The routine goes back to the late 1980s. The five-hour bus ride through the Central Valley leaves Torrey Pines High at the crack of dawn. The frantic two-day state championship meet, held annually at Woodward Park in Fresno on Thanksgiving weekend, would sometimes end with exhilarating victories or deflating letdowns on other occasions. Distinguished high school careers would end, and underclassmen would emerge as stars. No matter what, Torrey Pines’ cross country runners, along with those throughout the state, would always give extraordinary efforts.
Brent Thorne, the Falcons’ longtime cross country coach, will be on that bus for a 30th straight year in late November.
And then, no more.
Thorne later this year will announce his resignation from the program he led to its only state championship.
“I do not know what Thanksgiving is like except waking up Friday morning and going to Fresno,” Thorne said.
Thorne has coached hundreds of runners of varied abilities from the big hair era of the 1980s to the age of Pokemon Go.
He turned the girls’ cross country team into a state power, finishing in the top in the state meet seven times, including a 2009 state championship. He took the boys’ team to 10 state meets.
Many standouts, including Alli Billmeyer, Erin Gillingham, Megan Morgan, Matt Carpowich and Tal Braude, went on to run in college. For most, competing on the cross country team at Torrey Pines was part of the high school experience that helped them develop the work ethic, maturity and discipline they’d bring to other pursuits.
“I think he really, really, cares about all his kids, from the last kid on JV that’s just trying to run the whole race to the kid who’s winning titles,” said Julie Sawyer (Julie Komosinski when she ran for the Falcons in the late 1990s and early 2000s).”He really cares about all of them and he’s also really smart and he’s willing to evolve.”
Thorne leaves amid some disappointment and not entirely on his own terms.
In 2011, Thorne said he was forced out of a role as the distance coach on the track and field team amid some personality conflicts with the person who succeeded Thorne when he stepped down as the head coach in 2007.
Thorne said having separate distance and cross country coaches created a disconnect that led to the cross country program’s decline.
“I can’t just be a half-time distance coach,” Thorne said. “It’s either all or nothing, and I think it’ll be better to be nothing.”
Thorne noted that two of the area’s strongest programs, La Costa Canyon and Canyon Crest Academy, have cross country teams that are also coached by the track team’s distance coaches.
“I’m just not happy with the whole situation,” Thorne said.”Being with them year-round or most of the year, we were able to make the whole program progress to what it was, and it was a barn-burner of a program.”
Thorne said he’d like to see the program get its “barn-burner” luster back. He’ll spend his last season grooming assistant coach Kaitlin Hildebrand, his expected successor, a move that’s subject to administrative approval.
“It’s time for me to mentor somebody and turn the program over” to them, Thorne said. “(The program) needs a shot in the arm and I can’t do it, I’m not able to do it any longer.”
Thorne isn’t giving up the local high school coaching circuit entirely. He’ll coach CCA’s high jump team for a second season next spring, and expects to continue in that role on a year-to-year basis.
Thorne admits walking away from a job he loves will be tough. He believes he can still evaluate and develop high school runners, and still gets goose bumps when the Olympic trials are televised.
“I’m not over the hill,” he said.
Perhaps one of Thorne’s greatest strengths is his adaptability, tempering his demands with the demands confronting the student athletes he’s coached.
“It really shows how in tune he is with his athletes,” said Sawyer, who still runs competitively on the club circuit and is still coached by Thorne.
“He’s not just focusing on the training plans or maybe the science behind it, he’s really in tune with what works for his kids. He’s always willing to try something new to try to improve and find out what works.”
Thorne found a formula that worked during the late 2000s.
He believes the 2005 team that placed fourth in the state set the tone for the 2009 season, with the team of Gillingham, Ashlin Yahr, Ana Prim, Amanda Moore, Sophie Davidson, Jessie Bodenhamer and Brigitte Doctor defeating longtime nemesis LCC for the first time anyone could remember that year.
The victory came at the San Diego Section finals, a week after the Falcons had lost a dual meet to LCC in heartbreaking fashion.
“I remember walking up to the car at Kit Carson Park and (Amanda Moore) walks up to me and grabs my arm and says ‘coach, don’t worry. next week is going to be a totally different story’,” Thorne said.
He had no idea.
“Sure enough, at CIF they just ran LCC into the ground,” Thorne said. “It was a really hot day and LCC had a few girls who couldn’t finish.
“At the end of the meet three or four of our girls were just strewn across the grass, throwing up, a couple of them really almost fainting.”
Thorne considers that to be a breakthrough moment. The Falcons went on to win six straight section titles after that.
It’s moments such as those that make Thorne’s decision to step away from the program difficult.
But he said giving up coaching cross country will give him free time in the fall he hasn’t experienced in decades. A trip to Europe with his wife and daughter is already in the works, he said.
“Will I miss coaching distances? Of course I will, but as I always say to anybody, in any situation, there’s pluses and minuses to any situation, so the plus side of not coaching cross country is it’s an incredible time of year and my wife and I are both a little more into traveling than when we were in the classroom coaching.
“We’re going to have more time off and we’re going to take advantage of it.”