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Host Bob Gibson interviews coaches and players throughout the various Catholic high schools in Orange County. His Twitter handle is: @catholicsv

Today’s guests are:

  • Marty Dugard (head cross country coach at J Serra Catholic High School);
  • Troy Thomas (head football coach at Servite High School)





Originally broadcast on 12/7/19


Sean Byrne was certain he was going to play lacrosse in high school. But that was before he figured out he was meant to be a runner.

“Over the summer (before beginning high school), I did a running camp, and I started to fall in love with running,” says Byrne. “I decided to do cross country that fall. I got hurt after my first race, but that made me want to pursue it even more. And then I never looked back.”



Dealing with a season-ending injury after his first cross country race as a freshman wasn’t how the Santa Margarita Catholic High School junior wanted to begin his high school running career. But he didn’t let the roadblock slow him down.

“It was a major setback that kind of confused me,” says Byrne. “I kind of just had to keep faith, taking it day by day, listening to my coaches, giving it everything I had at practice, even though I was injured.”

Byrne hasn’t skipped a beat, even after his rough start.

“I love the fact that every day…I can go out there and get stronger and get faster,” says Byrne. “Right now, there’s really no limit to…how far I can push myself. That’s what’s intrigued me to stay with the sport.”

In addition to running cross-country for the Eagles, the 17-year-old specializes in distance races each spring, running the 800 meter, 1600 meter and 3200 meter events with the school’s track team. Byrne’s favorite race by far is the 1600 meter.

“It’s the perfect mix of speed, endurance and strategy that’s really intrigued me,” says Byrne. “I have so much fun running it.”

Byrne’s approach to training and dealing with challenges has made an impact on his team and his coaches.

“Sean is one of those special student athletes that coaches and teachers love having on their team or in their classroom,” says Santa Margarita head cross country coach, Gil Garcia. “He’s a great example and role model for his teammates and is a major factor in the team’s success.”

The Laguna Niguel resident is a recent National Honor Society inductee, and serves his community through Lion’s Heart, a non-profit volunteer organization. He plans to pursue running in college while obtaining a business degree, recognizing all he’s learned from his experiences thus far.

“I’ve attributed most of my growing that I’ve done in high school to running,” says Byrne. “I don’t know how far running will take me…but I will always want running to be part of my life.”

Byrne draws inspiration from many, including his parents, grandparents, coaches and professional athletes, such as Dustin Pedroia and Robby Andrews. But he’s grateful most to God for the ability he’s been given.

“Just knowing that’s [God’s] always there, and he’s always going to protect us,” says Byrne. “As we grow in our sport, we grow in our faith.”



Desirey Gomez didn’t exactly set out to become a cross-country runner. Running seemed to find her.
“I began running the summer before high school, and I started to really enjoy it,” says Gomez. “So I thought I should try out for the team.”


Her natural ability landed Gomez on the varsity cross-country team at Cornelia Connelly High School as a freshman, and she’s been there ever since. Now a senior, Gomez knows the investment she needs to make each day to remain competitive.

“Cross country takes a lot of dedication,” says Gomez. “You really have to know that you have to run every day. It takes a lot of preparation. That’s one of the things I love is that I’m very dedicated, and so that’s how I can stay in the sport.”

As captain for the Koalas, Gomez has shown Connelly cross-country head coach, Julie Cruz, that her dedication to both her teammates and the sport has separated her from the rest.

“No matter what we were doing for practice, Desirey was always so enthusiastic about it never complained,” says Cruz. “She would always look at it as another way to improve. You’d always see her so joyful and bonding with the girls. She really brought the team together. No matter how tired she was, she would always finish strong with her strides to the finish line. And once finished, you’d see her encouraging the others to finish strong.”

Cross-country is just one of the sports that Gomez has competed in as a Koala, as the 17-year-old also plays softball, basketball and soccer. She feels her cross-country training helps her excel as a multi-sport athlete.

