At the 1.25-mile mark of last Friday’s Metro Conference cross country championship meet at Rohr Park, there were five girls running abreast in the lead pack. At the end of the 2.5-mile race, only two runners were still in front, and they remained that way, jostling elbow to elbow, vying for every inch of turf, until they crossed the finish line.
It was a dramatic finish for the ages — a championship race won by the slimmest of margins by Sweetwater senior Erika Gonzalez, who timed a mere 0.16 seconds ahead of defending South Bay League champion Yoceline Ramirez, a senior from league rival Chula Vista.
“I was very tired, I just wanted to get a good place,” said Gonzalez, who trailed Ramirez by a stride entering the final 50 yards of the girls varsity race. “It feels great, I think I want to cry.”
A very exhausted Gonzalez didn’t cry but she did receive a flurry of congratulatory hugs from excited teammates.
The Sweetwater harrier, who had lost twice this season to Ramirez in head-to-head match-ups, timed 15:34.27.
Ramirez’s second place time was 15:34.43.
The standout runners exchanged narrow leads throughout the race.
“I just wanted to follow her and didn’t want to let her leave me,” Gonzalez explained. “I didn’t think I was going to have my kick. I just followed her. I followed her all the way to the finish line, where I finally passed her.”
“Without a doubt, I knew she could do it,” SuHi coach Raul Galindo said. “She did an awesome job.”
Gonzalez’ first-place finish was crucial to the Red Devils’ championship hopes; Sweetwater needed a win to tie the front-running Spartans for the 2013 league title.
The Devils indeed made up ground from their 23-32 dual meet loss on Oct. 4 but Chula Vista retained the edge to secure its third consecutive league title, winning last Friday by one point 41-42.
The Spartans placed three runners among the top five finishers and four among the top eight to narrowly out-point Sweetwater (which had three runners place in the top 10).
“It took a lot of hard work,” Spartan coach Philan Garcia admitted. “(Our girls) just needed to keep running they way they had been running, nothing spectacular. I knew they would do it.”
CV senior Brooke Martinez was fourth in the race, followed by junior teammate Ana Gonzalez, to buttress the defending champions.
The last time Eastlake’s girls team won a league title was in 2006. It’s been seven years since then, but the wait is over after the Titans successfully navigated an undefeated season by out-pointing the Otay Ranch Mustangs 39-42 at last Friday’s Mesa League finals.
Eastlake had previously edged Otay Ranch by one point in their earlier dual meet encounter.
“Our strategy was to just get a little better from the last time (we raced them) and run our best race of the season, and it was,” EHS coach Mark Coziahr explained. “That was the goal. I told the girls it was going to be an epic day and they ran an epic race.”
The Titans were led on the course by sophomore Celiese Zasueta, who out-dueled Otay Ranch’s top runners, junior Darla Osuna and senior Monique Anguiano, to win the league’s individual title.
Osuna is a returning state meet qualifier.
Following Zasueta’s dramatic first-place finish, Eastlake had three runners cross the finish line among the top nine finishers to also earn first team all-league accolades: senior Jasmine Vasquez (fifth), freshman Emily Bonilla (eighth) and sophomore Mia Costello (ninth).
Otay’s third runner, freshman Eyra Alfaro, was 10th in a top 10 field broken up by three Bonita Vista harriers.
Zasueta finished the season undefeated in league competition. She took the lead up the second hill at last Friday’s league finals.
“I worked hard for it,” she said. “I knew I just had to be determined.”
“Celiese has the heart of a champion,” Coziahr said. “She runs great in big races.”
The Mustangs, winners of the last four Mesa titles, have excelled this season despite the loss to graduation of its top five runners.
Osuna said the team’s mantra was “positive thinking.”
“A lot of the girls haven’t been varsity until now,” she said. “At the beginning of the season, we were underdogs because we had lost a lot of our good runners. Now, we’re doing better. The girls we needed have stepped up. They’re motivating me.”
