Far From Normal But CA Is Having A Cross Country Season

SAN DIEGO -- When Troy Beale assumed coaching the cross country teams at Montgomery High, he had no idea the problems that would present.

A relatively small school enrollment-wise (1,849) in San Diego's South Bay, Beale didn't really expect to have too much trouble tossing together varsity and junior varsity teams for both the boys and girls programs.

Having coached football and volleyball, in the past he could just walk around campus and cajole students into at least coming out and giving whatever sport a try.

But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been no on-campus activities since mid-March a year ago. He decided he'd set up an on-line sign-in hotline. Getting clearance forms ready, giving the potential runners suggested workouts on their own and so forth.

"Some girls signed up but never followed through," said Beale. "We scheduled Monday-Wednesday workouts for 16 weeks in the fall and four kids total came to run. Our district will allow us to meet and train as of Feb. 8 but right now, I have one boy -- Angel Ramirez -- and zero girls.

"We're not the only school. In the Metro Conference South Bay League, we have four schools and I'm told that every one of them -- Mar Vista, San Diego Southwest, SanYsidro and ourselves -- are having the same problems.

"Schools that are located west of the 805 freeway in our district are the smaller, older schools and sometimes we have trouble fielding teams. But nothing like this. The district has even said it might combine programs if we don't have enough kids come out."

It's not just Montgomery High, of course. A similar story is being told all across the Golden State, which is limping forward with a grass-roots-style winter cross country season amid lingering uncertainty as to what the spring track season may look like. 

As a result of the pandemic, CIF sports had been shut down since mid-March of 2020 until a couple of weeks ago when the state lifted the regional "Stay At Home Order" opening an albeit circuitous path for a return to competition in cross country and five other outdoor sports.

But business as usual, it's not.

In the San Diego Section, well-established programs like La Jolla and even larger schools like Canyon Crest Academy have been hit with athletes deciding it just wasn't worth the effort to stay in top running shape not really certain there would even be a cross country or track season.

The biggest name in the SDS deciding not to run is Canyon Crest's Elizabeth Emberger, who in the fall was the odds-on favorite to win Division I. She placed second to state champion teammate Carlie Dorostkar at the 2019 SDS championships more than a year ago, clocking a 17:47.7 over Morley Field's 3-mile course.

Emberger (pictured) went on to place ninth in Division I at the CIF-State Championships in 17:50.3, a time that ranked her among the top 15 returners statewide from that meet.

According to Ravens coach Andrew Corman, Emberger, an outstanding student who apparently strongly disliked distance learning and the mystery surrounding if and when there would be a 2020-21 season, decided to graduate in January and will not even run track in the spring.

Attempts to reach Emberger for comments were not returned.

She wasn't the only one to opt out early.

Reese Renz from Liberty High in Bakersfield, a State Meet hurdles finalist as a sophomore in 2019, graduated early and has already begun her college career at the University of Colorado.

"She decided to leave early and compete in college this year as she didn't feel good about her chances of having a full senior season," said Ryan Renz, the Liberty head coach and Reese's father.

La Jolla apparently has lost not only its No. 1 runner, senior Monica O'Brien Saez, but also No. 4 junior Emma Valenzuela. Another of the top girls, Sarah Swendsen, moved back to Hawaii.  Those were three of the Vikings top four scorers at the 2019 State Meet.

On the boys' side, one of the best returnees is Alex West who also happens to be a top-flight swimmer. Since the two are now in the same season, West had to make a choice and he elected to swim.

Mandy Benham, who is entering her fifth year as head coach at La Jolla, understands 

"You know, you're always going to lose someone, so you roll with it," said Benham. "The word I hear the most from those who decided not to run is they were bored.

"Some of the runners' parents are very concerned about the Coronavirus and, of course, we're going to follow all of the guidelines. Heck, we have a meet Friday and I've already told them to just do the best they can and not worry about winning or losing.

"These kids just want to be with their friends. They are so excited to just be in conditioning because these are their friends and they've missed being with them."

