The Otay Ranch High School cross country team swept a key Mesa League dual meet against rival Bonita Vista last Friday afternoon at Discovery Park and, perhaps understandably, spirits on the winning team were high despite runners having been physically drained by unseasonably hot temperatures.
The Mustangs came out on top by a score of 24-31 in a closely contested boys race pitting teams that were undefeated in league competition.
Otay Ranch won the girls race by a score of 21-34. The Mustangs made it a sweep with an 18-40 dual win in the boys JV race.
But the Mustang family was soon to be thrust into a roller coaster of emotions. Within minutes after the team had arrived back on campus, one of the team’s top varsity runners (not with the group) had his life end in tragic fashion just off campus.
Senior Steven Liu did not compete in last Friday’s dual meet, nor was he present at the competition site. Instead, he met a tragic end. He now runs in the clouds, chasing eternity.
Liu was a well-liked student-athlete — the estimated 700 strong who turned out for Saturday’s candlelight vigil on the pedestrian bridge where Liu met his demise was proof of that.
He left behind classmates and friends, relatives and mentors — many in dismay at what happened.
The events leading to Liu’s death should not be trivialized. What is now important is the healing process.
The candlelight vigil served as the beginning of that healing process for many who knew him; it also served as a send-off to the afterlife, though tearful.
The outpouring of positive emotion is evidenced by the maze of running shoes that now adorn the bridge memorial. Cross country singlets, brightly colored balloons and bouquets of flowers are surrounded by hundreds of heartfelt messages either scrawled directly onto the pavement or written on homemade signs and banners. Candles light the scene during darkness.
There is a photo of Liu hugging a dog; there is another photo of Liu posing with teammates after a race.
Student ID cards litter the memorial, attesting to its very personal message.
A small plush teddy bear sits in silent vigil over the arrangement.
It is clear that Liu was loved.
Days later, people are still adding to the memorial.
Veteran ORHS coach Ian Cumming was visibly moved by Saturday's events and remains so.
“I really want to thank the local high school cross country community for the support it showed at the candlelight vigil, especially the programs at Bonita Vista and Eastlake, for helping our team through this very difficult time,” he said after practice on Monday. "It is very much appreciated."
Last Friday’s tragedy was a first for Cumming in his 39 years as a teacher.
The healing process for all is ongoing.
The Sweetwater district had a crisis counseling team in place on campus on Monday. Cumming noted help will be made available “as long as it’s needed,” he said.
“People deal with grief in different stages and at different times,” Cumming said. “Our team has handled it as best as we can, as best as can be expected.”
He paused, obviously reflecting on a difficult moment, then continued with his trademark sensibility for respect and dignity. “I think our team has handled it well.”
A first team all-league runner at last year’s Mesa finals (seventh in a field of 41 varsity finishers), Liu finished as the Mustangs’ No. 2 runner in an Oct. 4 dual meet against Hilltop held at Rohr Park, and most recently competed at the prestigious Mt. San Antonio College Invitational on Oct. 26. He was holding his own as the team’s No. 2 runner midway through the race.
"Steven was an incredibly important member of this team in so many ways," Cumming said. "He showed so many acts of kindness in his life and he cared deeply about this team and his teammates. He was also one of our top runners. He was our No. 1 a couple of times this season. He will always live in our hearts. He will be missed."
Despite the team’s extremely personal loss, Cumming said his team will compete in Friday’s scheduled dual meet on campus against Olympian. The boys varsity race is scheduled to start at 3 p.m., followed by the girls race at 3:30 p.m. and the boys JV race at 4 p.m.
"We will run all of our remaining races, because that is the most respectful thing to do for Steven," Cumming noted.
Both varsity races are critical to the Mustangs’ championship fortunes. The Otay boys team remains undefeated in league dual meet competition while the Mustang girls team has one loss (by a point to Eastlake) and needs a key victory to remain close to the first place Titans.
ORHS principal Jose Brosz said all scheduled athletic competitions will take place as planned after a meeting with parents.
The Mustangs are sure to be running with an extra step on Friday against the Eagles.
“You go out to win,” Cumming explained succinctly. “If our guys want to win the title outright, they’re going to have to win the race. For the girls, if we want a part of the banner, we’ve got to win. We’ve known that from the time we lost to Eastlake.”
All 13 Metro Conference teams will convene Nov. 15 at Rohr Park for the Mesa League and South Bay League finals.
Liu will be running a different race, however.
As a hand-written note on one of the running shoes at the bridge memorial reads: “Heaven welcomes a new angel.”
Another reads: "Don't be afraid to soar."
The service and viewing are from 8 until 11 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 9 at Eastlake Community Church. Those wishing to attend should wear black, according to Otay's Cumming.