The Gig Harbor High School boys cross country team is ranked No. 1 in the nation, according to dyestat.com. The Tides opened the season at No. 2 and have jumped into the top spot after strong showings in Idaho and Portland, Ore.
Senior transfer Mahmoud Moussa knows a thing or two about handling lofty expectations. Moussa, who transferred from Arcadia High in California, was part of a team last year that won the national championship. To him, the ranking isn’t important.
“It doesn’t faze me,” Moussa said. “I’ve come from a pretty successful program at Arcadia. I’ve been in that position. The rankings don’t mean anything. There’s one race that does, and Dec. 7 (nationals) is the day that decides that.
“It’s nice to hear that you’re one of the top teams in the nation, but when push comes to shove, Dec. 7 is the day that matters.”
Third-year head coach Mark Wieczorek said the ranking is nice, but it doesn’t guarantee success, especially since cross-country rankings are more subjective than other sports. The best programs in the country don’t usually have head-to-head competition, so determining who is the best is highly subjective.
Still, Wieczorek said the team appreciates the recognition.
“It’s fun,” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s all it is. Obviously, anybody ranked in the top 10 or 15 is a really good team. As anyone knows, being ranked No. 1 doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to win. At the end of the day, I know, and the guys know, that going out there and competing on the day that it matters is what it comes down to. It doesn’t really actually mean anything until you go out and do it.”
Whether or not the Tides are the best team in the country is largely speculation, but there’s no denying they have talent.
Gig Harbor is led by Wolfgang Beck, ranked eighth in the nation individually, according to flotrack.org. Beck said the team embraces the ranking but doesn’t place too much emphasis on it.
“We embrace it in that other coaches and other teams around the nation are afraid of us,” he said. “We like that. But since we haven’t competed against many of the top teams, right now it’s all just hearsay. We want to go out and prove that we are the No. 1 team in the nation. Because what I’ve seen from the boys this fall, we are good enough to win a national championship.”
Beck beat out ranked athletes John Dressel and Elijah Armstrong at the Bob Firman meet in Idaho, but he fell short of beating Washington runner Kai Wilmont. Beck has set his sights on changing that the next time they meet.
“I’m going to be racing Kai again at Nike Nationals,” Beck said. “I want to beat Kai, and I want to win a national title. I think that’s definitely within reach, judging by how my season has been going this far.”
While the Tides have generally had a strong cross-country program, Wieczorek, a competitive runner himself, appears to be taking the team to new heights. He emphasizes recovery and nutrition as much as training, and above all, he wants the runners to have fun.
Wieczorek said the team’s bond and positive approach make it special. They have bought into his program, and it’s paying dividends.
“They’re just such a fun group of guys,” Wieczorek said. “They just love this more than anything. They love meeting up and doing a long run, running out to Point Defiance Park, and running out there. They love just doing things together. They’re all best friends, and not just in competition.”
Wieczorek tries to use his life experiences as lessons for the athletes. Specifically, he said success won’t come unless they enjoy themselves.
“From running in college and running professionally, what I’ve seen is the most important thing to being successful is finding a way to enjoy what you’re doing,” Wieczorek said. “The times in my life when I was not enjoying it, it was work, I struggled. The times when I had fun doing it, and I was just enjoying my situation, I ran a lot better. They need to find a way to make running and training fit into their lives, and something that’s going to make them happy and make their overall life better. The guys are really good at doing that.”
Moussa said Wieczorek communicates well with the athletes on an individual level, and that has led to success.
“Mark really communicates with us and has that individual conversation,” Moussa said. “If we ever have questions about the training or anything like that, we’re really able to communicate with him.”
Beck credits Wieczorek with enhancing an already successful culture and making it even stronger. He said Wieczorek’s running background has helped to create a beneficial training program.
“He has really high expectations for us,” Beck said. “Also, he’s brought really specialized training to the table. We trust him. We trust in what he’s doing. That’s the biggest part — the trust we’ve developed with our coaching staff.”
Wieczorek said the team has bought into the system.
“They’re obviously a super-talented group, but that isn’t everything,” Wieczorek said. “They work really hard, and they’re bought in. They do everything they’re expected to do. They understand what’s going on, and they work really hard.”
While the top ranking doesn’t guarantee a national title, the team isn’t shying away from matching those expectations.
“We expect greatness,” Beck said.