“I’m very dedicated, and I consider myself a hard worker,” says Gomez. “And I believe that cross country actually prepares me for my other sports. I’m one of the top runners in all of my sports, so that really helps me a lot.”

Gomez will be taking her athletic skills to Cleveland State University next fall where she will be playing softball for the Vikings and studying physical therapy. The Anaheim resident knows that running has taught her plenty of skills that will prepare her for her next steps.

“Cross-country has taught me a lot about dedication, hard work and being a person of good character,” says Gomez “…helping my other teammates, cheering them on and being that leader for them.”
Gomez is grateful for the support of her grandparents, as they diligently cheer her on at all her meets and games. And her faith is where she draws her strength.

“Faith plays a big role for me,” says Gomez. “God always tells us to be strong and courageous. Every time I run, I just think about being strong and that’s what helps me to go faster, go harder and try my best.”


Jennifer Lutfi was inspired to begin her running career by watching those who do it best—Olympic athletes.

“When I was younger, I always loved watching the Olympics,” says Lutfi. “I loved watching the runners run around the track and thought that was something I wanted to do. I always watched the marathon with my parents, so that really made me want to run.”

The senior cross country runner for Rosary Academy has learned over time that the path to success in running lies in the mental aspect of the sport.

“A lot of it is mental,” says Lutfi. “You need to tell yourself it’s not that hard. You just need to do your race and do your best.”

The four-year varsity team member also runs distance events as a part of the Royals track team, including the 800-meter, 1-mile and 3200-meter races. The bond she shares with her running teammates will be missed as she moves on from Rosary next spring.

“We’re all very close, so I think I’m going to miss that next year,” says the 17-year-old. “The all-girls environment is so comforting, and I love everyone who surrounds me.”

Rosary’s head cross country coach, Jen Murphy, sees how Lutfi has embraced the role of captain for the team and has used her leadership skills to come into her own this season.

“This year, Jen emerged as a leader and a front-runner for the team,” says Murphy. “She was Rosary’s number one runner for three of our eight races where she pushed her pace beyond her comfort zone. Jen not only participated on the cross-country team, but she lived the cross-country lifestyle. She gave 100% effort at every single practice for 22 weeks. Jen is an athlete who is truly dedicated to her sport and her team.”

Aside from running, Lutfi serves her campus community through several clubs and organizations such as ASB & Student Council, Campus Ministries, National Honor Society (NHS), California Scholarship Federation (CSF) and the Lifesavers Club. She feels a strong connection to her Catholic faith both as a student and an athlete.

“I love my Catholic faith,” says Lutfi. “I feel like I’m very strong in it. In class, I’m not afraid to talk about my faith. We always have a prayer before [each] race. We know that we’ve prepared hard, but we know that God’s always there with us and he can help us.”

The Yorba Linda resident has had a great support system in the sport between her coach, teammates and parents. She hopes to continue her running career in college as well as study education or occupational therapy.

“I’ve always enjoyed helping people, so I want to do that in my career,” says Lutfi. “I’m really excited to see what next year has to offer me.”



The JSerra boys’ cross-country team made history last season when Andrew Burkhardt became the first runner from the school to win an individual state title.

This fall, it appears the JSerra girls are ready to steal the headlines.

Nadia Tabrizi, the top girls’ runner in the Trinity League last season, returns for her sophomore year, and she’ll be joined by two of the team’s other top runners from last season, sophomore Isabella Abusaid and senior Mckayla Giacobetti.

The trio helped JSerra win the league title, finish sixth in CIF-SS Division IV and seventh at the Division IV state finals, the same result the JSerra boys’ team produced on the 3.1-mile course at Woodward Park in Fresno.

Tabrizi paced the Lions in all three events, winning the league title, finishing 19th at the section finals and 32nd at state.

Competition figures to be tough, however.

The top 12 finishers at the Trinity League finals last November were all freshmen, sophomores or juniors, as well as 21 of the top 23.

