The group up front heading to the final third of the Foot Locker West Regional Championship race included, from left, Audrey Suarez (2), Sophia Abrego, Dalia Frias (23), Skyler Wallace (4), Mia Barnett (21), Hana Catsimanes and Grace Ping (25). (Credit: Jeffrey Parenti)
WALNUT -- In the last three Saturdays, Mia Barnett has won the CIF-Southern Section Division V cross country championship for a third consecutive year, placed second at the California State Championships for a second consecutive year, and won the Foot Locker West Regional Championships.
Barnett, a junior from Sun Valley Village Christian (SS), warranted all caps in that last sentence not only because of the awesome additions over the last three weeks to her already stellar resume, not only because she almost didn't even compete in the race, but because last year at this race she was 69th!!
How's that for year-over-year improvement?
In the event that welcomed representatives from 12 states, Barnett was one of six girls from California to place among the top 10 during Saturday morning's race on the flat, hard-surface 5000-meter "rain" course on the campus of Mt. San Antonio College.
The top 10 in both the boys and girls championship races qualify to compete as part of the West Region team at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships (FLCCC) on Dec. 14 at Morley Field in San Diego's Balboa Park.
Over the last four weeks, the boys from San Jose Bellarmine College Prep (CC) crushed the CIF-Central Coast Section competition, placed a narrow third in a Division I State Meet race that included Great Oak (SS) and Jesuit (SJ), and on Saturday, two of the team's seven returning juniors qualified for FLCCC.
In a group finish, Portland (OR) Lincoln junior Mateo Althouse won the lean at 14:53.2 with citymate Charlie Robertson, a junior from Portland Franklin, second in 14:53.3 and Salt Lake City (UT) Skyline senior Thomas Boyden third in 14:53.4. Peattie crossed in 14:54.4 with Bountiful (UT) HS junior Dalton Mortensen fifth in 14:54.9. The Thompson twins from Lehi (UT) Skyline HS, Creed and Davin, were eighth and 10th, respectively, with Davin claiming the final spot on the regional team at 14:55.9. Because of the mass of bodies at the end, he said he wasn't sure he had counted correctly to make the top 10. Concord (CA) De La Salle junior Patrick Curulla was 11th in 14:59.3.
Because of heavy rain late Friday and overnight, organizers opted to shift from the iconic course of hills, dirt, loops and switchbacks, with some asphalt to a modified "rain" course that involved multiple loops around two parking lots and an up-and-back on the famous "Airstrip" before a left turn back on the auxiliary road to finish heading west.
The course ran short -- 2.79 miles -- for the Open and the eight grade-specific races but was adjusted following the Senior Girls race to create a 3.1-mile race by adding an extra pass through the finish area and a second loop around the west parking lot before runners finished heading east.
The flat course was damp but footing didn't appear to hamper the athletes. That layout, compared to the hills and the varied terrain of the iconic jewel of the sport, would theoretically benefit runners stronger on the track than the hills.
How much that truly played into the results is to be determined later but perhaps was a factor in only one of the three returning runners from last year's girls West Region team making the team this year.
That runner was Anna Martin, a BYU-committed senior from Lehi (UT) HS, who placed third in 17:06.7, just behind Carlsbad (CA) Sage Creek senior Skyler Wallace (17:06.3) and just ahead of Phoenix Desert Vista junior Grace Ping (17:08.0). (Ping, who qualified for FLCCC last year while running in Minnesota, placing 31st, ran at FLW on Saturday while her younger sister Lauren competed at NXN in Portland, placing 27th.)
Last week Wallace, who is headed to Northern Arizona, led Sage Creek to a second consecutive State D-IV title, placing second in a 44-point route. In October on the regular course at Mt. SAC, she had beaten Barnett when they went 1-2 in the Division 3-4-5 Team Sweepstakes.
"Switching to a flat course, I knew it was going to be fast," Wallace said. "I just tucked in with the leaders the first mile. With about a mile to go, I knew I didn't want to leave it to 100 meters, so I just went and I felt good and the race turned out in my favor."
Wallace is the latest in a long impressive line of San Diego girls to represent at FLCCC on the familiar course at Morley Field.
