Spencer Castro is moving from one of the nation's most established research universities and most successful athletics programs to one building its reputation in both regards. He's also coming home, or close to it.
Castro, 22, who was born and raised in the Yosemite foothills northeast of Merced and was a star athlete at Sonora High School before running track and earning a bachelor's degree at Stanford, will join UC Merced this fall to continue his academic and athletic pursuits as a cognitive science research associate and the Golden Bobcats' cross country coach in the team's inaugural season.
UC Merced will begin competing in varsity intercollegiate athletics this fall as a member of the California Pacific Conference in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). In addition to men's and women's cross country, the Bobcats will also field varsity teams in men's basketball and women's volleyball.
“We are pleased to have Spencer on our staff,” said David Dunham, director of recreation and athletics. “His experience and enthusiasm makes him a perfect fit for our program.”
Castro — who will also be conducting interdisciplinary research with faculty in the Cognitive and Information Sciences program in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts — continues a trend of UC Merced coaching hires with local ties. Men's basketball coach John Sykes is a Merced native, while women's volleyball coach Allen McCreary hails from Atwater.
His father, Charles “Butch” Castro, works for Yosemite National Park and was born in the Indian Village there. His family belongs to the Southern Sierra Miwok tribe.
At Sonora High, Castro helped his team to a Sac-Joaquin Section championship in 2005. As a senior in 2006, he was named the Athlete of the Meet at the Gold Rush Elite Invitational and later earned section titles in the 800 meters, the 1,600, and the 1,600 relay.
Competing at Stanford — where he earned a bachelor's degree in Science, Technology and Society — Castro was a member of championship teams in both track and field and cross country. The highlight of his collegiate career, he said, was competing in the NCAA Division I Outdoor National Championships in June and witnessing firsthand the talents of Olympic-caliber athletes.
“It was just a huge experience to be there,” Castro said. “I saw a guy break the 100-meter record. I saw a guy run 19.9 (seconds) in 200, and one go 27 feet in long jump. The things I saw were incredible.”
Castro, who's now training to be a competitive triathlete while preparing to apply for graduate school, knows he faces a challenge in building UC Merced's program from the ground up. But his goals for the team do not end with simply performing at a high level.
“The hurdles we're facing now are setting precedent and tradition,” he said. “(Dunham) talked a lot about things like dress and conduct — we want to be an example to the Cal Pac even though we're a brand new program. We want to set things to a higher standard.”
After what was a transformative experience at Stanford — where he first began competing in cross country and where he first found his passion for coaching, working with high school athletes at the school's Nike Camp of Champions — Castro said it's refreshing to have the opportunity to build something new at UC Merced.
“I just like the idea of the open-endedness of the place,” he said. “You can point out toward the foothills and be like, ‘We have this.'”