Tabrizi’s biggest league challenger appears to be Santa Margarita junior McKenzie Shulman, who finished second in the league finals and 25th in CIF-SS Division III. Her time of 19 minutes 9.2 seconds was just six seconds slower than what Tabrizi ran in her Division IV race on the same hilly Mt. San Antonio College course.

Shulman has shown to be better at shorter distances, however, winning the Trinity League track and field title in the 1,600 meters last spring.

Tabrizi and Shulman should go head-to-head in the Trinity League prelims Sept. 28 at Central Park in Huntington Beach, and likely again at the Orange County Championships Oct. 15 at Irvine Regional Park.

Full bragging rights will be on the line at the Trinity League finals Nov. 11 back at Central Park.

Leslie Gonzalez of Rosary might also be a threat to Tabrizi and Shulman. The junior finished third at the league finals last fall and second to Tabrizi in the 3,200 meters at the Trinity League track and field championships last spring.

JSerra, ranked third in the girls’ Division IV preseason poll, will have to replace three of its top seven runners from last season, as Ella Coppola moved, Skylar Giacobetti decided to focus on soccer and Elyse Mata transferred to Tesoro, but coach Marty Dugard believes the Lions will be stronger this season.

Defending its league title could be a lot tougher for the JSerra boys’ team, which ended St. John Bosco’s streak of 21 consecutive league titles last season. Not only did Burkhardt graduate and move on to the University of California, but Servite returns two runners who finished in the top four in the league finals, senior Michael Holbrook and junior Vincent Sarino.

JSerra is hoping to get a big lift from freshman Anthony Grover, who was the team’s top finisher in early September at the Riverside Showcase Invitational, helping the Lions take third overall. He also showed his skill over the summer at the USA Track and Field National Junior Olympics, finishing sixth in his age group in the 3,000 meters in 9:02.15.

Both teams spent a week training over the summer at Mammoth Lakes, helping their conditioning and, just as important, serving as an ideal bonding experience.


With a background in soccer, Erick Garcia admits he entered Servite High School mistakenly thinking cross-country might help him with his sprinting. But after running for a season, Garcia discovered that he actually excelled as a distance runner.

“My coach and I found out I have a talent in [distance running] and I pursued it,” says the 17-year-old senior. “Now I’m fully committed to it.”

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As co-captain for the Friars, Garcia recognizes the importance of both leading his teammates in the present and leaving a legacy for their future.

“It keeps me humble,” says Garcia of being a captain, “and it makes me realize that in order for the younger guys to be successful later in their careers, it has to start with me. I have to set the example for them.”

Servite’s head cross-country coach, Richard Gibbs, echoes Garcia’s efforts when it comes to leadership.

“Erick leads by example and his work ethic is exemplary,” says Gibbs. “He reminds the younger guys about their responsibilities to the team, which is why he is the ideal team captain. He is a calm, composed individual and approaches his races in the same manner. This determination shows through, and everyone respects him for this.”

One of the challenges Garcia sees for himself is the increased popularity of cross-country and how that has changed the landscape of the sport.

“It’s becoming more popular,” says Garcia. “What was considered fast then is considered slow now. The physicality and the intensity of the sport have increased a lot.”

In his final year with the Friars, Garcia has his eye on leading his team to a Trinity League title, along with an extended CIF Championship run. On the personal side, Garcia would like to close out his senior season with an appearance at the State Championships. Regardless of how he finishes the race, it’s the journey he has run with his teammates that will remain his most special memory.

“You tend to bond with the kids that you’re running with. It’s a lot of pain that you go through, running 50 to 60 miles a week,” says Garcia. “At Servite, we emphasize brotherhood and it builds even more on that in cross-country. We’ve created a very deep bond.”

Off the track, Garcia is involved in Campus Ministry at Servite, as well as Habitat for Humanity and the Investment Club. The Corona resident hopes to continue to compete as a collegiate runner while pursuing a degree in finance.