San Diego Section Finals
Saturday, Nov. 23
Race schedule: 8:30 a.m. — Division I girls. 9:05 a.m. — Division II girls. 9:40 a.m. Division I boys. 10:10 a.m. — Division II boys. 10:40 a.m. — Division III girls. 11:15 a.m. — Division IV boys. 11:45 a.m. — Division I girls. 12:20 p.m. — Division III boys. 12:50 p.m. — Division IV girls. 1:25 p.m. — Division V boys.
Division I: Eastlake, Chula Vista, Sweetwater, Otay Ranch, Bonita Vista, San Ysidro
Division II: Hilltop, Olympian
Division III: Montgomery, Southwest, Castle Park, Mar Vista,
Division IV: Mater Dei Catholic, High Tech Chula Vista
Division V: Chula Vista Calvary Christian Academy
Tribute to friendship spirits underdog Barons to league championship
The tragic death of Otay Ranch High School cross country runner Steven Liu not only affected student-athletes on the Mustangs’ campus but others in the surrounding community as well. That message of caring was demonstrated by the hundreds of young people who attended a candlelight vigil in Liu’s honor.
Many in attendance were cross country runners from the Otay Ranch team’s eastern Chula Vista rivals.
Fast forward two weeks to last Friday’s Metro Conference championship meet at Rohr Park and the ripples are still expanding, still touching lives.
The Bonita Vista High School boys team funneled that energy in a positive way to jog off the course with sole possession of this year’s Mesa League championship title.
It was an inspirational finish that anyone who knew the significance of the Barons’ mismatched socks — one foot garbed in Bonita Vista blue and the other foot garbed in a lighter hue of blue in honor of Liu — would likely have felt a lump develop in their throat.
And perhaps even a tear run down their cheek.
For the victorious Barons, among those deeply moved by the tragic incident, it was their way of showing support, of furthering the healing process.
On the running course last Friday, there were no rivals, only friends — friends, forever.
“I think what really motivated us — inspired us — was Steven,” said senior Austin Johnson, BV’s lead runner who secured a pivotal second-place individual finish to Mater Dei Catholic sophomore sensation Salvador Rodriguez in the Mesa League championship race. “We are close to Otay. We all wanted to run for the love of the sport and the love of Steven.”
Motivated not by personal gain from a tragic event but motivated out of affection for a fellow runner — and all the friends he left behind.
It was a subtle yet powerful message of how each fellow student is unique, important and has something special to share with others … a tribute to friendship by acknowledging others with respect and kindness.
It was above all a shocking turnaround for the Barons, who had dropped a 24-31 dual meet decision to the Mustangs on Nov. 1, the day that Liu also fell to his death.
The Bonita Vista runners proved that where there is a will, there is a way.
As did runners from neighboring Eastlake, which dropped Otay Ranch out of championship contention by finishing seven points ahead of the Mustangs at the league finals.
“We lost two things on Nov. 1 — the dual meet to Otay and also a close friend,” explained Baron senior Andrew Turpin, who secured an all-league finish in the race in 10th place. “That made us realize why we do the things we do in our lives, and also what we can do for each other.
“We wanted to honor him (Liu) with our best performance of the year. We left everything we had on the course.
“He was an amazing person and the world is darker without him.”
Who’s in first?
The championship title is based on points accumulated in both dual meets and the league finals, which are weighted equally.
Otay Ranch finished undefeated in dual meets but finished third at the league finals. Bonita Vista finished with one loss in dual meets but finished first at the league finals while Eastlake finished with two dual meet losses and was second at the league finals.
The final championship points favored the Barons with 11 points, followed by the Mustangs in second place with 10 points and the Titans in third place with nine points.
“Obviously, we would have liked to have won a part of the girls championship and also won the boys championship, but that’s why you run the races,” Otay Ranch coach Ian Cumming said. “We went out and raced hard and got beat — congratulations go to Bonita Vista and Eastlake. But I’m still proud of my kids for all the things they’ve had to get through in the tough last couple of weeks.”
Sweetwater accomplished a cross country rarity by placing all seven varsity runners among the top 10 finishers in the South Bay League race as the Red Devils, previously undefeated in dual meets, secured the team title with a meet-low 19 points at the league finals.
