The idea of winning a San Diego Section championship had been floating around most of the season between the Otay Ranch High School and Hilltop High School boys cross country teams.
Rankings are one thing but actually doing it is another.
It was mission accomplished on both fronts at last Saturday’s section finals at Balboa Park’s Morley Field.
Hilltop won its first division title in 37 years by finishing 15 points ahead of Cathedral Catholic and El Capitan high schools to snare this year’s Division III championship while Otay Ranch, guided by its tight five-man pack, captured the Division I title by a somewhat surprising 28-point margin over traditional North County power Torrey Pines.
The success of both Metro Conference teams was not necessarily unexpected. Both teams rated to be in the mix for state qualifying berths, but winning division titles was obviously a welcome bonus.
“There was no secret (to winning),” Otay Ranch coach Julian Valdez explained. “The plan was to run smart the first half of the race. The race is won in the second half. It’s the same strategy we used (in placing eighth in our division) at Mt. SAC.
“Our goal was to have five guys be in the top 15 to 20. I think we were better than that with two in the top 10 and the rest in the top 16.”
Otay Ranch won this year’s Mesa League championship ahead of Hilltop. The teams finished one-two at the preceding league finals with the Mustangs galloping to first place in the team standings with 30 points and the Lancers following with 42 points.
Interestingly, Hilltop coach Chris Gentry was a senior at the school when the Lancers last won a CIF championship. Hilltop did so in 1981 and 1984.
It’s been a long drought since.
“The goal wasn’t necessarily to win a league championship but to win a CIF championship, and we did that,” Gentry said. “We had a lot of personal records today. That got us over the top. It was a complete team effort from the kids, parents and coaches. All those things came together to earn Hilltop its first CIF championship in 37 years.”
The Lancers were led on the course once again by senior standout Jimmy Byland, who led the division championship race from the start until the last 30 yards when he was passed on the uphill by La Costa Canyon junior Jacob Niednagel.
Niednagel crossed the finish line in 15:16.6, followed by Byland in 15:21.4.
Point Loma junior Manuel Correia finished third in 15:36.7, followed by Cathedral Catholic senior Blake Levy in fourth place in 15:41.4. Southwest senior William Wines placed fifth in 15:48.4 — one second ahead of University City junior Gael McClain Martinez (15:49.7).
Byland won the Mesa League individual title at the Metro Conference championship meet on Nov. 12 at Rohr Park while Wines won the South Bay League individual title.
They were separated by 18 seconds at the conference finals and 27 seconds at the CIF finals.
Three Metro runners, in fact, managed to crack the top 10 at the Division III championship meet as Hilltop senior Miguel Tisnado finished seventh in the 112-deep field in 15:52.7.
Teams can enter seven runners in a championship race. Points are calculated by order of individual finish. The team with the lowest point total wins.
Hilltop’s seven runners finished 2-7-18-30-42-51-75 for 95 points while Cathedral Catholic and El Capitan both totaled 110 points. Cathedral received second place on a tie-breaker involving the higher finish of the teams’ respective sixth runner.
St. Augustine finished fourth with 118 points while University City was fifth with 120 points. Point Loma placed sixth with 125 points, followed by La Costa Canyon with 127 points in a relatively tight finish between the teams on the three-mile course.
Byland, who set a personal record on the recently redesigned Morley Park course, said he benefitted from his trademark strong start.
“For this race I wanted to have a good start, take the lead,” he said. “Unfortunately, I got out-kicked at the end, but I still set a PR on this course.
“It was a good experience. I’m looking forward to the state meet. I want to have a big PR at state. It’s my last race in high school. I want to push myself.”
This will be Byland’s second trip to the state meet after qualifying as an individual in 2019.
Tisnado had placed fourth in the conference field, third among Mesa League runners. He finished behind Byland once again last Saturday with another strong performance.
“I’m so happy for everyone,” Tisnado gushed. “Leading up to the race, I told the guys not to treat it as our last race. We had some tough competition. We wanted to leave everything on the course. Everyone poured out their blood, sweat and tears against amazing competition.”
Byland was equally pleased with the team’s performance as his own individual exploits.
“It’s insane,” Byland said. “We made history at our school. We came in here and wanted to get first and we did. We want to do our best at state.”
The top 20 place-finishers received medals at the post-race awards ceremony. Senior Eddie Castaneda was the third Lancer to earn a medal with an 18th place-finish in 16:25.5.