With the support of his parents, his coach and his faith, Garcia is taking his unexpected time as a distance runner to heart, learning all the sport can teach.

“It’s taught me how to be humble and to be very patient,” says Garcia. “No matter what you do, you have to work hard for it.”



Andrew Burkhardt didn’t just shave a few seconds off his personal-best times last season. He took a chisel, hacksaw and ultimately an axe to those oh-so-important numbers.

Now, he’s sharpening his edges in preparation for his senior year at JSerra, where he’s not only looking to maintain his position as the top boys’ cross-country runner in the Trinity League, but also to help the Lions wrestle the team title from St. John Bosco, which has won 21 straight league championships.

“I feel pretty confident of that,” he says.

Burkhardt is also aiming to improve on his fifth-place finish at the Division IV state finals last November in Fresno, which was a dramatic upgrade from the year before. He circled the hilly 5,000-meter course at Woodward Park in 15 minutes 39 seconds, a year after finishing the same race in 16:49, which placed him 56th overall.

“It was only my second time running the course last year at state, so I still wasn’t too familiar with it,” he says. “Now, I know it just that much better.”

Burkhardt doesn’t believe he can carve another 1:10 off his time this season, but a sub-15-minute performance at the state finals is certainly within reach.

“Last year, I kind of died,” he says. “I was in second place going into the third mile and then I let a few people pass me.”

Burkhardt and his teammates have bumped up their training in the last month to about 80 miles a week and he’s been focusing on staying strong at the end of his workouts, hoping that will pay off at the end of races.

He’ll get his first test Saturday at the season-opening Cool Breeze Evening Invitational at El Prado Golf Course in Chino. The race is expected to include fellow Orange County Register all-county returners Austin Tamagno of Brea Olinda and Mason Coppi and Jake Ogden of Dana Hills.

“It should be a pretty fast race,” Burkhardt says.

Burkhardt’s rise last season began long before the state finals.

He showed he’d be a force from the gate, winning the Division III race at the season-opening Laguna Hills Invitational in 15:21, the best time among Orange County runners, the second-fastest overall and nearly a minute better than what he posted the year before.

He won the Trinity League cluster meet in October, the league finals in November and placed fifth at the CIF-SS Division IV finals at Mount San Antonio College just before Thanksgiving. Each time, he improved his mark from the season before by nearly a minute or more.

His performance at Woodward Park was a steep improvement over the year before, but still not up to par for Burkhardt.

“I just didn’t feel like I had that good of a race,” he says.

The spring track and field season had its share of ups and downs as well.

Burkhardt won a CIF-SS Division III title in the 3,200 meters, finishing the eight-lap race in a personal-best 9:05.94. He was unable to duplicate that effort the following week at the Masters Meet, however, finishing in 9:07.92, barely missing the state qualifying mark of 9:07.38.

“I was pretty disappointed in that, but it was a pretty good season overall,” he says. “I brought my two-mile time down about 30 seconds and my mile time down about 25 seconds.”

He certainly didn’t let go of that edge over the summer.


When it comes to high school cross country in Orange County, you’ll usually find Ashley Geisler’s name at the top of the list.

One of the most successful athletes JSerra Catholic High School and the Trinity League have seen recently in the sport, the 17-year-old senior is a two-time Trinity League Champion, has been named All-Trinity League in cross country three times, and received All-CIF and All-State honors for 2013.

After trying several sports in her elementary school years, such as gymnastics, soccer and basketball, a suggestion from her father led to Geisler giving cross country a try as a freshman at JSerra.

Finding almost immediate success, Geisler discovered a love for running and now focuses all of her time and energy on her newfound sport.

“What I love about running is I’m able to clear my mind, especially when things are weighing down on me,” says Geisler. “I can go out and run and forget about everything.”

