AZUSA -- Everything looked right on the surface as Ventura High and national distance running star, sophomore Sadie Engelhardt, competed in the girls varsity invite mile, one of Saturday's elite night session races in the Meet of Champions Distance Classic at Azusa Pacific University.
Engelhardt started fast and established a comfortable lead against a solid group of competitors en route to a nation-leading season time of 4:41.06 and another impressive victory. Factor in the 1600 split time and Engelhardt's performance was a 4:39.11, also a state best.
Emotionally, however, Engelhardt was running with a heavy heart. Her grandfather, her mother's father, passed away Friday, a day after she had run three events in a Channel League meet with San Marcos and host Oxnard Rio Mesa. She was in tears after Saturday's win, noticeably affected by current life events.
"This is the best I could do for today, it's just been a hard week on me," she said. "I just wanted to see what I could do. I wanted to take the first lap out pretty fast and build from there. I knew it wasn't going to be crazy quick, though, because I had a dual meet Thursday where I tripled, and then my grandfather passed away Friday, so it's just been pretty tough."
Engelhardt, a high school standout in cross country and track upon arrival, said the passing of her grandfather, who battled Alzheimer's and had been living with her family, was difficult.
"He loved watching me race, but for the last year, he really hasn't been able to be aware. He had Alzheimer's. It was rough, but I know he would have wanted me to be out here tonight."
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Indeed, a race with her and 15 other mile competitors was a formidable challenge for all. Joining Engelhardt, the defending CIF State 1600 meter champion, were some fellow CIF Southern Section stalwarts, a San Diego Section standout in La Costa Canyon's Gioana Lopizzo, and strong Central Section runners, including five of Clovis Buchanan's best distance runners. Engelhardt still won and did so by more than three seconds ahead of her nearest challengers, both from the Southern Section, Oaks Christian's Payton Godsey (4:44.13) and Dana Hills' Allura Markow (4:44.56).
"They all work so hard and it's such a pleasure to be out there racing with them," Engelhardt said of facing the great competition. "California has such high-caliber athletes. I'm very proud to be a part of that, for sure."
The Distance Classic, which only ran 800, 1600 and 3200 races throughout the day and into the evening, saw other Southern Section stars shine in the Invite 800 and 3200.
JSerra Catholic's Georgia Jeanneret won the girls 800 invite in 2:10.40, edging Newport Harbor's Keaton Robar (2:10.82) at the finish line.
Jeanneret said the strength of her performance Saturday came from things she's often working on to improve: "On my second lap, I've been having a hard time keeping my energy up the last (200) and, honestly, my kick. My kick was better than it usually is. There's always room for improvement, but I did have a better kick today. Also, my form was better than usual. I used to be a soccer player so my form can kind of swing a lot. I also felt a lot stronger."
Janelle Avilez of Etiwanda continued her strong senior distance season by running away with the girls 3200 invitational race, finishing in 10:32.85. Runner-up Anna Chittenden of Mira Costa was nearly 12 seconds behind (10:44.61). Despite the big gap she created, Avilez said she was successful by not giving in to what could have hindered her chances of winning.
"Definitely, patience. I want to take off so much earlier, but I knew if I had taken off, I would have died out, I would have been going the same pace as the other girls and just a little bit ahead," she said. "Patience, I've learned that in the 3200. It's very valuable. Don't take it for granted."
Also during the evening program, the seeded races were packed with some of the state's best and produced close finishes.
The 800 seeded race saw Dana Hills' Paige Scheer beat Beaumont's Hannah Butterfield and South Torrance's Chloe Esponda. Scheer went 2:18.05 to Butterfield's 2:18.35 and Esponda's 2:18.44.
The one-mile seeded race was even closer. Anne Elise Packard of JSerra Catholic won in 4:54.65, edging Rylee Blade of Corona Santiago (4:54.67). Other notable runners in this race included Aishling Callanan of Peninsula (third, 4:56.28), Oaks Christian's Grace Geyer (fourth, 4:58.29), and Avery Peck of Long Beach Poly (fifth, 5:00.03).
Danielle Hollander of Beverly Hills won the 3200 seeded race in 11:07.98, exactly one second better than runner-up Lucia Pearson of Saugus (11:08.98).
Top runners among the daytime events with multiple heat races were Saugus freshman Annika Mark's 11:37.86 to win the morning's meet-opening 3200 varsity race; Bakersfield junior Abigail Varner had the best 800 varsity race time of 2:23.05; and Ventura freshman Melanie True secured a 5:09.19 time in the 1600 varsity race earned her the second heat of 27 overall and it held up as the meet's daytime best.
Ryan Blystone is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to MileSplit.
Photos by Raymond Tran