Forest Braden will not return to the men’s and women’s cross country teams after eight years as the distance coach.
Avery Anderson, the new director of track and field and cross country, found his new coaches in Devin Elizondo and Jennifer DeRego. Daily Bruin Sports recently caught up with Elizondo and DeRego to talk about the future of the program.
Daily Bruin: What does it mean for you to be back here coaching the program that you went through?
Devin Elizondo: I’ve always been a fan of the group, so (it’s great) to be able to step in and know a little bit of what they do philosophically and the goals at a place like UCLA. I’m just very proud and humbled to sit in a seat that was once occupied by one of my mentors that had a huge influence on my life. Walking into (UCLA) the second time, you have a greater understanding of the uniqueness of it and the special feeling that you get from the program. You’re allowed to dream big and (are) supported in that and expected to do that. It’s something that I don’t take lightly and the guys have been willing and trusting and honest and hardworking. (The team has) big goals and big dreams and I want to put them in the best possible position to succeed.
DB: How do you like UCLA athletics so far?
Jennifer DeRego: It’s been great – it’s kind of one of those things that I’ve always dreamed of, something like this. Now that it’s here, I’m jumping in … head first. I really haven’t had a whole lot of time at UCLA because we left for altitude training about a day and a half after I was officially hired, but it’s been great. The people there and the administration have been awesome.
The folks that I have met in the training room and around in the other sport offices in the short time I was there are really, really welcoming and friendly. So that’s been fun, and being at UCLA itself – it has a real strong presence about it that you feel like it’s just a really awesome place to be.
DB: The men’s distance program has been one of the sections of the team that has been on the upswing in the last couple of years; what’s the future like for this program and how do you plan on getting it there?
DE: To continue where we are and then push it forward. In some avenues I liken it to you’re either at a place where you’re a torch lighter or you’re a torch carrier. We’re fortunate enough to be in a unique spot like UCLA that has that kind of tradition and that kind of history. We’re trying to keep that torch burning bright and push it as far down the road as we can every single season and every single year.
The lifeblood is always going to be that next recruiting class, so to be able to continue the culture of success, the personal responsibility, accountability, setting high goals and achieving high goals, and then bringing in that next group that we feel can do the same and create even more positive culture and energy (is key).
Ultimately each individual is in charge of their effort level and decision-making when the challenges face them, and I’ve always believed this is a place where character counts. When the chips are down that’s when we need you to be who you are at your truest, and then the training will take over and the grit and desire, and those things (take over).
We’re bringing in the right folks that have that mentality, true scholar athletes – not just student athletes but scholar athletes – that’s the type of individual we’re trying to attract and that’s where, especially on the men’s side, they’ve been able to cultivate and push.
DB: The announcement was made in mid-August, and the first meet of the season was Sept. 2. Were you helping out training with the team over the summer or did you step in Westwood in mid-August and start coaching the team right then and there?
JD: I was coaching and teaching at Heritage (High School). We started around … early August, and so I had already gotten my feet wet teaching health, physical education and yoga and coaching the cross country team.
This is something that I’ve wanted to do ever since 2009 when I was … assistant coaching at Cal Poly, where I went, with my old coach, and I just loved it.
I feel like my passion and my commitment … and experience that I’ve had as an athlete are definitely (on par) with student athletes at this level so that’s what makes it really fun for me.
DB: How would you diagnose how things have been going so far this season then?
DE: I’m very pleased. There’s no better way to get to know the guys and the group than to pack up and have a ten hour drive of just putting someone in the hot seat and say, “Hey, we have this stretch of road before we hit the next gas station, tell me about why (you chose) UCLA? … What’s been your experience and how’s the team and who’re you close with?” and all those things. By the time we hit Flagstaff, Arizona, we had about half of those meetings already in the books.
I think they know that I’m serious about both their individual goals and their team goals. Cross country is one of those sports where each individual effort on race day comes together in the top seven or top 10 and make for the full team performance, so everybody has to be on their game. While we do coach the individual, it’s within a collective team context.
JD: We’ve got a really strong team of women, the guys too. But I can speak for the women that we’ve got incredible talent on the team, we’ve got strong character.
They’re willing, they’re committed to working hard, to running strong and they’ve set some pretty lofty goals that I believe they’re going to be able to reach.
We set a goal to be top 15 at nationals and to make a presence there. We’d like to be in the top five at conference … to improve on the last couple of years, and some (athletes) have individual goals. As a team, it’s really important for us to have a pretty good presence at nationals, and for that to be our best race.