The National City squad made a bold statement with the top three individuals and four of the top five finishers.
SuHi senior Gerardo Marquillo (16:04) won the individual league title by a whopping 25-second margin over classmate Bryan Alvarado (16:29). Devil sophomore Carlos Aviles-Sullivan (16:40) was third while senior teammates Alexis Diaz de Leon (16:51) and Carlos Bernal (17:05) were fifth and eighth, respectively, SuHi junior Raphael Grajeda (17:09) was ninth and Devil senior Luis Hernandez (17:14) was 10th.
The top 10 finishers receive first team all-league recognition while the top 15 finishers receive medals.
The Devils will now take aim at Saturday’s Division I finals at Morley Field. The top three teams advance to the state championship.
“It’s a group effort,” Marquillo said. “I’m very proud of our team. Most of us are four-year runners. We started together and we’ll finish together.”
Ron Becijos contributed to this story
South Bay League Finals
Top individuals (5K): 1. Gerardo Marquillo (Sweetwater) 16:04.05; 2. Bryan Alvarado (Sweetwater) 16:28.87; 3. Carlos Aviles-Sullivan (Sweetwater) 16:39.51; 4. Javier Osuna (Montgomery) 16:43. 55; 5. Alexis Diaz de Leon (Sweetwater) 16:51.38; 6. Edwardo Pallares (Montgomery) 17:01.68; 7. Edgar Garcia (Montgomery) 17:04.85; 8. Carlos Bernal (Sweetwater) 17:05.43; 9. Raphael Grajeda (Sweetwater) 17:09.46; 10. Luis Hernandez (Sweetwater) 17:13.88; 11. Sergio Castro (Southwest) 17:24.90; 12. Jose Burciaga (Mar Vista) 17:33.78; 13. Dario Baeza (Southwest) 17:34.17; 14. Jesse Villarruel (Castle Park) 17:35.71; 15. Antonio Cota (Mar Vista) 17:37.34; 16. Kevin Sarabia (Castle Park) 17:39.72; 17. Olaf Uribe (Castle Park) 17:53.90; 18. Luis Sosa (17:58.08); 19. Brian Diaz (San Ysidro) 17;58.67; 20. Salvador Lira (Montgomery) 17:59.56.
Top teams: 1. Sweetwater 19; 2. Montgomery 61; 3. Castle Park 94; 4. Southwest 109; 5. Mar Vista 119; 6. Chula Vista 153; 7. San Ysidro 179
Dual meets: Sweetwater (6-0); Montgomery (5-1); Southwest (3-3); Mar Vista (3-3); Castle Park (3-3); Chula Vista (1-5); San Ysidro (0-6)
Team champion: Sweetwater
Top individuals (2.5 miles): 1. Erika Gonzalez (Sweetwater) 15:34.27; 2. Yoceline Ramirez (Chula Vista) 15:34.43; 3. Karina Centera (San Ysidro) 16:51.38; 4. Brooke Martinez (Chula Vista) 16:53.61; 5. Ana Gonzalez (Chula Vista) 16:55.91; 6. Karen Murillo (Montgomery) 17:03.01; 7. Liliana Hakim (Castle Park) 17:13.97; 8. Jakelyne Jimenez (Chula Vista) 17:19.26; 9. Ashley Barajas (Sweetwater) 17:27.77; 10. Kimberly Arellano (Sweetwater) 18:03.56; 11. Nayeli Chavez (Southwest) 18:30.64; 12. Xenya Suarez (Sweetwater) 18:32.83; 13. Fabiola Gonzalez (Southwest) 18:36.99; 14. Karen Ruiz (Sweetwater) 18:37.58; 15. Ingrid Arauz (Southwest) 18:38.91; 16. Crystal Juares (San Ysidro) 18:42.19; 17. Savannah Crean (Mar Vista) 18:42.60; 18. Reyna Flores (Southwest) 18;45.46; 19. Lizette Vazquez (Montgomery) 18:55.00; 20. Jazmine Banaci (Southwest) 18:57.92.
