Having just finished the seventh year of his second tour of duty as Head Track & Field Coach at UC San Diego, Tony Salerno was the recipient of UCSD’s Excellence in Coaching Award at the May 31 Athletics Recognition Dinner. The accolade came on the heels of a season that saw the UCSD women’s track & field team win its second consecutive CCAA Championship and the men improve from third to second. Additionally, an all-time high 16 athletes qualified for the NCAA Division II Championships, six earned All-America honors and Salerno’s charges set 13 school records. The veteran mentor took time recently to reflect on 2006 and look towards the future.
Q—Were you surprised at being selected as the 2005-06 Excellence in Coaching Award winner?
SALERNO—I was certainly surprised. After having coached at all levels in
collegiate athletics, I can tell you that the quality of the coaches we have at UCSD rivals any place I have seen. To be selected for this award from among these great coaches makes it even more meaningful.
Q—You've said that you felt the 2006 track & field team was the best in school history. Why?
SALERNO—Obviously the men's team finishing second in the CCAA meet and 5th in the Cal/Nevada meet showed pretty good overall strength, The difference this year was the high level of motivation of a the many seniors on the men's team to win a CCAA championship at home. Apart from that, I would have to say that this was the first year that we competed fearlessly no matter who we were competing against.
For the women, winning the conference by 110 points was a real statement that the program has arrived. We really had no weaknesses in any of the 22 events that could be exploited by any of the teams in the conference.
Q—Is the kind of performance we saw from this year's track & field teams something you feel is sustainable on a year-to-year basis?
SALERNO—We are actually planning on continuing to get better. On the men's side,
we will likely have a team of similar quality but with different strengths. For the women, it's hard to say what the rest of the conference will bring to the table but we should be at least as strong next year as this year.
Q—Success in the recent past has been based more on depth than top-end performers. Now it seems to be a combination of both. What have been the keys to developing that type of program?
SALERNO—Recruiting has made the big difference. We are getting better athletes now
than we ever have. Building an environment that breeds success and exposing them to primarily elite and Division I competition throughout the year is critical too.
The real key, though, is the coaching staff. Our overall staff is as good as any in college track and field.
Q—What is the most important as far as potentially moving up in the NCAA Championship rankings?
SALERNO—The most important thing ,of course, is to have better athletes. The level
of competition in Division II at the national level is impressive. The top athletes in the nation in each event are typically world class or close to it.
In track and field, you can be among the top three "teams" in the nation with just a few athletes. Without "ringers" as the top programs have, we will have to take a different route.
The men's side is the real challenge. Limited staffing to recruit, tough admissions standards and deadlines and the lack of scholarships are quickly becoming limiting
factors. For the women, those limitations are not as problematic at this point. Qualifying twelve women to nationals this year is a start. We actually had one of the largest contingents at nationals on the women's side. We will have 11 women returning to the team next year with nationals experience.
As far as what is takes to break in to the top ten at nationals? Just 10 more points this year would have put us there and 20 points would put us in the top five. That is only one or two athletes from where we are now.
Q—The qualifying and championship marks in Division II were up significantly this year...To what do you attribute that?
SALERNO—Not exactly sure what caused the big jump but it was a stunning increase
in the level of competition in most events. I suspect several schools moving in to DII this year from NAIA was part of it but it is really a fairly universal phenomena in track and field on most levels right now. It just seems like there are more talented athletes on the track on all levels.
Q—What has been the focus of your recruiting for next year?
SALERNO—Our strategy, as always, is to get the best athlete we can no matter what event,they are in. We did have an exceptional recruiting year this year once again. We have four California state championship finalists coming as well as two top JC transfers. Two of the women coming in the fall have high school marks good enough to score at nationals this year.
Q—How would you describe yourself?
SALERNO—A loaded question. In a word—methodical. With two pretty big sports
and over track 20 events in each it takes some planning to keep things under control. It has been observed that college track coaches are either ADD sufferers or organizers. I'm probably an organizer.
Q—What are the best and worst aspects of coaching?
SALERNO—The best part is the energy that you get from working with these very
intelligent and talented young people at this point in their lives. The worst part is probably the complete immersion required of the job from January to June. We pretty much don't have a life during that time.
Q—What is it like working with your wife (Associate Head Coach Darcy Ahner)?
SALERNO—That’s an often asked question. It's really the only way I could imagine it
ever being. The relationship is completely complimentary. Not only do we coach different events, but she has a unique ability to create a team environment with over 100 athletes.
It really makes it a very complete experience for our athletes and that has been a huge factor in our success. That is something I could not pull off. On top of that, she is the most talented coach for her event area that I have seen. That was actually the first thing I noticed about her when we met while coaching at rival programs on the DI level. Being able to build the program here at UCSD together has been gratifying for both of us. Plus we can carpool to work.
Q—Which of your athletes was the biggest surprise in terms of performance this season?
SALERNO—I think Briana Hinga in the javelin. She was our highest finisher at nationals (3rd). She improved her PR by 35 feet from her junior to her senior year—haven't seen anything like that in my 25 years of college coaching. She is pretty special.
Q—Who are some athletes we might look for to make big strides next season?
SALERNO—Laiah Blue should be pretty exciting to watch next year on the women's side. She was fifth at nationals this year as a sophomore in the 100 hurdles. All eight finalists from nationals are back next year (including three from our conference) but I think Laiah will be ready to run with anyone.
On the men's side, triple jumper Scott Tsuda should be ready for a good year. He owns our school record now, was the CCAA champ as a freshman this year and was Co-CCAA Freshman of the Year. We will have lots of stars next year though.