Gunn graduate leads runners to their best

Mercury News

Gunn cross-country coach Ernie Lee watches practices like a veteran handicapper evaluating thoroughbreds at a race track.

Despite having 84 runners on the boys and girls teams, Lee seems to know each athlete by name.

Even more impressive, Lee can rattle off nearly all the personal best times of his runners, from the elite to those competing for the first time.

A year after helping to lead the Titans boys and girls teams to Central Coast Section Division II titles, Lee is back doing what he loves -- helping kids reach their potential as runners.

Lee graduated from Gunn in 1990 and finished ninth at the CCS cross-country meet that season. He went on to run at Princeton University, where he earned a degree in physics. The Titans have won a pair of boys CCS championships and a pair of girls titles since Lee started coaching there in 1995.

Practices can be hectic. The Titans have some of the top runners in the CCS -- including senior Andrew Lipkin and junior Tori Tyler, who finished third and second in CCS last year -- running alongside beginners.

``Sometimes it gets kind of hectic on long runs in the hills,'' said Lee, who works as an engineer for Caliper Technologies in Mountain View.

``I'm running around devising turnoffs for shorter distances. Some of the top boys go on 10-mile runs and some of the girls will run five miles. But I like them all starting together. It gives them a sense that they are part of the team, a sense of unity.''

This year's team has 44 girls and 40 boys, and both squads are contending for berths in the state cross-country meet in Fresno on Nov. 29. To qualify, the boys team needs to finish first or second and the girls team needs to finish in the top three at the CCS meet on Nov. 15 at Crystal Springs.

Lee hopes both teams can make it, but he won't be too disappointed if they fall short.

``Our boys team is much better, but all the other teams have improved as well,'' Lee said. ``We'll do our best and see where we end up. It will be a great challenge to finish in the top three for the girls.''

Lee doesn't worry about championships, though. He gets his satisfaction from seeing improvement in his rank-and-file runners.

``That's what I like, is watching the kids really develop,'' Lee said. ``Some of the girls never ran until high school and start at the JV level. When they work their way up the ladder, improving their times and maybe becoming a part of the varsity, that's how I judge success.''

The boys, led by Lipkin and juniors Zach Klapholz-Brown and Garrett Reid, will face tough competition at the CCS meet from Carlmont. The girls have Tyler, considered a favorite at the meet for an individual award, along with juniors Lauren Morimoto and Annie Wiley, and freshman Irene Graham.

The girls team is still strong, despite the loss of Graham's older sister, Ruth, a three-time CCS champ who won the state cross-country meet as a junior. Ruth Graham earned a scholarship to Brigham Young University, where she is sitting out her freshman year to retain eligibility for a fifth year.

On the boys side, Lipkin has the best shot at an individual title.

``Andrew is a strong runner who has shown his commitment from the first day he came out,'' Lee said. ``He's been running consistently and we're hoping he can have a breakout race at CCS.''

Lipkin is thinking about following in his coach's footsteps and running at Princeton.

``Ernie is young for a coach, and I think that helps him connect with us,'' Lipkin said. ``He has a lot of funny stories and he inspires us. He's made me want to run in college because of all the good times he had.''

Contact Dennis Knight at or (408) 920-5899.