By PETE SIMONCINI
Over the years when Oakdaleans have discussed consistent, year-to-year, success in Mustang sports, certain teams have readily come to mind. For example, the Mustang wrestling, football, softball, golf, and girls’ track and field programs, among others, are perennial high performers if not champions of the Valley Oak League. Now it is safe to add into that amazing mix cross country and distance running in track and field, where Mustang teams have achieved unprecedented success in the past two years, including the boys’ cross-country team winning the California state Division III championship this past November and distance runners carrying a great deal of the load for both the VOL champion boys’ and girls’ track and field teams this spring.
Certainly, one of the keys to successful athletic programs is good coaching and the cross country and distance programs are no exception. For the past 14 years, Guy Fowler has been at the helm of both groups of athletes and about six years ago welcomed teaching colleague Vic Moreno as his co-coach. The Fowler-Moreno team has achieved levels of success that already border on the legendary. Fowler, a high school and college track standout during his student days, began coaching at the College of the Sequoias in south-central California before becoming the head coach at his alma mater, Tulare Union High School. Moreno, known regionally for his prowess in cross country, wrestling and track and field at Escalon High School (he finished fifth in the state cross country finals in his senior year), started his coaching career in wrestling at Stanford University before being hired as a physical education teacher at Oakdale High School, where he first was an assistant wrestling coach. At the request of his wife because of time requirements in coaching wrestling, Moreno moved to cross country and track and field coaching duties. He concedes: “I never had coached running but had extensive experience in running. I know what it takes and when I had a chance to implement what I know, it worked out.”
Fowler, who complements his coaching duties by being the OHS Leadership and a Resource/Special Education teacher, was happy to welcome Moreno.
“When Vic came on board, we could diversify the things we were doing,” noted Fowler. “I turned the training over to Vic and he lets me do all the paperwork. Now we are in sync and (our program) is like a purring engine.”
Some of the components of that purring engine have included Kassidy Fmura, headed on a track and cross country scholarship to California State University, Stanislaus next year, finishing second in the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters’ cross country meet this past fall, the girls’ cross country team winning their fifth consecutive league title last fall complemented by the boys winning their first championship since 1973, the boys’ cross country team winning Sac-Joaquin Section championships in both 2021 and 2022 with the girls’ team finishing second in the section in 2021, and, the boys, as Fowler calls it, “Winning the crème-de-le-crème” to culminate the 2022 cross country season. Regarding track and field, distance runners have had a monster season in both boys’ and girls’ track and field, including sweeping the first four places in the varsity boys’ 1,600-meters and the first five places in the varsity boys’ 3,200-meters at the recent VOL Championship Meet.
Moreno puts such success into perspective: “All the success we’ve had would not have happened if these kids had not bought into true distance running, putting in the mileage; putting in the time on the road. Most kids cannot even fathom what they do. Kids in other cross-country programs we compete against run 20-30 miles a week. We’re running 30, 40, 50; our top guys are running 60 miles a week. That’s just what it takes and there’s no way around it.”
The running program has certainly come a long way in the past 14 years.
“When I took over the head cross country coaching job, I inherited a program that had maybe a total of 10 runners,” said Fowler. “Just getting bodies out to compete drew attention to the program and that eventually gets you the more quality athletes. (Oakdale) was not a running town – we’ve changed the culture.”
Moreno agreed: “This is a town of zero running pedigree and what we have accomplished from scratch is unprecedented.”
When asked when they definitively noted a culture change, Moreno said, “Once the boys won the section (cross country) championship in 2021 and then finished fourth in the state, our kids knew, ‘Hey! We’re good. We have a chance.’ Then once we knew Omar Alsaidi was coming (transfer from Ripon), we knew for sure. All we had to do was train right,” to which Fowler added, “And stay healthy.”
Moreno continued, “We believed that at the state meet we only needed a solid race – not a spectacular race – and no one could touch us.” Moreno went on to explain that team health did become a factor last summer when talented junior Mason Oliveira (part of an outstanding tandem with his twin brother Jackson) was injured in a freak accident. With Oliveira unable to train early in the season, the coaches looked to sophomore Jacob Cavanaugh, whose senior brother Caleb has been a mainstay of the program for the past three years. “We had to get Jacob going,” said Moreno, “And he was really the key to us winning that title. Without his improvement, it would not have happened.”
When asked, Moreno conceded that “The girls paved the way for the boys. Kayden (Legan) and Haleigh (Humble) (now both attending California State University, Stanislaus) were here before (boys’ team stars) Dax (Daley) and Caleb (Cavanaugh). They had success and the boys saw that and felt they too could be successful.”
Fowler stressed the fact that “We are in a long-standing program. Every day, every month has meaning to us. Even in the summertime, these kids are not going to get a lot of time off.” Fowler continued noting that even on family vacations, the team members will have assignments to do while they are on vacation.
“This is a long, drawn-out process,” said Fowler. “Once the track season is over, we are back to the basics, building up mileage over the summer. Then we’ll focus on the season coming ahead.”
Fowler and Moreno both say that an enormous amount of the credit for the success of Oakdale High School distance running must be attributed to the athletes themselves. “This group of kids has bonded together like a family,” said Fowler. “They are like brothers and sisters. They are a handful, but when it comes to race time, they are out there for each other. They are more of a family (than a team) and I get more of a thrill out of that than anything else.”
When asked what the coaches did to cultivate such an internal relationship, Fowler said, “It’s a combination of us and them. They do things on their own together. They run together on weekends; they eat lunch together; they go places together.” Moreno noted that a residual effect of the family aspect of the team is that Mustang distance running has become more popular.
“We have highlighted this program. We have highlighted Oakdale – we have put us on the map. Kids are starting to want to come here from outside the area (to run). We are becoming the go-to place.”
Looking to the future, Moreno gives a lot of credit to the current team members, boys and girls. “This generation of kids has laid the foundation for the future. My goal moving forward is, even if we don’t get the most talented kids year-in, year-out, we can develop the athletes so the team can always be in the mix. I’m hoping that at the section championship every year, we are always in the conversation.”
Moreno added, “A message to parents: if your kids have any ability to run whatsoever and they are sitting on the bench in another sport, have them try (distance running). It doesn’t matter how fast a kid is. They will be given the opportunity to step on the line and do the best they can do and reach their milestones. And for them, getting the goal time they have been working toward for six months is a moment in their lives they will remember all their lives and it will change their lives forever.”
Fowler added, “Running is part of almost every sport, so if you are not doing something in the fall, come out for cross country. Our sport conditions you for other sports. Secondly, if parents are interested in having their high school age children run with the cross-country team over the summer, just shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.”
In 1959, Alan Sillitoe published a short story entitled, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, which was made into a 1962 commercial film of the same title directed by Tony Richardson. The title certainly does not put distance running in the brightest light, but as Guy Fowler, Vic Moreno and the athletes in their charge can attest, at Oakdale High School in the past few years, distance running has been anything but lonely. It has also been a conduit to success; success at almost dynastic proportions. The foundation has certainly been laid to keep Mustang cross country and distance running in conversations about individual and team athletic success for many years to come.