By Justin Vigil-Zuniga
For The Signal
Foothill League cross country concluded Saturday at Central Park as Golden Valley faced West Ranch followed by a separate meet between Hart and Valencia.
The weekend marked the first cross country meets in over a year for the programs. Although the races were just 3-mile friendlies, it would be the one exhibition to make up for a missed 2020 season.
The first runner across the finish line for the day was West Ranch Senior Jonathan “J2” Mendoza, who finished the run with a 17:18.75 in the junior varsity/varsity boys’ race.
The meet was the Wildcats’ first athletic event without fallen teammate, senior Eyob Anbessaw, who died in December. Coach Jonathan Choi called Anbessaw the heart and soul of the team and said Saturday’s competition left him proud, saying the runners were resilient and ran with Anbessaw in their hearts.
“It felt really encouraging to run for him,” said Mendoza. “I don’t think I would’ve ran as well if I didn’t have that fire behind me.”
The Wildcat team was not too far behind Mendoza, who led six runners finishing in the top seven. West Ranch won 18-44.
“Jonathan Mendoza came through,” said Choi. “Our sophomore, first-year guy, Bille Issa (who finished second) put his name on the map today.”
In the freshman-sophomore races, West Ranch junior Hayden Washington finished first for the girls in a dominating run, finishing in 19.33.6, the best time for the girls all day. West Ranch freshman Micah Hunten finished first with a time of 19:04.88 for the boys. The Wildcats secured both races 15-0.
Hart’s varsity boys controlled their race against Valencia, sweeping the first four spots. Indians junior Jaden Wiley led the way with a 16:26.15 finish to help secure the 17-41 win. Wiley registered the day’s best time, although the weekend’s best was run by Saugus senior Blake Gallardo, who finished Friday’s 3-mile race in 16:11.97.
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The varsity girls produced a near exact flip of an outcome with Valencia’s girls finishing first through fourth and winning 15-42. Vikings senior Sydney Makar led the charge with a 20:16.94 finish.
To conclude the day and season, nine freshmen and sophomore boys took the trail even though each team needs seven runners to register a score. Many of these underclassmen ran for their first high school meets. Sophomore Davis Simonian finished first for Valencia with a 20:14.15.
Each race was one program versus another as opposed to the norm of several schools racing together in groups that can reach the hundreds. The new social-distance-friendly races were an odd adjustment for some runners to overcome.
“It’s one thing when you run against one team,” said Valencia coach Joel Estrada. “Mentally, it’s a lot harder. (Normally) you have seven schools here competing for a title.”
Runners for the modified friendlies were unmasked right before the race and re-masked just after crossing the finish line.
“Wearing masks is definitely an adjustment for runners,” said Choi. “But we’ve done a good job, especially in our sport, staying 6 feet apart and trying to run in smaller cohorts. These guys are so much better at adapting than the adults. I’m learning a lot from them as well.”
All teams have created protocols to adhere to coronavirus restrictions within sports. These adjustments have helped get runners ready for safe competition with the entire 2020 season in jeopardy and eventually completely consumed by COVID-19.
“We were kind of on call,” said Estrada. “We didn’t know when our first race was gonna be. I’m just happy we were able to get one.”
Most of these runners will now prepare for the 2021 track and field season, which is on schedule to begin in late March. Athletes and coaches from all programs are excited to finally be returning to action.
“I’m really happy with the performance,” said Choi. “We’re just getting here started, though. (We have) lots of young and hungry guys and I’m proud and honored to be able to coach these guys.”