"Foot Locker has always been my dream," she said. "So, to make it to nationals is incredible. ... Next weekend will definitely be an experience I will never forget."
Others from the Golden State earning a ticket to San Diego (and such perks as a stay at the Hotel del Coronado's Christmas-on-the-Beach experience -- there's an ice rink on the beach, folks!!) are Granada Hills sophomore Sofia Abrego, who was fifth (17:08.4), Oregon-bound senior Carly Corsinita from Capistrano Valley, who was seventh (17:10.2), Mira Costa sophomore Dalia Frias, who was eighth (17:10.7), and Sacramento St. Francis sophomore Cate Joaquin, who was 10th (17:14.8).
Abrego, the CIF-LA City Section large-school champion, rebounded from a tough race at State. Joaquin, second in the CIF-Sac-Joaquin Section and fourth at State, defeated two of the three girls that crossed in front of her last week at Woodward Park. Corsinita rebounded nicely from a sub-par race at State. Frias has emerged as one of CA's young stars, placing second at Southern Section Division 1, third at State and now making FLCCC.
Unlike with the boys, the girls' top 10 was well defined. Ontario (CA) Colony junior Amber Rios was 11th nearly 14 seconds back of Joaquin in 17:28.6.
Non-CA runners also making the team are Ella Borsheim, a sophomore from Tacoma (WA) Bellarmine Prep, who was 6th in 17:09.0 and Abby Kendrick, a junior from Missoula (MT) Hellgate, who was 9th in 17:10.8.
A year ago, Kendrick won the Sophomore race at FLW, beating, in order, Brooke Secreto, Morgan Hutchison and Hannah Fredericks. Secreto of Ventura (CA) Foothill Tech, won the CIF-State D-IV title. Hutchison, of Clovis (CA) Buchanan, was a key member is the Bears team title at State, and Fredericks has been the top runner this fall for traditionally powerhouse Saugus.
Three returners from the 2018 West Region team unable to return are Hana Catsimanes (San Clemente/SS), who was 12th (17:30.2) and Pasadena Mayfield junior Audrey Suarez, who was with the lead pack early but faded late.
The irony of Barnett's impressive victory is that she said she almost didn't compete at all until Suarez, her great friend and training partner, convinced her otherwise.
"After State, I was 'I'm done. I'm tired. It was a long season,' " Barnett said. "And then Audrey Suarez convinced me, 'No Mia, you have to do it. Give it one last shot.' I was, 'OK, I'll do it.'
"I'm so grateful she talked me into it because I felt great today and it really all came together for me. I think this is my peak race. Coming back from last year not qualifying to first is amazing."
Among the boys, Stanford-bound Thomas Boyden was the only returner from the 2018 West Region team where he placed 13th at FLCCC, as the No. 2 runner from the West team.
Ignatius Fitzgerald, who was sixth (14:55.1), is a teammate at Hellgate HS of girls qualifier Abby Kendrick. Ahmed Ibrahim, a senior from Portland (OR) Parkrose who was ninth (14:55.4) is the third boy from the city known as Bridgetown earning a ticket to San Diego.
Boyden and Fitzgerald were two of the boys who admitted taking a wrong turn in the race and scrambling back into qualifying contention.
"I got a little lost," Fitzgerald said. "I went out hard like I knew I had to and felt really comfortable in the front. And then I took a wrong turn and fell back a little ways. ... probably lost 30 or 40 places. So I had to just run, as hard as I could to try to get back to the front. I was worried that that was going to ruin my race. I thought it was over. I thought I had lost the race right then. Just grinded back."
Boyden said the conservative nature of the first half of the race helped those who went the wrong way to recover until the final third where the boys qualifiers began to take shape.
"Creed (Thompson) from Skyridge made a move on the Airstrip and that kind of pulled away more of the elite guys," Boyden said. "It was a really tactical race. I definitely feel like I have a lot left in the tank for next weekend."
Next weekend, where he, for one, will be back on familiar ground.
"I'm glad because I'm not going in blind this year," Boyden said. "I'll know how the race plays out, where to surge, where not to surge. I know what I'm going to do this year. I've got a good plan."
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