Bulldogs on the run with Monk

Daniel Hernandez (left) and Kelln Steplight set the pace in a training run last Monday at Folsom High, where the Bulldogs placed second in the section meet.

David Monk remained true to his school in 2006 when the 1990 Fairfield High School graduate was offered an opportunity to coach distance runners at Sacramento State. He already had his dream job of coaching cross country and track at his alma mater. Monk could not bring himself to run out on his runners.

Much had changed for Monk when Sacramento State came calling again in 2016. He was coaching at Armijo, having left Fairfield after 10 years because he could no longer find enough students willing to meet his demands. There are never any short cuts for Monk in getting the best out of each and every one of his runners.

That explains why Monk took his Vacaville High cross country runners to Folsom High at 8 a.m. on Monday. This is his first season as the Bulldogs coach, and the Sac-Joaquin Section championships are on Saturday in Folsom. Familiarity with the course will bolster the Bulldogs as they strive to extend their season for two more weeks. To do so, one or more will have to qualify for the state meet Nov. 30. 

Monk has coached a state cross country champion, although he was not officially coaching at Armijo when Luis Grijalva won in 2016. Grijalva capped his senior year by winning the 1,600 meters at the state track championships in Clovis. He is still running as a junior at Northern Arizona University.

David Monk works with freshman Paulina Peterson on how to attack a hill on Monday.

Just as Grijavla was embarking on his final year at Armijo, Monk was contacted by Sacramento State with an offer he could not refuse. His concern in accepting it was leaving Grijalva high and dry, so he talked his former Fairfield High coach – Karl Wurzbach – into guiding his prize pupil. “He was the first guy and the only guy I thought of,” recalled Monk, who became friends with Wurzbach after high school and was the best man in his wedding.

Wurzbach and his wife, Rachel, are now coaching with Monk at Vacaville High. Their daughter, Hailey, is a sophomore and will run with the Bulldogs varsity girls team in the Division II race on Saturday. Joining Hailey will be seniors Ella and Avery Bernard. The twins’ father, Andy, is also lending Monk a hand.

None of this would have come to be had Sacramento State not fired all of its cross country and track coaches in 2018. Working with college runners was a blast for Monk, but those athletes did not need much direction because “they were already on a path.” Coaching high school runners, especially the underclassmen, gives Monk an opportunity to start from square one and set them on the right course.

“I don’t care how you good are. It’s about how much you can give of yourself,” Monk said. “I have neglected Daniel (Hernandez) and Kellen (Steplight) a little bit. They only get me one day a week. They’re so equipped. They have already laid a foundation. The other kids are blank canvasses. I need to pour more into them. It has revitalized my coaching.”

Hernandez and Steplight finished third and fourth, respectively, in the Division II race at the subsection meet last week. Whitney seniors Austin Vasquez and Ethan Hodge were the top two finishers, three seconds ahead of the Vacaville duo. That is exactly what Monk asked of his top two runners. The subsection meet is nothing more than a qualifier for the section championships. Much more will be at stake Saturday for Hernandez, a senior, and his sophomore sidekick.

“We wanted to keep it in perspective,” Monk said. “We wanted to qualify and minimize our energy expenditure. I want them to stay as fresh as they can with their physical and mental energy. I want them to run with the confidence that they know they are ready.”

Wurzbach only wishes Monk would have followed his instructions in 1988 as a sophomore at Fairfield High. Wurzbach laid out the 3,200-meter race at the section meet by predicting who would finish first and second. With the top three finishers qualifying for the state championships, Wurzbach told Monk when he would have to make his move to be in the top three. Monk did not do it.

“I hesitated in the moment and it cost me,” Monk recalled. “(Wurzbach) gives me grief about it to this day.”

Monk now knows better, and so do the Bulldogs.

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