Forward: I have a profound love for James Lick High School. I have lived within a few minutes of the school my entire life. I learned how to swim there. I was raised next door to its most successful coach (who I will discuss later). I went to school there, as did my father and his sisters. Now I have the privilege of teaching and coaching at James Lick, and as a history teacher, I often find myself reflecting on the history of the school I hold so dear.
Through the hard work of my athletes, I’ve already experienced a lot of fortunate success as a coach as I approach the end of my 5th year coaching. I’ve been lucky enough to have coached 4 different division champion teams (2 in XC 2 in track). I have twice been awarded James Lick’s “Keith Antes Coach of the Year Award” (Undeservedly I might add, more on Keith Antes later). And above all, I’ve been pleased to have fostered a high rate of improvement among my student athletes. That is the only success that is really meaningful, because as I am about to detail, the competition my teams have beaten, pales in comparison to what the Comets of yesteryear had to face.
As I will discuss below, by many measures, James Lick “used to be a better school.” When I first started at James Lick in 2007, it had a very negative reputation, and that is still the case today (though to a slightly lesser extent). It is against this reputation and pervading negativity that we as a team fight today. For we as a team/school to continue to progress, I think it is important to draw pride, wisdom, and lessons from the past. As such, this is my best attempt to briefly compare James Lick (and the CCS as a whole) across eras. This is my attempt to summarize the track history of a school that is almost 70 years old, to the furthest degree possible by a 25 year old. To you kids reading this, understand the powerful tradition we are trying to reignite. To alumni reading this, thank you for setting the bar.
James Lick Track: Then
James Lick High School, like much of Eastside San Jose, contains a rich history that may easily be lost on a casual observer. James Lick opened its doors in 1950, as the first high school in the East Side Union High School district. James Lick track has such a history, that it predates the BVAL, the MHAL, and even the CCS.
When James Lick track began competing, it was a member of the SCVAL (Santa Clara Valley Athletic League) within the NCS (North Coast Section). James Lick had immediate success, winning three straight titles in the SCVAL, in 1954, 1955, 1956. While the Green and White has been a constant, much has changed at James Lick over the years, not just in terms of track and field.
Many of the athletes on the great teams of the 1950s would be just as competitive if they were competing today. Despite the faster track surfaces, (rubber instead of cinders) some of James Lick’s best times come from a long while back.
It is worth noting that most of my sources are from a combination of internet/newspaper archives, and first-hand word of former James Lick athletes and coaches. As such, our current all time lists and information are incomplete. Anyone with any information about past teams/times, can feel free to contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. I would very much appreciate any information.
The first James Lick track champion that I have on record, was a pole vaulter at the 1952 SCVAL championships. This vaulter (last name Guzman) cleared 11-0 to take the title. The pole vault is very symbolic of James Lick’s rise and fall. The Comets were once great in pole vault, and we are now beginning to try to emulate that greatness. By the mid ‘60s, the Comets had already had 3 different league champs in the pole vault. The best of them was Ray Clayton, an athlete who cleared 14-2.5 in 1964 to make the State Meet. We are attempting to re-institute pole vault competition this year. If any vaulter clears a height in a meet, they will be the first Comet to do so this century.
James Lick was a very strong school by every measure by the 1960s, a time period that saw the foundation of both the CCS and the MHAL (Mt. Hamilton Athletic League). The football team had its best run of success with Jim Plunkett at quarterback, winning multiple MHAL titles. The swimming and waterpolo teams also had a remarkable run of success under coach Gene Nyquist. Coach Nyquist is by far James Lick’s winningest coach, having over 20 league titles to his name.
My dad attended James Lick in the late 1960s, and ran track and cross country under the legendary coach Keith Antes. Coach Antes and his longtime assistant coach/successor, Carlos Saldivar, were both James Lick alumni. This connection to the school might help to explain the tremendous success that both of these coaches had at James Lick. In 1967, the team achieved its only MHAL track title.
In some ways, the ‘60s were the glory days of James Lick Track, if not San Jose track as a whole. With San Jose dubbed “speed city” the area bore witness to tremendous High School track competition. The one MHAL title is a result of the stiff competition the Comets had to face. For example, the Comets had to contend with Lee Evans of Overfelt High School in the early ‘60s. Evans would of course go on to win the gold medal in the 400m in the 1968 Olympics, and become the first man to run under 44 seconds for the event. You can imagine how tough he would have been against the Comets in a dual meet.