Top teams: 1. Chula Vista 41; 2. Sweetwater 42; 3. Southwest 72; 4. Montgomery 91; 5. San Ysidro 116; 6. Mar Vita 139
Dual meets: Chula Vista (6-0); Sweetwater (5-1); Montgomery (4-2); Southwest (3-3); Mar Vista (2-4); San Ysidro (1-5); Castle Park (0-6)
Team champion: Chula Vista
Mesa League Finals
Top individuals (5K): 1. Salvador Rodriguez (Mater Dei Catholic) 16:34.09; 2. Austin Johnson (Bonita Vista) 16:42.83; 3. Oliver Abundez (Eastlake) 16:47.13; 4. Oscar Quintero (Bonita Vista) 16:50.70; 5. Joshua Williams (Eastlake) 16:53.43; 6. Alexis Hernandez (Otay Ranch) 17:15.00; 7. Sebastian Negrete (Bonita Vista) 17:15.54; 8. Alex Hernandez (Otay Ranch) 17:15.93; 9. Andres Correa (Eastlake) 17:16.48; 10. Andrew Turpin (Bonita Vista) 17:16.67; 11. Kushan Yalamanchi (Bonita Vista) 17:17.86; 12. Nathan Sanchez (Olympian) 17:19.03; 13. Martin Martinez (Otay Ranch) 17:21.69; 14. David Wilson (Olympian) 17:22.65; 15. Jacob Barr (Eastlake) 17:26.52; 16. Isaiah Thomas (Otay Ranch) 17:24.64; 17. Oscar Montero-Vega (Olympian) 17:34.62; 18. Rafael Patricio (Otay Ranch) 17:37.06; 19. Fil Punzalan (Olympian) 17:42.82; 20. Owen Casady (Bonita Vista) 17:45. 28.
Top teams: 1. Bonita Vista 34; 2. Eastlake 54; 3. Otay Ranch 61; 4. Olympian 83; 5. Mater Dei Catholic 113; 6. Hilltop 159
Dual meets: Otay Ranch (5-0), Bonita Vista (4-1), Eastlake (3-2), Olympian (2-3); Mater Dei Catholic (1-4); Hilltop (0-5)
Team champion: Bonita Vista
Top individuals (2.5 miles): 1. Cliese Zasueta (Eastlake) 15:51.43; 2. Darla Osuna (Otay Ranch) 15:56.30; 3. Monique Anguiano (Otay Ranch) 16:00.61; 4. Izabella Garcia-Arce (Bonita Vista) 16:08.44; 5. Jasmine Vasquez (Eastlake) 16:12.32; 6. Marleen Aranda (Bonita Vista) 16:12.78; 7. Yazelyn Vargas (Bonita Vista) 16:26.02; 8. Emily Bonilla (Eastlake) 16:28.16; 9. Mia Costello (Eastlake) 16:28.46; 10. Eyra Alfaro (Otay Ranch) 16:30.67; 11. Lorena Mendoza (Hilltop) 16:42.36; 12. Djoana Nicolo (Olympian) 16:47.02; 13. Krystina Moreno (Otay Ranch) 16:53.05; 14. Alicia Huerta (Otay Ranch) 16:53.78; 15. Jasmine Lahbabi (Otay Ranch) 16:59.23; 16. Jackie Villalobos (Eastlake) 17:15.64; 17. Kalani Krause (Otay Ranch) 17:21.15; 18. Michelle Steele (Bonita Vista) 17:30.75; 19. Justine Holden (Bonita Vista) 17:37.04; 20. Denisse Bautista (Bonita Vista) 17:37.63.
Top teams: 1. Eastlake 39; 2. Otay Ranch 42; 3. Bonita Vista 54; 4. Olympian 109; 5. Hilltop 136; 6. Mater Dei Catholic 163
Dual meets: Eastlake (5-0); Otay Ranch (4-1); Bonita Vista (3-2); Olympian (2-3); Mater Dei Catholic (1-4); Hilltop (0-5)
Team champion: Eastlake