By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
HAYWARD — The fun thing about Saturday’s North Coast Section cross country championships was the variety of surfaces the competitors got to tread. There was a muddy quarter-mile track, a muddy soccer field, some muddy patches of pavement, and a stretch of trail that can only be described as muddy mud.
The rain came and went at Hayward High School, but the surfaces got slicker every race. Runners’ backs and legs, and frequently their faces, were spattered with mud. Many lost their balance. Montgomery senior Leila Nacouzi lost a shoe; the mud inhaled it a mile into the 3-mile race, and she ran the final distance on one shoe.
Despite the drastic conditions, many of the Redwood Empire’s best distance runners were able to thrive, paced as usual by Maria Carrillo. The Pumas girls and boys separately captured NCS Division 2 titles. It was the boys’ third section championship, and their first since 2006. It was the girls’ sixth in the past nine years.
The Pumas’ dominance would make them suitable villains — if they weren’t so darn pleasant.
“Team-wise, they’re gonna be good, and probably good for a long time,” Windsor coach Pete Stefanisko. “And they’re such a nice bunch of people. It’s not like they lord it over you or anything, or act like they deserve it. They work hard.”
And they produce results. Carrillo junior Ryan Anderson won the boys race with a time of 15:55. On the girls side, two Pumas wound up in the top 10 — sophomores Andrea Natoli at No. 7 (19:41) and Shaz Breedlove at No. 10 (20:00).
Also earning bids to next Saturday’s CIF State Cross Country Championships in Fresno were the Casa Grande girls in Division 2, the Piner boys in D4 and the Sonoma Academy boys in D5. For third-place Casa, senior Ashley Moffett won her race in 19:11, and freshman teammate Saskia VanOmmeren-Egbert finished ninth in 19:57. Senior Jaime Silva (third at 16:06), junior Efren Reyes (sixth at 16:32) and senior Matthew Mulligan (ninth at 17:00) led third-place Piner.
And seniors Austin Orr and Jax Reiff — ninth and 10th, respectively, both officially at 16:29 — did the heavy lifting for second-place Sonoma Academy.
Nine runners qualified for the state meet as individuals: Casa Grande freshman Matt Salazar (16:06), Ukiah senior Paul Holden (16:21), Windsor juniors Zach Price (16:35) and Hannah Haley (19:18), Petaluma senior Ryan Douglas (16:16), Analy junior Molly Foster (19:36), El Molino seniors Rodrigo Vargas (16:55) and Ben Schulz (17:18), and Mendocino junior Erin Thomas (19:08), one of only two runners competing for the Cardinals.
Thomas actually ran the fastest time among Empire girls. The winner of her race, Branson’s Julia Maxwell, broke her own NCS D5 record at 17:22.
Of the nine, Salazar and Haley may have run the most impressive races.
Haley was expected to qualify for Fresno, but finishing second ahead of competitors like Natoli and Maria Carrillo’s Brynna Thigpen was equivalent to a home run. Last year at the NCS meet she finished 53rd. This time she went out with Moffett and hung with her for most of the race.
“She wanted to be in the top five,” Stefanisko said of Haley. “And I think nobody else went out all that fast. She stayed with Ashley.
But I wasn’t concerned when she was up in the lead at the mile or anything like that, because I think she was certainly capable of it.”
Likewise, Salazar pushed Anderson harder than expected.
“Matt Salazar is a very courageous freshman, and I think he learns a little more each race,” Maria Carrillo coach Greg Fogg said.
“But I love that he takes it out (as leader). He’s a born racer. I haven’t seen many freshmen that would take out an NCS race and lead it like that and dare the guys to go with him. Kind of a little Prefontaine-like, right?”
Fogg and his winner, Anderson, both were surprised that Holden wasn’t out front in that Division 2 race. The Ukiah runner was considered the favorite, but was busy having a miserable day.
“I just hate this course when it’s wet,” Holden said. “I slipped four or five times and had to catch myself (with hands on the ground), and that dropped me back. Five people would pass me. Right when I caught them I would slip again.”
Though the entire course was slippery, a few places were especially treacherous. One came just after the opening lap around the puddled track. As runners mounted an incline, a sharp right turn took them to a small field, and that turn became a Slip’N Slide.
Worst by far, however, was the top of the biggest hill, a mud-and-gravel hump that the runners had to negotiate twice, the second time about a quarter-mile before the finish line.
“We did a course walk up the hill and we could barely get up there,” Moffett said.
“It’s sort of slanted, so we tried to like go wherever the lowest point was, because you were going to end up there anyway,” Reiff said.
As his teammate Orr added: “You have to run in a gutter.”
The squad suffering the most heartbreak at Hayward was El Molino. The Lions finished fifth in Division 4; the top four teams advanced to the state meet. Individuals who fell just short included juniors Christian Friday of Montgomery and Victoria
Tomaszewski of Windsor. Both finished within the top 14 of their races, the prescribed threshold in D2, but were outrun by too many opponents from non-qualifying schools.
For those who did make the cut, next weekend’s competition represents a chance to carve their names onto the list of the area’s most elite cross country runners. It’s an experience none of them will forget.
“State my sophomore year, I did a lot better than I expected to. I got like top 30,” Moffett said. “And then last year I think I had a little too much confidence and I was a little too lackadaisical about it, and so I didn’t do as well as I wanted to. Plus, it was pretty hot, so that was hard. But going into this year, my goal was to prepare better. It’s my last year. I just want to go out as hard as I can.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.