But the Comets strength and depth in track was fantastic. The team consistently had multiple athletes in the 4:40 mile range. The team produced top-notch jumpers like Phil Passafuime, Chris Moulton and Dave Pike. Pike is in fact still the schools long jump record holder at 22-6.5. Towards the later part of the decade, James McGhee and Bill Pabst threw for the Comets. Their best discus marks of 159-5 and 149-7 respectively still rank 1-2 in school history. To even make the varsity team was a huge challenge.
It wasn’t uncommon for James Lick to have 3 different boys go over 40 feet in the triple jump in the same dual meet. By comparison, as I write this in April of 2018, only 4 boys have gone over 40 feet in the triple jump in the entire 24 team BVAL.
There is of course a natural ebb and flow to the quality of CCS track. Some eras are stronger than others. But in some areas, the extent to which modern marks/times pale in comparison to those of more than 30 years ago is jarring. For example, I will compare the MHAL finals of 1975, to the MHAL finals of 2017.
The MHAL of 1976 was its own league, whereas the MHAL of 1996- present has been a division of the BVAL. Regardless, in both cases the MHAL has generally had 8 teams. The modern MHAL is the ‘A’ division of the BVAL so it should be the strongest in any given year. The MHAL of 1976 had 11 teams, so while it did have several more teams to add quality to the league, it was a geographical league, not a power league.
The 1976 MHAL 4×100 (Back then the 440 yard relay, which is actually a tiny bit longer than the 400m relay) was won by Mt. Pleasant in 41.8. A new MHAL record at the time. Piedmont Hills ran 42.2 and Yerba Buena ran 42.5. Times in this era were still hand-timed, meaning they are likely off by roughly .25 seconds. Even accounting for this, the times are substantially stronger than the 44.78 winning time of Santa Teresa at the 2017 version of the event. Santa Teresa would go on to run a very strong 43.24 at CCS Finals. Even with that strong time, a time which placed them 6th at CCS finals, they would have only placed 5th at the 1976 MHAL Finals.
Some events are still as strong/stronger than ever around the area. The Winner of the 880 (Which takes about a half second longer to run that the 800m) ran 1:55.8. The top athlete in the MHAL right now is Jason Gomez of Westmont, he ran 1:52 last year as a junior in the event. Similarly, the mile was won in 4:26.7 by Johnson from Overfelt. That equates to roughly a 4:25 1600. That would have placed him 3rd at the 2017 MHAL which was won in 4:18. Lick’s Joe Salazar placed 3rd in 1976 with a 4:30.1 (converted to 4:28.8 for 1600). Azael Zamora, our top distance runner today is at 4:35.20 with a month left in the season, so he isn’t totally put to shame by strong milers like Joe Salazar.
While distance is as competitive (maybe even a bit more competitive) as ever, many of the speed based events are lacking. The relay is the most glaring example, showing a lack of depth of top-notch sprinters compared to the ‘70s. The jumps are the next most extreme example.
The 2017 MHAL boys long jump was won with a jump of 21-0 by freshmen Jared Vasquez. While that is a great mark, especially for a freshmen, it would not have placed him in the top 5 at the 1976 MHAL finals.
Hunter Beck of Branham won the MHAL 300 hurdles, and ran just under 40 seconds to do so. Going under 40 in the event is an impressive feet, no other athlete did so at MHAL finals 2017. The entire top 5 of the 1976 MHAL finals ran under 40. The event was won by Andre Philips of Silver Creek in 36.4. This was only a few years after the CCS made the switch from the 180 low hurdles to the 330 yard intermediate hurdles (basically identical to the modern 300 hurdles). Andre Phillips would go on to win the gold medal at the Olympics in the 400 hurdles in 1988.
The depth of the BVAL in throws is also way down compared to earlier years. Bill Pabst was unable to make CCS in the discus throw with his career best heave of 149-7 in 1969. 133-3 was good enough to make CCS last year.
I do not draw this comparison to criticize or demean our current crop of athletes. Looking at the past strength of the CCS forces us to consider ways to reignite the strength of our track programs here in the Blossom Valley. That is certainly what I am trying to do at James Lick, a school that fell further than most from the great times of the ‘70s.
Most of James Lick’s top athletes showed up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Pete Moreno went 50 feet in the triple jump. Henry Barba ran 10.69 in the 100, a school record which still stands. Randy Pangelina and Joe Amendt both won CCS titles in the 800, Randy running 1:52 and Joe running 1:50. These are the marks that I intend for James Lick athletes of today to aspire to. We are a long way off in most areas, but emulating the Comets of the past will only help our current athletes.
By the 1980s, the depth of James Lick track was beginning to wane. More and more schools began to populate San Jose, and take from James Lick’s attendance. The most significant of these was the foundation of Independence HS in 1976. Independence quickly grew into a power in the CCS, let alone the MHAL.
