Kenan Pala (center) placed fourth overall in the Division V race at the CIF-State Championships last November. Pala leads a strong returning group to help Francis Parker (SD) challenge for a team title in 2020-21. (Photo: Clark Kranz)
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SAN DIEGO -- Practically every California high school cross country team, boys and girls, starts the season believing they'll be in contention for a state championship.
In the end, only 10 accomplish that goal.
But one of the early team favorites, if there is a 2020-21 season, has to be San Diego's Francis Parker High for an obvious reason: All seven varsity runners return off of the Lancers' third place finish in Division V at the 2019 CIF-State Meet.
"Actually, we could easily have finished second or even won, but one of our kids just had a bad day," said coach Matt Schellenberg. "That happens. We're excited because when we're on and everyone runs well, it's all good. Now we'll just fix a few things and then we'll see."
The team's No. 1 runner is junior Kenan Pala, whose first name is pronounced Ken-On and his last name is Turkish and translates to machete. Pala actually sees the somewhat disappointing third place finish from last November as a plus.
"It's a blessing in disguise," said Pala, who placed fourth in the state at 15:46.1 -- seven seconds behind returning champion Jackson Adelman of San Juan Capistrano's St. Margaret's. "Finishing third gives us room for improvement. We have no ego and we know we're so close that we could almost taste the championship.
"I'm a big football fan and overall none of the biggest names -- Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson -- were drafted first. Not winning last year gives us reason to work just that much harder. Actually, we're in the optimal position."
Calabasas Viewpoint finished the season strong to capture the title with 128 points but three of its top five runners were seniors. St. Margaret's placed second with 145 points with Parker (175), San Francisco University (181), Flintridge Prep (183) and Los Olivos Midland (183) right behind.
St. Margaret's loses just one runner from its top seven as all five scorers return. SF University welcomes back four of its seven runners, Flintridge Prep has its top four runners back and Midland just needs depth as the top five runners return, led by State Meet eighth-place finisher Will Goddard.
Uncharacteristically, the fourth-through-seventh runners were more than a minute apart.
"Usually, you have one or two runners who want to take it to another level but all seven of our runners have worked very hard to get better since last year," said Pala, who was able to have a few runs between then and now with dramatic results.
Pala wanted to crack 10 minutes in the 3200 after running 10:11 as a freshman. After getting on a track, he was clocked in 9:14. Gulp.
OK, maybe a one-time thing, right? He came back in a 5,000-meter run, again on the track, and after posting a 17:11 as a freshman, ran 15:54 in December. He then tried again in April and stopped the clock in 14:53.
Coach Schellenberg was asked who he thought might be in line for the biggest improvement and he surprisingly didn't say Pala.
"Kenan probably has the least amount to improve because he already does it all," explained Schellenberg. "He works well with our coaches, he runs almost every day and his mental side is so strong. He'll get faster and stronger as he gets older.
"If he wants to drop in the low 15s (in cross country), he'll do it.
"The person who figures to improve the most is someone like Quinn Spieker, who was a freshman last year and had never run before. He's a big kid (6-foot) who plays soccer and rugby. He could be our No. 3 or even No. 2 this year."
He also mentioned diminutive Sean Bohne, the No. 6 runner a year ago, who improved dramatically. Additionally, the coach won't discount any of last year's JV runners or even a freshman or two.
"We are fortunate that Francis Parker is K-12, and our middle school program is really good," said Schellenberg. "I love getting freshmen every year and watching them progress."
Schellenberg, like Pala, feels the effects of the Coronavirus that wiped out last track season, all but eliminated the summer program and is forcing this season to be held at an unusual time of January through March.
"I moved back into San Diego this last year after spending eight years in Julian (a mountain community east of downtown San Diego), looking forward to working with the team. This is the best team we've ever had here but we know how strong Division V is."
Pala, too, realizes things will be different but he's hoping maybe even better,
"We all use the app Strava and everyone is working hard but in truth it's going to be over a year between our last race and the start this year," said Pala. "Just the climate itself is going to different. Usually we start and it's 70-80 degrees. Now it'll be 60-70, but unique or not, we're ready to go."
Like an ultra-sharp machete in a cane field.
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Photos by Clark Kranz, Jeffrey Parenti, Deanna Turner.