Piner aiming for NCS cross-country title

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Piner cross country coach Luis Rosales has fine-tuned nearly every aspect of his runners’ performance over the past few months, tinkering with everything from stride to arm pump to pacing. Now, on the eve of the North Coast Section Cross Country Championships, he’s more or less down to one final piece of advice: Sneeze into your elbow.

“My major thing is the flu. This is flu season,” Rosales said. “I tell them, ‘Guys, don’t share drinks. Wash your hands.’ It’s one of those X factors.”

Barring a sudden viral outbreak, the Piner boys will be gunning for their first section title since 1976.

There will be plenty of strong Redwood Empire teams at Hayward High School today, including the Sonoma Valley boys and the Maria Carrillo, Petaluma and Casa Grande girls. Individually, the top boys will include Ukiah’s Paul Holden, Cardinal Newman’s Alexi Taylor, Sonoma’s Alex Conner and Cloverdale’s Joe Carrillo. The girls’ side will feature standouts like El Molino’s Nicole Lane, Casa’s Ashley Moffett, Carrillo’s Lauren Krauss and Sonoma Academy’s Katy Lee.

But no one will be followed more closely than Piner and its star senior, Luis Luna, who won the Division 3 race at the NCS meet and finished sixth at the CIF state meet last year.

Everyone knew Luna would be the runner to beat this season in the North Bay League, and he was. But now the back story can be told.

“He started really rough,” Rosales said. “It was the worst summer he’s ever had. He hurt his knee working, and he didn’t really run that much. At the first meet, he didn’t run that well.”

Somewhere along the way, Luna found his form, a development that did not surprise Rosales. Luna came to him as a good, not great, runner out of middle school, and since then has demonstrated an ability to constantly and consistently improve. He is now drawing attention from colleges like Portland, New Mexico and Oklahoma State, the two-time defending NCAA champion. Portland has already made an offer.

The immediate question for Luna is whether he can claim records at the NCS meet. His time last year on the three-mile course was 15:23, which fell short of his own 15:08 mark as a sophomore. The all-time Redwood Empire record at Hayward is 15:04 by Petaluma’s Sterling Lockert in 2008. The Division 3 record there is 14:49, and the record among all divisions is 14:38.

Luna’s best time this year at three miles is 14:43 in the NBL finals, which shattered the mark at Spring Lake. Analysts have told Rosales that the Hayward course is about 11 seconds slower than the Spring Lake course for an elite runner.

Unfortunately, the weather might not cooperate with Luna’s record shopping. It’s supposed to be mildly cool in Hayward today. But the forecast calls for rain showers Friday, which should slow down a course that is mostly on grass.

While Rosales is eager to watch Luna, his prize pupil, he is even more excited that his boys have a chance to win the team competition. Piner finished fourth at NCS in 2010, and is undeniably stronger this year. Junior Jaime Silva (25th last year) and seniors Jason Saler (36th) and Epi Nunez (38th) all are back to complement Luna, joined by a couple of new threats. Zekaryas Mebrahtu was hurt last year, but returned to have a strong season in 2011. And youngster Efren Reyes came out of nowhere to set a Spring Lake record for sophomores at 15:27.

“Everyone is back, everyone has a year of experience and everyone is better,” Rosales said.

The Prospectors will have plenty of competition in Division 3, primarily from Campolindo and Miramonte. Rosales said all three teams are ranked in the top five in California in that division. Piner is the highest of the three, but …

“Rankings are like the stock market,” Rosales cautioned. “They go up and down. It doesn’t matter until the end.”

There is uncommon pressure on the Prospectors, but Rosales believes they are ready.

“Everything this year has been geared toward state,” he said. “Last year, we were mentally done after league. That’s where our sights were. This year, the focus is on state. That said, we were able to focus on league, too; we were not overlooking anything. But we’re not done yet.”

The Piner girls aren’t expected to qualify as a team, but Kyra Johnson should make it, and her twin sister, Dezirae, has a shot, too. The top two to five teams in each NCS division qualify for the state meet at Fresno, along with the top five individuals from non-qualifying teams, provided they finish within a certain range. In Division 3, for example, the top four teams make the cut, and the individual qualifiers must finish in the top 16.

The first race, Division 4 girls, goes off at 8:30 a.m. The final race is Division 3 boys; the awards ceremony for that one is slated for 1:50 p.m. Don’t be surprised if the Piner boys walk away with some of the hardware.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.