Forming a cohesive unit throughout the 2018 cross-country season, the West Ranch boys and girls cross-country teams always believed in themselves and set out to prove why they were not only one of the elite teams in the Foothill League, but in the state of California.
“We were focusing on getting better individually and as a team,” said boys cross-country runner Evan Bates. “Everybody doubted us at the beginning of the season, we were unranked in the preseason rankings and nobody really gave us respect. We were always trying to prove that we were worthy of being a great team this season which worked well for us because we were always trying to prove them wrong, which is easier than trying to meet expectations.”
Embracing the underdog role and silencing the doubters, the boys and girls cross-country teams reached new heights, making program history as both teams qualified for the CIF State Meet for the first time, among other feats, and were named The Signal Sports Team of the Year.
The Wildcats boys team, comprised of seven runners, was anchored by seniors Isaiah Seidman, Bates and Alexis Romero, junior Hunter Romine and sophomore Dylan Gatua. The group was undeniably fast, winning West Ranch’s fourth straight Foothill League title.
The girls team also featured seven runners and was led by freshmen Alexis Fernandez and Hayden Washington, juniors Abigail Welch and Tracy Sterkel and senior Sophia Hoelzel, and finished as the runner-up at the Foothill League finals.
Creating a bond over the years, both teams have established a tradition of success which they attribute to the team chemistry and team bonding trips that cross-country coach Sara Soltani took them on.
“It’s been hard for the girls team in the past years because we have always gone up to state and watched the boys compete and of course we are always happy for them, but we have always wanted to share in that success,” Hoelzel said. “This year being able to kind of have a sense of unity was really cool to watch and experience. I just think all the bonding trips the coaches put together like going to Mammoth over the summer, it really helped pushed everybody to feel the team and to run for one another which I think led to our success.”
As the year went on both teams picked up momentum. The boys team finished in third place at the CIF-Southern Section Division 1 Cross-Country Championships as Seidman, Bates and Gatua all placed inside the top 10 to lead the boys team to a podium finish.
The girls team finished in fifth place as Fernandez, Welch and Hoelzel finished in 10th, 31st and 36th place respectively, earning the girls team a trip to the CIF State Meet, a program first.
“The girls weren’t really sure because there are a solid eight teams in the Southern Section,” Bates said. “They knew that and put it together and ended up qualifying for state. There used to be a picture in front of the country clubhouse of just the boys team, but this year it was a picture of both the boys and girls team going to state.”
At the CIF State Meet in Fresno, the boys team blazed through the course as Bates and Seidman ran side-by-side for most of the duration of the race and finished in second and fourth place. Gatua and Romine followed in 14th and 18th place while Romero clocked in under 16 minutes.
“It’s kind of cool when you come across the line and you’re like, ‘You just did that,’” Bates said. “Then you turn around and see your next teammate Isaiah come in and then, boom, you see Dylan come in, then you see Hunter come in and then I turn to see Alexis come in under 16. We were like, ‘We did it.’ We put it together at the right moment in the season. It was just a special moment that I will never forget, all of us holding each other.”
The girls team finished ninth out of the 22-team field as Fernandez came in 20th place, Welch 58th and Hoelzel 70th.
“It’s just such a cool experience,” Hoelzel said. “It’s my first and only state meet and to make history while doing it is just really cool and to do it with my best friends and all the support that we had. It was just a really good way to end the year in my final season and it’s something that I can always look back on.”
Continuing their postseason run, the Wildcats boys team recorded another program first by being the first West Ranch team to qualify for the Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) in Portland, Oregon. They finished eighth overall to conclude a historic season of firsts for the Wildcats.
“Every single one of the teams has always talked about winning state and going to NXN. It’s always been this crazy dream,” Seidman said. “We weren’t able to do it my sophomore year with a very talented group, we weren’t able to do it my junior year even still with a very talented group.
“But with my senior year, kind of being able to achieve the dreams that my past teammates wanted to get was a big deal for me and it was a big deal for alumni because we finally got West Ranch to NXN. It was definitely the highlight of my high school career, nothing can match it.”