation year after year?
Is it possible for other high schools to utilize the same formula that has succeeded at places like York and build their own dominant athletic teams?
A number of the dominant sports teams have come from private schools. Blair Academy in New Jersey has won 28 consecutive national prep titles in wrestling. And as mentioned earlier, Mount Hebron’s girls lacrosse program has dominated its competition over the last 20 years, winning 15 state championships.
But there are no secret ingredients to the successful recipe that these high schools have derived. Private schools are able to recruit the top players in each sport, and can consequently manage winning in ways that public schools cannot.
It is therefore easy to understand how they become dominant players.
What I really want to comprehend is how a system which is not explicitly recruiting students is able to achieve the dominance that York and other high school sports dynasties have.
It is not that these schools have stronger, more talented athletes than the rest. It is not that they are drawing people to the school or district simply to participate in the sports programs.
It boils down to three factors—location, coaching, and tradition. Together these differentiate the dominant schools from the rest of the pack.
The least important of these three aspects is location. There are essentially three aspects of location—school size, economic background, and competition. The most basic is school size; does the school have a large number of students to draw to its athletic programs?
A small school system is unlikely to be a dominant player. York has over 2,500 students and Long Beach Poly has almost twice this amount. School size is evident in the team size. York, for instance has over 200 athletes.
The school size allows more students to compete for the athletics program, increasing the possibility of striking it rich and finding athletes that will soon become future stars.
In addition to having a large number of students, the school needs to have competition from neighboring schools.
In Washington, a team from the Greater Spokane League (GSL) has won the state cross-country championships for 21 years in a row. York High School competes in the West Suburban Conference (WSC), which is among the top conferences in the state each year.
In 2008, the WSC sent four schools to the state cross country meet, a meet where only 25 schools in the state compete. The idea that good competition breeds success makes it hard for small isolated rural schools to mount dominant programs, with most of the leading programs coming from urban and suburban regions.
Economics plays into the location aspect as well. At York High School, there is no predisposition to one sport or another. The students are open to try out different sports, even those that do not have potential for professional economics such as football at basketball.
These sports tend to favor lower class areas, where the athletes hope to find a career in the game, while the non-economic sports, sports it is unrealistic to even make a penny from, will tend to fall in the middle/upper middle class communities.
Combine these three factors, and you will find that the majority of sports dynasties lean towards middle/upper class communities in urban and suburban areas.
Another important ingredient in a successful high school athletics program is the coach. While this may seem obvious at first, there are three different ways a coach can create and maintain a successful program.
First and perhaps most importantly is the stability or consistency of a coach. This means retaining the same coach in the same program for a long time. The coach is responsible for creating expectations for his athletes.
At York, 3rd place state finisher Jordan Hebert says: “as a freshman, the upperclassmen really make you respect the program, and so you feel like you must work hard to become a good representative of the program yourself.”
The coach creates these expectations, which soon become instilled in the program forever.
Going hand in hand with expectations is the motivation a coach can provide his athletes so that they want to improve and succeed in the sport. The coach must win the respect of his athletes and be able to encourage them to work hard and stay dedicated.
One unique part of Newton’s coaching philosophy is that he will not give any athlete a uniform to compete in until they have completed a full race without walking.
This motivates them to work hard and feel like they have earned it to such a degree that, as Newton says: “When they graduate and leave the program they will want to take that uniform with them.”
At York, according to Hebert, Newton has “a really unique way of coaching because he will tell you when you are being a jackass, but he'll just as easily tell you when you’re being the best man he could have hoped for. You live for those moments, so when you feel like you’re not living up to your potential and letting him down, you just have to work that much harder.
Everything he says, everyone can uniquely take something different out of it for motivation and inspiration.” Essentially, Newton’s athletes want to work hard because they want him to accept and compliment their performances.
But perhaps the most important part of coaching is the physical aspect, and by this I mean the training regimen that a coach designs. The elite coaches stay true to these training plans year after year, keeping their athletes in better physical shape than their competition.
Noah Lawrence, a cross-country coach from Hinsdale Central High School, and a former York cross-country athlete, believes that the success at York is almost completely linked to the more difficult training of their athletes. He says: “York gets their kids to run 90 to 100 miles a week and this is what makes them great.
Every member of the team is completely dedicated and does not try to split cross-country with other activities.” Not only do they run high mileage, but the workouts themselves are also much more challenging.
York’s program is notorious for its infamous five by mile repeats and 100 times 100 meters on the track.
On my team, when someone asks what the workout is another might reply that we are running the “five by mile.” It is impossible for anyone to say it without a smirk on their face though, knowing that, in reality, our workout will be nothing compared to the hell that Newton puts his athlete’s bodies through every day.
Chris Derrick, the 2007 Illinois Cross Country State Champion and a current fifth place NCAA finisher at Stanford University, summed up the contributions of Coach Joe Newton perfectly. Derrick says: “Newton gets a lot of guys out for the program, motivates them to work hard, puts them through a strenuous training program, and maybe 15 or so of these guys survive and become elite high school runners. In a sport like cross country, this will win you championships year in and year out.”
Right, now into my exploration. I hit a barrier, because there are many schools located in ideal places with coaches who work their athletes hard and are great motivators. So what is the one factor that most schools are missing, the factor that allows some schools to soar while others remain average or even mediocre?
That factor is tradition, and it is something that every winning program must have. Tradition is essentially a combination of the first two factors.
If you have a favorable location and a good coach, you will begin to win, and you will establish a platform of tradition even before you become dominant. This tradition builds off the coach, while at the same time giving him more power.
What these successful schools are able to do is draw lots of students to the programs because of the winning history. At St. Joseph's High School in Missouri, the success of the athletic programs comes from the longevity of the school's coaches, as well as the eagerness of its athletes to join successful teams and maintain their winning attitude.
As Tom Wheatley explains in his article “Successful Schools use Similar Systems”; “success breeds success”.
In other words, once a program has shown it is capable of winning, this winning will continue. Every year, schools like York and St. Joseph's are able to attain and retain the top athletes for their program.
This includes many students who, if attending another school, would have participated in another sport such as football, soccer, or basketball. Every year, Joe Newton talks to the freshmen about joining his cross-country program.
He asks them to try it out for three days and see how they like it. His athletes also go around trying to sign up the newest students, reeling them in by explaining the success the program has had, and telling them that they can be part of the newest championship.
In total, Newton draws between 50 and 100 freshmen each year, far more than any other school in the state, which is why York’s team is far larger than all of its competition.
And in all of these programs, the success at high school level reaches down to the lower levels as well. York has such a history of high school success that the feeder schools have drawn cross-country athletes early, and with tradition you are able to build a feeder system unlike other programs, one that ensures top athletes coming in each year.
Combining these three factors, and you have program that will compete seriously year in and year out.