By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
FRESNO — Elite runner Luis Luna helped build Piner cross country into a vibrant program over the previous three years. Even more important in the long term, Luna left the Prospectors in good hands, as evidenced by Saturday’s results at the CIF State Cross Country Championships.
Piner junior Efren Reyes finished eighth in the Division 4 race at 15:48, and senior teammate Jaime Silva was ninth at 15:53, among the top Redwood Empire competitors at the massive event in Woodward Park. Both runners set personal records.
For whatever reason, Reyes thrives here. His previous PR was also at Woodward, and it was here, at the Clovis Invitational in October, that he last finished ahead of Silva. Reyes will be back next year to take the torch from Luna and Silva and keep the tradition going at Piner.
“They really helped me grow as a runner, and like try my hardest,” Reyes said of his older teammates. “To keep on carrying what they started when they got here, it’s pretty important to me.”
A week after competing in rain and slop at the North Coast Section championships at Hayward High, the best local runners operated in conditions worthy of a postcard on this 5,000-meter course, with bright sun, fall colors and temperatures in the upper 60s and lower 70s.
Sonoma Academy senior Austin Orr also medaled — that is, finished in the top 10 — crossing ninth in the Division 5 race with a time of 16:06.
Maria Carrillo junior Ryan Anderson was the fastest Empire boy, finishing in 15:40 to rank 13th in the hyper-competitive D2 race.
Meanwhile, seniors Ashley Moffett of Casa Grande and Brynna Thigpen of Maria Carrillo — tough rivals all season long in the North Bay League — took the contest for fastest Empire girl down to the wire. Moffett (57th) clipped Thigpen (58th) at the line, and each was credited with a time of 19:14.
It was a nice rebound for Thigpen, who finished 26th at the NCS finals a week earlier. She and Moffett were third and second, respectively, among NCS runners at the state finals.
“It was nice,” Maria Carrillo coach Greg Fogg said. “Brynna’s last high school race. She went out as a No. 1 runner.”
Of the five local teams that competed here, the Carrillo and Sonoma Academy boys seemed happiest with their results.
The Pumas came into the event ranked anywhere from 15th to 17th in D2 after finishing 21st a year ago. They were 11th this time, accelerating the timetable set by Fogg, who viewed 2012 as a steppingstone to a top-10 finish next year but didn’t expect to be on the cusp of that threshold already.
Fogg said the Carrillo boys had the three components necessary for a strong team finish at Fresno: a clear frontrunner in Anderson, the NCS champion; a wealth of senior experience; and, perhaps less obvious, a heady race by Nick Jensen. The junior finished 101st, far from the podium, but was critical to Maria Carrillo’s effort. Fogg told most of the Pumas to anchor on Jensen’s pacing.
“He totally pulled ’em,” the coach said. “You always hear about the front guys. But the core of why the team did so well was because Nick was really smart in the first mile. He never makes a mistake in the front of the race. He’s solid. And he’s not conservative.”
Sonoma Academy finished fourth in D5, with senior Jax Rieff (18th at 16:22) not far behind Orr.
“I think we were just lucky to have people who are very close to each other, like outside of cross country,” Rieff said. “And that meant everybody stayed on the team and was really motivated, and like interested in cross country. And also, because we were so close together fitness-wise. Nobody has really kept their rank on the team for very long.”
As coach Danny Aldridge observed: “Last year, our second guy was 17:33 in this race. This year our fifth guy was 17:35. So that’s how much better we’ve gotten. It’s really a tribute to these guys.”
The Piner boys finished ninth in D4. The Maria Carrillo girls were 17th overall in D2, followed by Casa Grande at 21st.
Among the top individual achievers were Petaluma senior Ryan Douglas (21st in D3 at 15:57), Ukiah senior Paul Holden (33rd in D2 at16:02), Piner senior Matthew Mulligan (33rd in D4 at 16:36) and Sonoma Academy junior Patrich Loftus (37th in D5 at 16:48).
Mendocino’s Erin Thomas did even better in the D5 girls division, crossing in 19:33 to finish 17th. It was another strong result for the junior, who took up distance running almost as a lark two years ago, before the Cardinals even had a cross country team.
The one-mile splits were ridiculously fast Saturday. Silva was at 4:48, for example, while Reyes was just behind at 4:51. “You have to (start fast),” Piner coach Luis Rosales said. “And the better athletes can handle it. The other ones fall by the wayside. But you’ve got to be in contention. So it’s kind of like the lesser of two evils. If you don’t, you’re too far behind.”
Casa Grande’s Matt Salazar experienced the flipside of fast breaks. He couldn’t maintain his blistering pace and fell back to 127th. Just a freshman, Salazar has plenty of time to recalculate.
One Redwood Empire standout fell behind without even showing up. Santa Rosa High legend Julia Stamps Mallon had held the state girls record for 16 years, posting 16:43 as a senior in 1996. Her mark finally fell as junior Sarah Baxter of Simi Valley — born pretty close to the time Stamps Mallon set her record — stopped the clock at 16:40.
Stamps Mallon still owns two of the three fastest times in the state championships.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or email@example.com.