There was one especially large change during the ‘70s that would alter the CCS forever, the inclusion of girls sports. With the inclusion of girls sports officially happening after many of James Lick’s greatest teams, you have to wonder how many lady Comets missed their chance. And even with girls finally having the opportunity to compete on the same level as boys, it would take time for them to receive the same emphasis.
Even so, some of our schools records on the girls side are from this era as well. Joan Jacobs running 12.26 for the 100, and Christine Smallwood running 25.1 are the most impressive Comet marks from the ‘70s. The girls all time list is much weaker than the boys one, and one of the joys of coaching the team right now is that the team is dramatically altering that list. For example, Kathy Shelby threw the shot put 34-0 in 1975. That remained the school record for over 40 years until Alejandra Ceron threw 35-8.5 last year.
San Jose as a whole would dramatically shift over the next few decades. The rows of orchards became houses, and the blossom valley became silicon valley. Some things never change. Students still take every chance they get to swing by Peters Bakery before school for a slice of Burnt Almond cake. James Lick distance runners run right past the country club on their way to Alum Rock Park. James Lick’s sporting success in recent years however, is a far cry from what it once was.
The BVAL formed with its 3 division ‘power league’ structure in 1996. Since then, most James Lick sports have never been out of the WVAL (‘C’ division). In the late 90s and early 2000s, James Lick track was at its lowest point. They did win a title in track in 2000, and a few titles were won by other sports over the years, but overall JL suffered. From 2007-2013 the team did not win a single dual meet, despite being in the lowly WVAL. The girls team hadn’t managed a winning record in a single season from 1996 on. The WVAL in those years was far weaker than it has been lately. In many dual meets, all it would have taken were enough athletes to fill up events to grab a win. The team hovered between 8-12 athletes (combined between boys and girls) during these years, and the program would have been cut if not for the intervention of soccer coach Ray Iniguez, (now our athletic director).
James Lick Track Now
In 2014 I was brought on to coach the team. While it is not standard practice to hire 20 year olds to head track programs, few 20 year olds are as obsessive as I was. More importantly, I had a very dedicated freshmen class, whose talent as athletes was fair, and whose caliber as people was exceptional. Nathan Bernardo, Gustavo Aguilera and Maria Mendoza to name a few. They would transform as athletes over the next few years. Nathan went from a 6:00 mile to a 4:47. Gustavo went from a 54 second 300 hurdles time to a 44. Maria went from 58 in the 300 hurdles to 51 seconds, setting a new school record until a teammate broke it.
Besides working hard themselves, they brought more athletes to the team. The team size grew from 12 in 2013, to 23 in 2014 where we grabbed our first wins. We went 1-6 on boys and 1-6 on girls. Those wins were important to our morale, we broke our losing streak and knew we were heading the right direction.
In 2015 came the big jump, our team size doubled to 45 athletes and we went a combined 10-4. 6-1 on girls and 4-3 on boys. The first winning season on record for the girls in school history.
For the first time in a long time, James Lick started to vaguely resemble its past. Davion Thomas ran 23.19 for the 200 and 11.44 for the 100. These times do not approach the school records of Henry Barba, or even the consistent low 11s of James Lick’s heyday, but James Lick had a sprinter at CCS. Karan Singh ran 4:39 for the 1600, becoming the first Comet to run under 4:40 in over a decade.
While we are still in the infancy of recapturing James Lick’s glory on the boys side, I am confident in saying that the girls team as a whole has never been better.
We won the WVAL in 2016 and 2017, propelling us to our first ‘B’ division season this year. The boys narrowly missed the WVAL title, losing to Independence by 5 points in our dual meet.
Now we sit in the ‘B’ division. We are moving upwards, but we are not yet near where we want to be. We are currently a combined 1-7 in the ‘B’ division, but mark my words, we will greatly improve on that record before the season is over (don’t rule out 7-7).
We are not the only James Lick sport showing an upwards trajectory. The girls volleyball team, and girls basketball team both won the WVAL this school year. Both teams made incredible improvements to earn their titles. The volleyball team went from 3-11 to 13-1, and the girls basketball team went from 2-11 to 10-0 (the WVAL is only 6 teams in basketball this season).
As a school, we are committed to improving the school, and I will encourage my team to use the past as a measuring stick.
If you’ve sorted through this convoluted mess, thank you sincerely. I appreciate your interest.
The 2nd half of the season kicks off this week. The Comets will be hosting Piedmont Hills, and then heading up to the Bearcat Invite in San Mateo.
Thanks for reading!