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As part of one of the top high school running programs in California, Geisler is looking at her final year with the Running Lions as a chance to leave her mark, with goals of winning both the individual and team state championships, something Head Coach Marty Dugard sees as real possibilities for the dedicated runner.

“Ashley has been a captain for three seasons now, and is the heart and soul of the girls’ team,” says Dugard. “Because of her success, she runs with a target on her back, but she is just a joy to coach. I truly hope that in this, our last season working together, that she really pushes herself each day to rise to a new competitive level.”

As Geisler looks ahead to life after high school, the San Clemente resident has a strong interest in studying chemistry and forensic science, but doesn’t shy away from admitting her Olympic aspirations, a goal she says she wouldn’t have if not for her achievements at JSerra.

“Without my success in the sport, I wouldn’t be thinking of wanting to run in the Olympics,” says Geisler, “but now I believe in myself [and think] that I can.”

When Geisler runs, she draws her inspiration from her grandfather, a key figure in her life who passed away just a week before she competed in last year’s State Cross Country Championships, where she placed ninth overall.

It is a topic that still brings out many emotions, and Geisler knows that no matter where her continued ascension in the sport takes her, her grandfather is with her, motivating and pushing her to run to new heights and realize her goals.

“Everything I do is for him now,” says Geisler of her biggest role model, “and I know he’s watching from above.”


Most high school juniors insist they look nothing like they did as freshmen.

Katie Caya is no different.

But the transformation Caya has experienced over the last two years at Rosary High School goes far beyond the usual changes of adolescence.

She came to Rosary as a basketball player good enough to make varsity as a freshman, but is on pace to leave as the most decorated girls’ distance runner in school history.

In her first season running cross-country, Caya has already elevated herself to the top of the Trinity League, winning the league preview meet earlier this month and placing 15th at the Orange County Championships two weeks ago, the top finisher among Trinity League participants.

“I love the sport,” she said of distance running. “I love the rush of it.”

That wasn’t the case two years ago, when she went out for track and field following her freshman basketball season. She didn’t have much fun.

To emphasize that point, Caya recently posted a pair of photos side by side on her Twitter account. On the left is a shot of her running track as a freshman. On the right is a picture of Caya running cross-country this fall.

Caya appears uncomfortable in the earlier photo, as if bothered by every stride.

“I think I was just angry that I was racing,” Caya said. “I was like, ‘This is tiring. Why am I doing this to myself?’ “

The second photo communicated a completely different attitude. Caya appears intense, focused and full of energy.

“My intensity is way different now,” she said. “I feel a lot more determined.”

I got my best time and so I was extremely excited. I was like, ‘I can do this!’

Caya will get another chance to hold down her top spot at the Trinity League finals Nov. 7 at Central Park in Huntington Beach.

“It’s been phenomenal so far,” Rosary coach Nick Mosey said of Caya’s first season in cross-country. “It’s everything we could have hoped for.”

Mosey knew Caya was an exceptional athlete when he “stole” her from the girls’ basketball team two years ago. What he never imagined was how quickly and how high she’d rise in the sport.

“She came out for track and she improved a lot in the 3,200, so we kind of had a feeling she was going to be pretty good in cross-country too,” Mosey said. “I didn’t think she’d come out and win Trinity League Preview and be top 15 in the county right off the bat, but she has taken to it very quickly and she’s learning rapidly.”

Even the competition has been caught off guard.

“She kind of came out of nowhere,” said JSerra coach Marty Dugard. “I didn’t pay any attention to her until track season last year. She’s come a long way in the last year. She’s going to do some great things in the next 1  years.”

Caya said it was at last spring’s Orange County Championships in track and field that things really began to click for her. She finished fourth in the freshman and sophomore 3,200-meter race, crossing the line in 11 minutes and 19 seconds, which would have been good enough for 12th in the varsity race.

“I got my best time and so I was extremely excited,” she said. “I was like, ‘I can do this!’”

Now she not only does it, but is the best the Trinity League has to offer.