March 26, 2019 —
The sun was setting as sprinting coach Rick Ellis crouched in the fourth lane shouting encouragement to the boys’ varsity 4×400-meter team as they dashed down to the finish in the last event of the dual meet against Wilcox on March 14. The race would go a long way to determine the meet’s overall winner.
As junior Alex Taylor, the fourth leg Saratoga runner, came down the 100-meter stretch, the team lined the inside of the field, cheering for him to give everything he had in the close race.
Taylor gave his all but tripped as he dove to the finish, falling slightly behind Wilcox’s relay A team and finishing second.
In the end, the team lost to Wilcox with the JV girls team losing 61-57, frosh-soph boys losing 76-52, varsity girls winning 66-59 and varsity boys losing 67-59.
Head coach Archie Ljepava said it was the closest Saratoga High has come to winning a meet against Wilcox in many years, and he praised Taylor for “leaving skin, blood and tears” on the track to score points for the team.
The team won the dual meet against Fremont on March 7 at Saratoga, with varsity boys winning, varsity girls losing and both JV teams winning. They will compete with Cupertino on March 28 and with Homestead on April 2.
The return of a former coach
Ellis, took a six-year hiatus from coaching track and field, looks to the rest of the season with excitement to develop the Saratoga sprinters at the highest level.
His career at Saratoga started in 2001, when Ellis moved from his position as a teacher, football and track coach at Salinas High School to become a social studies teacher at Saratoga High. He then took over the track program because of the unexpected passing of former cross country and track coach Marshall Clark of a heart attack during a run in 2001.
In 2004, he passed the baton to current head coach Archie Ljepava and took a break from coaching track until 2012, when he coached for one season, but stepped down again because of family commitments.
Feeling that he had a little more time and that his kids were getting older, Ellis returned to coach sprints in 2018.
“This year, I was working with my freshmen in our athletic PE class, and we were doing all of our sprints exercises, and I was like, ‘I enjoy doing this. This is fun,’” Ellis said.
The sprints team alone includes roughly forty new faces and running forms for Ellis in his first year back to remember and evaluate — a considerable responsibility, and a work in progress as Ellis is “just trying to get to know their names, much less how they sprint.”
So far, Ellis has affected his values for form and technique using drills and weight room workouts that are familiar to some students who were in the seventh-period athletic PE class— an approach that is much different from last years.
“Last year we put a lot of work in overall; we tried to work ppl into running right,” Ljepava said. “It fared well in the end, but [Ellis’s technique] is a better fit this year since he’s teaching the younger kids the right running mechanics. The key is teaching the proper running mechanics and then workload, instead of just workload.”
Athletes have noticed the new structure of workouts in practice, and the emphasis on form.
“I like [the new workouts] because it makes track seem more serious because we have done a lot of intense workouts this year, and they have made us better as a team and everyone is in good shape,” girls’ sprinting captain Sasha Pickard said.
Ellis believes that to shape a successful athlete and successful future for the team, the team will place a higher priority on weight lifting because of its considerable effect on explosivity for 100 and 200-meter sprints.
“In order to maximize the start you have to be explosive and powerful,” Ellis said. To compare two people starting at an identical level of athleticism, Ellis said that “if one strength-trained, and the other didn’t, the first would be better — stronger, more explosive, more powerful. It’s just a fact.”
An ideal situation for him would be to create a seventh period for track athletes similar to the workout schedule that the football team uses throughout the year in which the team could practice weight-lifting and conditioning during the fall season, so they could “hit the ground running on day one.”
During the regular season, runners are placed in dual meet races strategically to gain points as many for the team, with strong sprinters often running up to four different events.
The latter part of the season, however, requires a different approach, where each athlete must specialize in their stronger events to qualify for a position in meets such as the El Camino league trials, the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League meet (SCVAL), and CCS.
In preparation for these meets, Ellis plans to decrease the volume of workouts in favor of higher intensity drills.
“I couldn’t make a student’s time drop significantly, but I could drop a 15 second 100 meter to a 14.5 or 14.2 just by getting more explosive and being aware the body is working,” Ellis said. “Once you get into the groove of [the workouts], you become like a well-oiled machine and you know exactly what you’re doing and everything is working in unison.”
The coaches believe that athletes will fare well if they trust progress of the training, come to practice with positive attitudes, and persevere through the season.
“People still mess around and I bark a little at times. But generally, kids want to be here and nobody is forcing them to,” Ellis said. “They might be here for different reasons, but [usually] it’s because they want to be here, and that makes it fun.”