Foothill League distance runners in it for the long haul

Saugus' Mariah Castillo runs the girls 1,600 meter run at the CIF Southern Section Divisional Finals at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif. on May 19, 2018. © Katharine Lotze/Special to the Signal

In the CIF-Southern Section Finals Division 2 boys 3200-meter race, Canyon’s Ethan Danforth was pleading with the runners in front of him to run faster.

“So we could all work together to overall just get an overall faster time,” Danforth said. “When you get like, a bunch of people to lead one lap and then switch it off, you drive each other to go faster and that’s what I wanted to do.”

Although his fellow runners didn’t follow his directions as well as he had hoped, Danforth still managed to finish first and capture the Division 2 title on a cool Saturday afternoon.

The race was somewhat of a metaphor for the Foothill League’s dominance in distance running this season. Runners push each other, runners push themselves.

And then, the payoff.

Mariah Castillo of Saugus dazzled at the CIF-SS Finals, taking first in both the girls 1600 and the girls 3200 – clocking a 10:06.47 to set a new Division 2 record in the former.

In the 3200, Castillo made the jump from her last-place finish in the event at the CIF-SS finals last season all the way to first this season.

“I was actually really nervous for qualifying because I never passed CIF finals and it was in the back of my mind,” Castillo said, “but I was just trying to stay positive and we had a game plan. We worked really hard for this, so I just went out there and did my thing and I was able to move on.”

Behind Danforth in the boys 3200 was Isaiah Seidman of West Ranch in second and fellow Wildcat Evan Bates in third for a complete Foothill League sweep.

Canyon distance runner Ethan Danforth (left) makes a move late in the 3200 to finish first during a track and field meet with Valencia. Tom Cruze/For The Signal

West Ranch’s Timothy Sterkel topped all competitors in the Division 2 boys 1600. In the Division 2 boys 800, Golden Valley freshman Antonio Abrego came in seventh and in the Division 1 boys 800, Kai Wingo of Valencia came in fourth.

“Southern California right now is just on top right now for distance running,” Danforth said. “Especially our league. Timmy won the mile and Mariah won the mile and the two-mile. And then me winning the two-mile just shows that we’re grinders down here. We like to compete.”

There have been very few instances in Foothill League track and field history that have featured as much breadth and depth that the league has to offer this season.

This year’s cross country season was somewhat of a precursor for the success. Castillo set a new Central Park course record at the Foothill League finals, then followed that up with a second-place finish at the CIF-SS Finals and second at the CIF state championships.

She then competed in a field of 198 runners at the Nike Cross Nationals and earned third place.

Danforth, in his junior campaign, was first at the CIF-SS Finals and second at the state level.

“It doesn’t surprise me that much because we do have a lot of quality athletes for right now for whatever reason and then the schools, they’re well coached,” said Canyon cross country and distance coach Dave DeLong.

MORE: Foothill League athletes put on a show at CIF-SS track and field finals

“I’ve been in the league now for 35 years and the coaching wasn’t always as good as it is now. The kids have ability and they’re being well coached and with all that you’re going to get good results.”

The formula for maintaining the standard of success has yet to be perfected. The ebb and flow of athletes that filter through public schools can’t be harnessed, so coaches have to create the best results from the athletes they are dealt.

Some years are filled with unprecedented success, while others are stereotyped as “rebuilding years.”

There is at least one known factor in the equation: Having one successful athlete can lead to more.

“That’s why I think Saugus has been so good for so long,” said Canyon track and field coach Paul Broneer. “Because the younger kids come in and they see what greatness is.

“Mariah is incredible. She is simply incredible. All her teammates watch her train and they say, ‘I want to be like her.’ And when you got somebody like that, like Ethan for the boys, it just helps everybody.”

Competition within the league can breed success as well, whether it’s in individual races – for instance, the boys 3200 at this season’s CIF-SS Finals – or across an entire season.

“If you don’t want to be humiliated, you better work your butt off,” Broneer said.

However, that competition can be harmful in the long run, according to Saugus cross country and distance coach Rene Paragas.

MORE: West Ranch product wins track & field title for USC

Week in and week out, runners are forced to run at full power if they want to win. The wear and tear of a Foothill League season can equate to suffering in the standings in the postseason.

Paragas even opted to pull Castillo out of league meets with future wins in mind.

“Me as a coach, I have to look and say what’s more important: The team winning a league title or Mariah’s welfare? So to me, having that kind of competition actually hurts us,” the coach said.

This Saturday at the CIF-SS Masters Meet at El Camino College in Torrance, running hard once again isn’t necessarily the goal. Qualifying for the CIF State Finals is.

“Even though it’s qualifying, you’re trying to stay relaxed and you’re just going to go out there and be competitive or get that top six or the overall time to get in,” Castillo said. “So I’m a little nervous, but I’m really excited to see what happens.”

Castillo’s goal is winning a state title. Danforth wants to surpass 8 minutes, 59 seconds to break the Canyon record in the 3200, but he won’t be thinking about that too much during his race.

“I just love running,” Danforth said. “Just the feeling of like, when I’m on the track or when I’m running on trails, that’s the only thing I think about is running.

“It’s like, I just focus on how my body feels and how like I can prove myself and just always constantly wanting to get better.”

Maybe the secret to sustaining a strong running program – or anything, really – is intangible. Passion for what has been, what is and what will be.

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