KING WEARS THE CROWN IN FURIOUS FINISH
There’s an old cliché that goes, “All’s well that ends well.”
In this year of pandemic, quarantine and a nasty virus that has littered the last year with so much uncertainty and upended high school sports, the cross country teams entered their delayed season last November with far more questions than answers. Even as they were poised to start competing, COVID intervened yet again and pushed the first race back by yet another month.
But they finally did start racing in early February and despite a season of differences and disappointments (the post-season CIF Championships, for one, was cancelled last month) when it ended on Saturday against Santiago, the King teams came away with hard-fought victories and the boys earned the Big 8 league title.
And just for good measure, the face off with the Sharks turned out to be the best two races of the season.
Both Santiago and King were undefeated on the boys’ side and the race would decide the champion. In a pre-race computer mock-up, the two teams were tied. But you don’t race in a computer, and so the Sharks and Wolves would race — and race hard — on terrain to determine the winner.
In a very exciting contest, the two teams matched place for place over the first six spots. Francisco Zavaleta (Sr) closed strong over the third mile, gapping Evan Hild (Jr) of Santiago to conclude his undefeated season. He became the first King runner to earn the individual league title (and MVP) since Lane Werley did it last in 2010 and 2009.
“I knew I was going up against someone faster than me” Francisco said, with a respectful nod to a time Hild notched earlier in the season against Roosevelt. “So I had to play it smart … after passing him, I kept an adequate distance (between us) for him to tire out, but not for me to burn out.” It worked, as he sprinted home with a course record of 15:17, earned the title and started the scoring train for King.
Edgar Ortega (Sr) was next for King in third, and closed his stellar career with his fastest ever 3 mile time at 15:30. “I believe that I really put everything I could to finish on a high note, just fought hard but not for me, in all honesty, that last mile was for my team.”
Gray Mavhera (Jr) was next, in 5th place, a key scoring spot that kept King through the first three scorers ahead by 3 points. “It was stressful” Gray said later, of the knowledge that both teams had their eyes on the title and one last chance to get it. “I gave the team a pep talk and told them all to just race your heart out and that’s what we did.”
Jack Slavin (So) got the message and ran his best race of the season, finishing sprawled out on the other side of the finish line in exhaustion. At the half-way mark, the talented sophomore was behind a large group from Santiago but was able to break free and beat all but one of his opponents, finishing 7th. Bohdin Rush(Sr) saved his best race for last. Never has he scored in a varsity race, until today. And while six Santiago runners were ahead of him, it was his gritty effort that anchored the final scoring spot and put King into the win, 27-29. Jonathan Weaver (Sr) and Julian Morgan (Jr) were 6th and 7th for King.
It was a close race, and the first league title for King since 2015. “You really couldn’t tell who the winner was” said Ortega. “As soon as we found out we won, the excitement on everyone’s faces was bright. “this honestly feels better to me than any PR because we all contributed, for months and months.”
The girls’ race, which preceded the boys, had high stakes resting on it as well. Santiago, the defending league champions, and King entered at 3-1, so the race was for second place in the conference. Like the boys, both teams were evenly matched and both teams knew it could come down to one point.
Well, it came down to two points, and King would ultimately secure the win with a 27-29 score. Their attack differed from the boys, as they clumped up the front spots in the race, taking 2-3-4. Audrey Brunken concluded her breakout season with the runner-up spot, followed closely by Andrea Guadian and then Justine Marshall who closed furiously over the last mile to flip a spot with an opponent.
“Sometimes you just know when you need a point” she said after race, referencing a spot with a half-mile to go when she was told by this coach that her team was 1 point up and her position critical. “I know” she mouthed as she went by.
Evenie Fuentes improved on the course by 39 seconds and was 7th overall. “I knew this race was the race to put it all out there and give it everything I had, so the results were a sweet reward” she commented later.
King’s 5th would be Andreya Goodson,(So) who employed a new strategy which paid dividends with her fastest time of the year on the course and secured the win for the Wolves. Two freshmen – Leah Pendleton and Kaylee Magno were in King’s top 7 and 14 girls ran PR’s on the day.
“Everyone raced extremely well” Justine said. “We were so blessed to have Santiago as our competition for our last race.”
Audrey added praise, saying “I’m so proud of everyone, especially all the freshmen and rookies. Everyone raced their heart out and it was a great way to end the season.”
Such exploits in both races may have seemed unlikely a few months ago. Months and months – to use Edgar’s words – have gone by, and most were full of challenges and disappointments to overcome. But with great fortitude, these kids found a way.
And while it may be cliché, it is true nonetheless: No matter what the past looked like, all’s well that ends well.