Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Warriors Season Closes with Run at State Championship

Fresno, CA - The sun is out and the temperature is a mild 65 degrees. The Warriors are peeling their layers, not that they need it. They are in the final touches of preparation: pinning on race numbers and double knotting shoes making sure the timing chip is securely fashioned, readying themselves to race. There are 23 other teams here today in the girls’ Division III race, Saturday November 30, to contest the California State Championship at Woodward Park in Fresno. Other teams are doing the same. Kailey Eddy is off finishing her drills, focusing on what will partake in the next few minutes. Jessica Xu, expressionless does some strides. This is the moment the Warriors have been training for and dreaming of for the past year. No one talks, a rarity for the team as if they know the seriousness of what they are about to embark on.

Ashley Lara isn’t feeling good but she keeps it to herself. Returning from a broken ankle in August there are good days and bad days, this one is one of the later. Coach Wassell and Coach Guitirez walk the girls to the start line; Lara stays behind to gather herself. She is running for the team today, to enjoy the experience and embrace whatever today has in store. After a deep breath the junior jogs past catching up with her team.

The energy level is raising with each passing moment as twenty-three of the fastest teams all with identical dreams line the start. Coach Small is off the start line about 200 meters to catch the vantage point of the start he prefers. “The less I talk the better,” He says. “They know what to do.”

The girls huddle for a team prayer with the coaches and finish with a “Warriors” chant before taking their spot on the starting line.

About 20 minutes from now, after 5000 meters of running the CIF will crown the Division III champion. There is strong representation from Northern California including Campolindo, who from the NCS comes into the race ranked second. Bishop O’Dowd, No. 6; Aptos No. 7 and Las Lomas No. 8 put half of the top eight teams from the north, respectably. The Warriors will need to execute the perfect race to break into the top 10, a goal Coach Small sees as something that is very realistic for this team.  The Warriors have greater depth than any other they have brought to the State Meet. Four runners have run in the 19 minute range this season while Karen Mac and Nicole Favre are on the verge of a breakthrough.


The runners are called to the starting line. The starter walks to the middle of the field as race instructions are heard over the PA system. Thousands of parents, reporters and spectators lining the green chain-link fence suddenly become still.  The key to the state meet is patience. With a start that bottlenecks 200 of the fastest runners in the state into a path just 10 feet wide path just 150 meters into the race everyone wants to get out in a good position. Patience is key here.

There is calmness in the brief moment before the starting gun sounds and the explosion of runners off the starting line. The work is done, but the war is about to begin. “There’s nothing we can do now,” Coach Small says to Ashley Lara’s Father Joe. “It’s on them now.”

As the field surges away from the starting line, Coach Small jogs up the course toward the 1200 mark to get a glimpse of his runners early in the race. The pack is too tight at the start for even a glimpse of his team as the approaching stampede resembles Spain’s “Running of the Bulls” more than a 5k footrace.

As the runners pass through the mile the team is packed together impressively. Eddy and Xu who have shared duties as the top runner this season are side by side in the middle of the pack crossing the mile split in 6:01. Newcomer Sara Van Wagoner is with them just a second behind. Vanessa Giacalone follows in 6:06. Ashley Lara comes through in 6:12, Karen Mac and Nicole Favre both in 6:17. The pace is fast and was expected to be so. Coach Small spoke of this yesterday at the team meeting and in the weeks heading into the race. Every runner was well on pace for a personal best but few hold it. The key is patience, moving up in the later more difficult stages in the race.


The Woodward Park course is shaped like the number 6, with the first and last mile the same, which allows for spectators to dash back and forth across the park to watch the race at various points.  Bad news came in at 2 miles, the Warriors are buried way back in the 200 runner field and Kailey Eddy never made it to the check point.

With a half mile to go Sara VanWagoner and Jessica Xu finally break free of the crowd and are moving up. They’ve past 10 runners and are looking for more. The grimace on their face heading up the final hill to the finish says more than words, they are giving it their all. Meanwhile three Northern California runners are in the top four, including Clare Peabody of Aptos who won the CCS Championship two weeks prior. Cate Radcliff of Santa Cruz is also running strong battling for a top 10 podium position. But it is Bethan Knights of Northwood who buries the competition running 17:08 for a 43 second victory.

The last 107 days of the cross country season suddenly compress themselves down into five chaotic minutes. The coaches are looking for their runners but it turns out near impossible in the mess of fans and parents.

As the last stragglers are still lurching over the finish line, the throng of spectators surges from the course, over to the exit of the finish area. They’re trying to find their loved ones and friends.

Amid the frenzy, the coaches find their team sitting next to the medical tent, checking in on their teammate. The compressed starting line results in teams crunched and elbowing as the gun went off but with such an elite field there is little separation. Following some elbowing and shoving as runners battled for position at the 1.5 mile mark Eddy went down and the runners behind unaware were left scrambling. Literally getting trampled she couldn’t recover, her race was done.


Results are up quickly, Campolindo runs away with the title with Aptos in eleventh. The Warriors finish twentieth. Sara VanWagoner is the top finisher on the day for the Warriors in 80th place with a time of 19:54, which is good for eleventh all-time for the Warriors. Jessica Xu (20:05) and Karen Mac (20:40) were just seconds off their personal best while Nicole Favre improved 26 second to finish in 21:05.  Her time impressively moves the first year runner to #18 on the team’s all-time list. Despite not feeling well Ashley Lara ran well finishing in 21:00, a time off of her personal best (19:49 run earlier in the year) but strong nonetheless, taking everything in consideration.

Losing a top runner is a major hit to scoring in a meet of this quality, nearly a 100 point swing or more. Not that it is a consolation, there are no moral victories. “The ‘go out and die’ style of racing at the State Meet is not conducive to running PR’s,” Coach Small said. “I’m proud of how they competed today and they should feel good about the results.”

At the start of the season predictions had the Warriors on the outside looking in; unranked amongst the sections elite.  But within the team there was little doubt, and while each athlete had their own separate struggles the team came together in the end when it mattered most.  The girls climbed into the rankings ending the season #10 for all divisions and second in Division III.

Four runners this season ran under 20 minutes on the Woodward course, a fifth came close in 20:30 demonstrating the depth of this year’s team.

Coach Small and his team knew all along they would need a little luck coming into the State Meet. They knew that even after 107 days of training and all that really mattered was who performed better on that particular Saturday in November. So following the race, no excuses are heard. No one considers any what-ifs. No one points a finger or lays any blame. They snap their photos and soak in the moment. There are here, where people thought they weren’t supposed to be.

Full Division III Results: CLICK HERE


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