As a freshman in 2019, Takiya Cenci of Clovis North reached the CIF-State Championships in the 400 meters. She enters Saturday's West Coast Relays as the CA leader in that event. (DeAnna Turner photo)
It took less than 55 seconds -- 54.81 to be exact -- in her first high school meet of the 2021 season for Clovis North junior Takiya Cenci to establish herself as the state's top 400-meter runner. Not only did she win the Sanger Spring Classic race on April 10, but it was also a personal-best time.
The impact of this accomplishment is meaningful considering Cenci's resume already includes a 400 appearance in the 2019 CIF State Meet as a freshman. Despite losing her sophomore season to the coronavirus pandemic, Cenci's 2021 spring also includes PRs in the 200 (24.52) and 100 (12.31) plus she's among a group of Bronco teammates, "a pack of sisters," as Clovis North coach Rich Brazil notes, who comprise formidable 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams. The latter, with Cenci on the anchor leg, has the state's top girls' mark at 3 minutes, 54.65 seconds.
"I'm doing pretty well this season, pushing through the coronavirus and stuff. I've been trying to make progress," Cenci says. "I'm really excited to get out there and do it."
This Saturday at Buchanan High's Veterans Memorial Stadium, Cenci will lead Clovis North into the West Coast Relays. She is scheduled to compete in the 200, 400, and likely both relays. That the meet takes place where CIF postseason events take place adds another layer of motivation.
"Running on that track is an opportunity to run it like it is the State Meet. Every opportunity I get makes it better," she says.
Lowering times, staying consistent, and doing it in a local setting seems to be a recipe for success.
"We've hit meets hard, tried to get going with marks," Brazil says. "Takiya has only run a few 400s this season. She did only the relays last week. This is the largest meet we'll have been to so far this season. We're excited for this weekend."
The excitement to compete has been a constant for the now 16-year-old. Cenci ran cross country as early as third grade, followed by track and field, basketball, soccer, volleyball, and badminton until she zeroed in on track upon entering high school.
"I've always gravitated to running, even when I played basketball and soccer," she said. "I was a fast person and it built me up. I really like running, so when I narrowed it down to track, I did it because it was what I was really good at and what made the most sense. The other sports helped, giving me the gift for running, and track makes it something more."
Cenci's eighth-place finish in the 2019 CIF State Meet was a signal she made the right decision.
"I didn't have my best race in the prelims, but making the finals showed me that I could do this, get better, and although it was only my freshman year, I knew I had a lot more in store. It gave me a confidence boost. Having the experience of doing it was a lesson in itself."
The coronavirus and shutdown of the track season last spring could have stifled that feeling, but Cenci and her teammates never stopped. There were indoor track meets, trips outside California to run unattached, and training sessions to strengthen both their talent and their bond.
"It's been a consistent group of girls I've worked with who've helped me stay focused on running. We have the same goals, which helps us stay consistent, work through the coronavirus and apply that consistency to the races," she says.
Brazil credits Bronco sprints coach Josh Norman for his work with Cenci and her teammates, both in workouts and getting the student-athletes race-ready in practice and during meets.
"Junior year you want to continue to be a better track athlete. You want to be the best. You may have great talent, but you want to take it to another level," Brazil says. "As the athletes start to mature, you want them to be better at things such as warmups, getting enough sleep, hydration, their approach to the meet, and what it takes to continue to get better."
Cenci's dedication is clear and so is her attention to detail. She's focused on great strides this year and wants to build a solid bridge to her senior year in 2022.
"I have advanced as a runner, but I still see things I can work on and apply little things to get better, faster, and have better marks. This year I want to have a better race plan to get locked and loaded. I'm trying to hit the best marks I can, go low 54 or high 53 (in the 400), and be consistently in the 53-54 range my senior year."
The 400 race when she secured her PR in Sanger came against a smaller field but the biggest takeaway came in how she felt about the performance.
"The 400 is my strongest event, but the (Sanger) race shocked me," she says. "I ran strong for the first 100 and I held on to that. I had a strong first 200 and I just didn't slow down. Even at the end, I used my arms as much as possible the last 50 and I ran through the tape. That's when I started to feel different. I knew I was going very fast."
Cenci remains humble and hungry. She continues to work on how her hands and arms are positioned as she runs. Her speed, while aided by her other events, is developing strategically.
"I'm not the fastest runner at the start, but I'm able to pick it up. That's why the 400 is the best for me. I've come to understand it's best for the way I'm supposed to run," she says.
The West Coast Relays offers the next opportunity for Cenci to demonstrate -- to others and herself -- that she's the one to beat.
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Ryan Blystone is a freelance writer. Photos by DeAnna Turner.