Overall, the Metro Conference scored four medalists in the race.
Besides the top three teams in the division, the top five individuals not on qualifying teams also earned state qualifying berths.
Wines was the third individual qualifier behind LCC’s Niednagel and Point Loma’s Correia. Other individual qualifiers included UC’s McClain Martinez and Point Loma senior Victor Rosas (eighth, 15:54.1).
“At first I think I went out too fast with Jimmy,” Wines said. “After that I backed off. I knew I couldn’t keep up that pace. I stayed with Manny (Correia) and just ran my race. I got a PR, so I’m happy.”
The CIF title was the second in school history for Otay Ranch, with the first coming in 2016.
Valdez said the team’s 12-second pack time was obviously key to victory even though none of the Mustang harriers managed to crack the top six finishers.
Otay Ranch (58 points) finished 7-10-12-13-16-44-45 on the course. Runner-up Torrey Pines (86 points) finished 6-11-14-21-34-56-59. San Marcos — 2-8-19-23-49-58-109 — finished in third place with 101 points.
Both Torrey Pines and San Marcos were able to string several runners close together but not all five scorers.
“Aydan Wohlford led us today,” Valdez said. “He was supposed to pick up the last man and that’s what he did.”
Wohlford, a senior, ran as the Mustangs’ No. 5 scorer for most of the race before moving up the last mile to finish as the team’s No. 1 scorer in 15:50.5. Junior Jake Shorey followed in 15:54.8 to also grab a top 10 finish.
Senior Diego Vizcarra (15:57.7) and junior Jacob Juden (15:58.1) finished 12th and 13th, respectively, while running side by side. Senior Ruben Baza Carrillo was a bit farther back at 16:02.4 but also earned a top 20 medal.
Patrick Henry senior Preston Bowlds finished as the Division I boys champion in 15:24.3, winning by nine seconds over San Marcos senior Carlos Alvarez.
Patrick Henry placed two runners in the top five but placed fifth as a team.
Eastlake senior Anthony Martinez finished 26th in the Division I boys race in 16:19.2.
Junior teammate Trevor Santiago finished 32nd in 16:30.1. The Titans finished 10th in the team standings.
Mesa League champion Eastlake finished sixth in the Division I girls team standings while league runner-up Otay Ranch finished ninth. Eastlake sophomore Vanessa Vuong (17th, 19:01.8) and Otay Ranch freshman Aviva DeVore (19:11.5) both earned top 20 medals.
Mater Dei Catholic sophomore Joshua Dunphy and High Tech High Chula Vista senior Valencio Coco both qualified as individuals to this weekend’s state meet.
Coco finished fifth in the Division V boys race in 16:09.4 while Dunphy placed 14th in 16:40.6 in the Division IV boys race.
The state qualifying nod is the first for both runners.
“It’s my first time to qualify, so it obviously feels good,” said Coco, who placed third at the Frontier Conference finals. “A lot of hard work led me here. I wanted to run more controlled. I didn’t want to drop out by going too fast. I wanted to settle into a good racing style and at the end of the race needed to push it more.”
Francis Parker senior Kenan Pala blew away all the runners on the course with a winning time of 14:22.3 — a whopping 38-second margin of victory over runner-up Mark Trammell, a senior from Santa Fe Christian.
HTH-CV junior Aidan Stirk (15th, 16:52.7) also earned a medal in the Division V boys race while Victory Christian Academy freshman Kevin Juarez (21st, 17:30.7) just missed earning a medal in the 155-deep field.
HTH-Chula Vista finished runner-up in the Frontier Conference championship meet to Lemon Grove’s Liberty Charter.
Dunphy’s state qualifying berth made up for a wholly disappointing performance the previous week at the Metro Conference championships. Dunphy was under the weather at league finals, placing 50th out of 72 runners.
“I couldn’t breathe,” Dunphy said. “But it feels great to make it to state. I’m happy for all the hard work I put in. I’m grateful. It should be an experience.”
Dunphy lassoed the final individual state qualifying berth by out-kicking Mount Miguel sophomore Garrett Cloyd by one second at the finish line.
“It was a sprint between him and me,” the Crusader harrier said, smiling.
Sage Creek senior Bryce Gilmore won the Division IV boys race in 14:56.4.
Photo Gallery by Phillip Brents