STATE MEET Hope And Reality Cross Paths at Woodward Park


Francis Parker (SD) senior Kenan Pala led future college teammate Alex Mader to the two fastest times ever at the State Meet by boys in Division V.  (DeAnna Turner photos)
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This article has been updated to edit for content.

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FRESNO -- It happens every year, all around the state.

Section cross country championships produce euphoria. It just seems there is no way it can't continue the next week at the CIF-State Championships.

This year was a good example for the San Diego Section.

It looked like there was a good chance the single-day record of four gold medals between the team and individuals would surely be equaled or bettered.

In 1990, both the San Pasqual boys and girls Division II teams won titles with Robert Walker's individual championship leading the way.  The La Jolla girls also captured the Division III team title.

This year, teams like Cathedral Catholic's girls, ranked No. 1 in the state in Division III off several impressive performances, especially Mt. SAC, and the Sage Creek girls, who would be going for their third straight title, appeared poised, and a couple of other teams, like the boys from Francis Parker and Santa Fe Christian's boys, were in the mix.

Individual standouts were aplenty starting with Kenan Pala of Francis Parker, who ran the second-fastest time ever at Mt. SAC and the fastest time ever on an adjusted course for the San Diego Section Championship. He was unbeaten.

The Sage Creek senior duo of Bryce Gilmore and Stormy Wallace were uber-impressive at the section finals and even Rancho Bernardo's Jacey Farmer, who was suddenly back in 2018 form, was a threat.

One thing you learn when you attend the State Championships, there is no such thing as "a sure thing."

Hey, while Newbury Park's boys went 1-2-3-4-6 in Division I to set the overall team scoring record of 16 points, there were still those who expected another 1-2-3-4-5-6 like in the Southern Section meet.

And the Panthers followers were ultra-hopeful that senior Colin Sahlman would break the all-time fastest performance of 14:24.0 by Riverbank's German Fernandez in 2007.

Sahlman was impressive but with his 14:26.5 to beat teammate Leo Young by 1.5 seconds, came up just short of the record. Still, he will graduate with two of the three fastest times ever on the Woodward Park 5K course.

Reality has a way of messing with hope.

Newbury Park senior Samantha McDonnell had won five races this year, including the Clovis Invitational on the State Meet course as well as the Southern Section title. But, perceived favorites don't always win. In the Division I girls race, McDonnell held the lead for most of it but McClatchy junior Anna McNatt was stronger to the finish to win the division title. At Clovis, McDonnell went 17:02.10 to win while McNatt placed fifth in 17:33.6. Saturday, McNatt, who has now won nine of 11 races this season, crossed in 17:07.5 with McDonnell next in 17:08.7.

Cathedral Catholic won the San Diego Section title but didn't display the superior depth it did en route to the state No. 1 ranking.

Turns out there was a reason. A good one.

"Three of the girls were sick with a cold last week and although they're almost 100%, now the other four are sick.  All seven of them are coughing and hacking," said coach Dan Geiger, who himself was hobbling around in a walking boot.

You can't get sick at State Finals. The Dons (157 points) placed a game third behind Campolindo (109) and Del Oro (120).

Meanwhile, the Sage Creek girls came oh so close but ran into a JSerra squad that put three runners in the top 20 to win Division IV with 122 points. Sage Creek had 131 points, the same as La Canada, and when the scoring went to the sixth team member, La Canada prevailed.

JSerra, like the Newbury Park boys in D-I, Mira Costa girls in D-II, are among examples of teams expected to win, doing just that.

Meanwhile, Sage Creek's Wallace herself ran into a buzz saw from the North Coast Section in senior Sophia Nordenholz of Albany and sophomore Olivia Williams of Acalanes. They were sensational in the NCS championships with Williams beating Nordenholz. But this time they scorched the course and never slowed down with Nordenholz leading a 1-2 finish.

"Having that kind of competition helped them," said Wallace, who improved two places from when she ran as a sophomore to finish fourth in 17:34.0. No way the UC Davis-bound Wallace was disappointed as she pointed out, that's considerably faster than the 18:04.0 she ran in 2019.

OK, a little order was restored when Pala led wire-to-wire to win boys Division V title in a division record 14:51.0.

"It was a mental game," said Pala, who immediately jumped in front of Lick Wilmerding's Alex Mader. "I took the lead because I wanted to get in his head. I knew the first mile would be very fast and I wanted to be in front.

"I used the hills and the record feels good. I've broken some kind of record every time I've run this year." 

That time broke the previous best of 14:59.0. Mader, who will be college teammates with Pala at Yale, crossed the line in 14:56.3, also under the previous D-V standard set by both Cooper Teare of St. Joseph Notre Dame (NC) in 2016 and Trevor Reinhart of Marin Academy (NC) in 2014.

Gilmore came close, finishing second in Division IV at 15:08.0 behind Big Bear's Max Sannes, who won at 15:00.5.

As for Farmer, she was all smiles after her fifth-place finish in Division I. Consider that two years ago she was battling injuries that threatened to all but end her career.

She gave up soccer this year and is loving running again, looking forward to BYU next year.

"I was beginning to think I'd never run like this again," she said of her 17:41.4. "I was really down. I knew if I got healthy I'd be back but I couldn't get healthy. Now I feel great."  

Farmer had said she would room next fall in Provo with Del Oro's Riley Chamberlain, who won the Division III title as both a freshman and a sophomore. But the anticipated threepeat from the perennial Sac-Joaquin Section champion was not to be. Despite making up four scoring places over the last mile, Chamberlain couldn't quite run down Montgomery freshman Hanne Thomsen, the NCS champion, who held on to win in 17:38.0. Chamberlain was next  17:41.0.

OK, OK, every time unrealistic expectations can't match reality, something comes along to lift the spirits.

This year it was an unexpected -- OK stunning -- Division V victory by Santa Fe Christian junior Revere Schmidt (18:19.1), who was among those who didn't give herself a lot of hope.

"I was looking for a Top 10 finish and maybe a Top 5 or 3 if everything went well," said Schmidt, whose previous best on the course was 18:55 as a 9th-grader when she was passed by three runners the final 50 meters.

"As a freshman, I went out way too fast and still scored (12th). A mile into the race this time, I decided to put on a surge to see who would stay with me. No one did, so then I decided to just keep going.

"With 200 meters to go, I realized no one was going to pass me and I thought, 'I can do this!' I'm so happy."

She was still giddy and in shock as she approached the SFC cheering section that let it be known she was their heroine.

That happens, too.

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Steve Brand is a freelance writer and regular contributor to MileSplitCA.

MileSplitCA editor Jeffrey Parenti contributed to this report.

Photos by DeAnna Turner