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CIF state cross country: Thomas ready for elite test

SATURDAY
CIF State Cross Country Championships

WHERE: Woodward Park, Fresno

TIME: Starts 8:30 a.m.

LENGTH: 5,000 meters

RUNNERS TO WATCH
Ryan Anderson, Maria Carrillo
Ashley Moffett, Casa Grande
Jaime Silva, Piner
Matt Salazar, Casa Grande
Paul Holden, Ukiah
Erin Thomas, Mendocino

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

There are a lot of great trails around Mendocino, but finding a pacesetter has been a challenge for Erin Thomas.

Her first running partner was her dog Buster, a lab-pit mix that used to pull Thomas along like a sled dog when she originally entertained notions of distance running. By now, she has to let Buster off-leash because he falls too far behind her. This year, Mendocino cross country coach Vincent Lee encouraged Thomas to run with the boys. He even offered incentives — rewards for Thomas if she won, sets of stairs for the boys if they lost.

“That deal kind of faded when I started beating them all the time,” Thomas said Friday.

Now comes a stiffer test for the Mendocino junior: The CIF State Cross Country Championships in Fresno. Thomas is among the 44 Redwood Empire athletes — five teams of seven, plus nine individuals — who will be competing against the best runners in California.

Much of the local attention will be focused on the Maria Carrillo boys and girls teams, both of which won North Coast Section titles at Hayward High a week ago, or individual section champions like Carrillo’s Ryan Anderson and Casa Grande’s Ashley Moffett. It would be a mistake to overlook Thomas, whose emergence is both a symbol and a primary explanation of Mendocino’s development as a program.

When Thomas was a freshman, the Cardinals didn’t have a track or cross country team. Feeling that she wasn’t being pushed hard enough in soccer (there was no girls soccer team, so she did that with the boys, too), Thomas started to tack on two-mile track workouts after practice.

Her parents, both of them runners, encouraged Thomas to enter a couple of cross country events as an independent.

“I was kind of out of shape,” she said. “I was really slow, actually.”

Thomas’ older brother, Skyler, who graduated from Mendocino in 2008, ran quite successfully as an independent.

Erin’s first race was the last one before the Coastal Mountain Conference finals. She ran in the finals and finished ninth, advancing to the NCS championships. Thomas finished 67th there in Division 5 — not “about 150th,” as she will tell you. It was a start. The next year, as a sophomore, she finished 28th.

Meanwhile, Lee was building a program from scratch. He arrived in Mendocino four years ago and began coaching baseball and basketball. He revived the school’s dormant track program in 2009 and formed a cross country team the next year. Now the track team is up to about 25 kids and the cross country squad is at 12.

“She’s had a big hand in it,” Lee said of Thomas. “She tells everyone how fun cross country is.”

And she leads by example. Lee’s athletes generally log 35 to 40 miles per week. Thomas adds another 10-15 miles, some of them on weekends.

The extra work has made her a dominant North Coast runner. That was never more apparent than when she won the D5 race at the Stanford Invitational in September. Only one other Empire runner (Santa Rosa’s Delaney White, who finished sixth in D1) even cracked the top 10 at the prestigious event. Thomas won her race by a comfortable 13 seconds.

“I do surprise myself,” Thomas said. “Like before the NCS meet at Hayward, my parents said, ‘Oh, yeah, you could get top four.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that.’ ”

She should listen to her folks. Thomas, as the only representative of Mendocino High, finished fourth in the D5 race this year. And don’t be fooled by the size of her division. Her time (19:08) would have won the D2 race and placed second in D4. Her finish even outdid Skyler, who finished sixth at NCS as a senior.

Lee describes Erin as outgoing and upbeat, but notes that she has a killer instinct on the course.

“She’s very competitive,” he said. “The biggest thing for her, when she’s on that starting line, she has tunnel vision. You can see it in the way she runs. She’s efficient with her stride, and the way she’ll take the inside or the outside. The reason why she took such a big jump is that she’s so damn competitive. Come race day, she’ll be ready.”

She sounded ready Friday, just before getting in the family car for the six-hour drive to Fresno.

“It’s definitely exciting, because I never even thought I’d be a runner,” Thomas said. “I didn’t think I’d get this far.”

And with her senior year ahead of her, there’s no telling how much farther she can run.

Joining Thomas, Moffett and the Maria Carrillo teams are the Casa Grande girls, Piner boys and Sonoma Valley boys, plus Casa’s Matt Salazar, Ukiah’s Paul Holden, Windsor’s Zach Price and Hannah Haley, Petaluma’s Ryan Douglas, Analy’s Molly Foster, and El Molino’s Rodrigo Vargas and Ben Schulz.

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