ALAMEDA -- After placing third in the California Interscholastic Federation state cross country championship meet last year, the St. Joseph Notre Dame High School boys set out to win the event this year.
Having prepared well with months of practice, the Pilots rose to the occasion, overcame adversity and went on to win the Tri-County Athletic League and North Coast Section titles. On Nov. 24, the Pilots completed their mission by edging Southern Section power Flintridge Prep-La Cañada Flintridge, 86-87, for the CIF Division V boys state title at Fresno's Woodward Park.
St. Joseph's celebration continued Dec. 11 at a meeting of the Alameda City Council, which issued a proclamation in recognition of "St. Joseph Notre Dame High School Cross Country Team Day."
Coach Tony Fong and his runners stood before the front of the council chamber as Mayor Marie Gilmore read the proclamation as a gathering of SJND parents and faculty looked on. "It's been a roller coaster ride these past three or four weeks, but I couldn't ask for anything more from these young men," Fong said.
The state title was the first for the Pilots as a team in cross country.
Overall, the Pilots had persevered through a long campaign, one as demanding and difficult as it was exhilarating and rewarding; most especially for Fong, whose wife, Denise, died Nov. 13 after a battle with breast cancer at 51.
Team members and their families rallied around the coach as the NCS and state meets followed in the days after Denise Fong's death. The Pilots took to wearing pink bracelets in Denise Fong's memory that said "Denise" on one side and "Stay Strong" on the other.
"The boys took a lot of motivation and a lot of inner strength and dedicated the season to me and my wife," Fong said. "After winning the state championship, they said to me, 'That was for you and your wife.'"
Denise Fong's illness and ultimately, her death, further unified what already was a close-knit group. "It's been a long road," Fong said, "with 25 weeks of training -- 10 over the summer and 15 during the season. This is a dream come true. I'm so proud of this team."
St. Joseph's 2011-12 school year ended May 24. Shortly afterward, on June 1, the Pilots' road to the state championship began in earnest. And the team's dedication grabbed the attention of all involved.
"They ran all summer," said Gene LaFollette, whose son, James, was one of three Pilots seniors. "They ran up at Tahoe, they ran every Saturday and Sunday, they ran and ran, not just in Alameda, but at Joaquin Miller Park; and they also went down to Garin Park (in Hayward). "They're just an amazing group of guys who ran together. I call them the band of brothers -- with parents who bonded together, too."
And Fong, in his 19th season as SJND coach and a respected veteran runner in his own right, provides much inspiration year after year.
"I told a lot of the parents that I would retire after this -- but that's not true; I'll be back next year," he said, generating applause from the gathering.