Benham said that while the Vikings' numbers are down -- usually 60 or so show up the first day of practice and she has 37 runners between the two teams right now -- she is pleasantly surprised that a significant number of freshmen and a few athletes from other sports who don't normally run, are training

Both Montgomery and La Jolla are almost 100 percent distance learning.

"The athletes here want to jump back in," said Benham. "A few have run the whole time since we shut down and five of the guys ran consistently. Senior Hannah Nightingale (pictured) has led the charge on our captain's runs for the girls and has been great.

"I go out on the runs with them staying behind -- far behind -- to make sure everything is OK.

"Those who have extended family at home are most concerned about the Coronavirus, which is understandable. We leave everything up to the family and their physicians and won't hold it against anyone who decides not to run. They're always welcome to join us now or for track."

Still more challenges await those who start this week, including courses. Statewide, getting approval to compete at a public park or even on campus, is far from the rubber-stamp it was pre-COVID.

In the City Conference in San Diego, Morley Field in Balboa Park, which used to host as many as 30 meets a week, is not available, even for dual meets.  So two schools, at least, Patrick Henry and Serra, have marked out 3-mile courses and set up the facilities to emphasize distancing and safety.

It's similar around the state where schools, not parks, are being used until the go-ahead for the parks' use. Many had hoped that the state would bend to allow three-way, quad or even cluster meets, but that has not happened yet.

"Doctors, which are understandable, seem to be extra-cautious," said Beale. "We've had some kids show interest and then just not show up.

"Kids need something other than their computers. I know some cross country programs have 100 kids out and that will present a different problem. I believe this is just an example how the smaller sports will suffer.

"I'm not complaining but to tell you the truth, I'd be happy if just three boys and girls show up for the first practice.  We can build from there, but it's difficult when you don't have PE classes to find possible athletes.

"Winning isn't even a consideration right now. We're just hoping to have two teams."

When practice started Monday, Beale said he had two boys and one girl with one boy and one girl who still need physicals.

California Department of Public Health's "return to play" guidelines restrict competition to schools in the same county or in bordering counties. That is another issue as teams try to move forward with a season.

The San Diego Section is holding out hope that it can have a section championship meet at the end of the winter season, Mach 27. That remains a possibility for a section that includes only two of the state's 58 counties.

Sections that have multiple counties within its boundary have already canceled cross country championships, freeing up that last weekend for all teams to have competition. At least one, the Central Section, is exploring a geographically divided set of championship meets, pending, of course, county, local, school/school district approval.

Even in the Northern Section, which was never under the regional "Stay At Home" order, pulling off a winter cross country season is a challenge.

"Participation is really down," wrote Scott Fairley from West Valley High about the expansive Northern Section. "Only a couple of schools have more than 20 runners on their team and most have less than 10. This result is a team of six total runners traveling 100 miles to run against another team of eight runners.  Our area has always contested center meets or invitationals in the past, not dual meets."

Most counties remain in the state's most restrictive color tier (purple), and coaches looking to find competition for their athletes run into further restrictions at the local and school/school district level.

But in some pockets of the Sac-Joaquin Section, and in Orange and Riverside County of the Southern Section, as three examples, coaches have been able to execute league dual meets (six teams of one-on-one races at the same venue). Others have been limited to just duals. 

Jim Roldan of Huntington Beach (SS), Kevin Selby of Nevada Union (SJ), Dustin Fee at Del Oro (SJ) and Tyler Dutchover of Beckman (SS), are some examples of coaches finding a way to persevere to get athletes on the line.

"Just trying to do what we can for these kids," Roldan wrote, undoubtedly speaking for everyone. 
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Photos by DeAnna Turner, Patrick Corsinita, Clark Kranz, Pat Rhames, Dan Tyree.

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Steve Brand is a regular contributor for MileSplitCA and serves as the San Diego Section editor. 

MileSplitCA editor Jeffrey Parenti contributed to this report.