When Cuesta College cross country coach Brian Locher received an inquisitive email from prospective student Sean McDermott last summer, he didn’t give the message much of a second thought.
Locher’s inbox is frequently riddled with notes from high school seniors interested in his program, and McDermott’s simply didn’t stand out among the rest. His prep running times from North Tahoe High School weren’t pedestrian, but they weren’t enough to warrant an automatic spot on Cuesta’s 2015 roster.
“Looking back at his high school times,” Locher said this week, “he really shouldn’t have made the team.”
Still, McDermott accepted Locher’s invitation to come to San Luis Obispo last August and try out for the Cougars. With a more diligent approach to his training regimen, McDermott began leading the Cougars’ workouts almost immediately and solidified his spot on the team.
The soft-spoken McDermott went on to win the season-opening Tour de Cuesta Invitational, completing the four-mile Fairbanks Cross Country Course in 22 minutes, 10 seconds. A month later, he claimed the individual title at the Santa Barbara City College Cross Country Invitational in 22:09.
McDermott was Cuesta’s top finisher in every race he entered during an all-state freshman season, capped by a fifth-place individual finish at the 28-team California Community College Cross Country State Championships.
“When I really knew that Sean was the real deal was watching him at the SoCal Preview when he took fifth overall,” Locher said of the mid-September competition. “Just watching him run the race, I knew he knew what he was doing out there.”
At the state meet, McDermott was the No. 1 freshman finisher in a field of 208 competitors. His time of 20:38 was the third-fastest mark at a state meet in Cuesta history, and McDermott joined Eric Huff (1976), Sergio Reyes (1999), Gordon Sturgess (2012) and Connor Fisher (2014) as the Cougars’ only all-state honorees.
On paper, McDermott is considered among the favorites to win the CCCAA individual title in November, though San Bernardino Valley standout Teran Michael won’t concede that crown without a fight.
McDermott hopes that his summer training at altitude in Tahoe with his younger brother, Noah, will be the foundation for an even stronger sophomore season.
During their prep careers at North Tahoe, Noah McDermott, one grade behind Sean and two years younger, was a nine-time state champion in both cross country and track who ran his way into a scholarship offer from Saint Mary’s.
“High school he would always kick my butt, to be honest,” Sean McDermott said. “He was way faster than me, and he had a better training ethic.”
Noah McDermott’s individual success certainly played a part in Locher’s willingness to invite his older brother to a try out. It seems that trademark work ethic has now rubbed off on Sean, who Locher said is “an extremely diligent trainer” who does everything asked of him.
This year, that means setting the example for a small Cuesta team that includes former San Luis Obispo High standout Aramis Knox and third-year sophomore Trevor Stangle.
“You never know how the other teams are going to turn out,” Locher said, “but I think that our team is just as good as the team we had two years ago when we took fifth in state.
“That’s really our goal is to finish top-five, and we feel like we have a team that could do that.”
Cuesta College men’s cross country 2016
Season opener: 10 a.m. Friday at Oxnard Invitational
Tour de Cuesta: Oct. 7 at Fairbanks Cross Country Course
Conference championships: Oct. 21 at Oxnard
Locals to watch: Kobi Kelly (SLO High), Aramis Knox (SLO High) and Angel Virgen (Morro Bay)