First published in the Sept. 16 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
After a topsy-turvy past year, it was back to business as usual Saturday afternoon for the San Marino High School girls’ and boys’ varsity cross-country teams.
After an organized training effort leading up to what they had hoped would be the 2020 campaign, which is typically included in the fall sports season, the harriers had the proverbial rug pulled out from under their collective feet shortly before the season was scheduled to begin last August because of the pandemic. Due to its inherent nature of social distancing, cross-country was among the first sports that was brought back when the CIF restarted high school athletics in March of this year.
It’s back in its typical slot as the 2021 school year begins and the Titans and Lady Titans both had their initial opportunities to step into the athletic breech this past weekend at the Rosemead Invitational.
Angus Leung, head coach of the entire cross-country program, hopes that it was a harbinger of things to come for the squad, as several runners recorded impressive season — and in some cases, career — debuts.
Senior Anya Tang finished second in the senior girls’ competition, a result that is even more impressive when considering there were more than 200 runners in the race representing 30 high schools. The Rosemead Invitational is unique in that all races are contested among athletes who are in the same grade in school, regardless of their level of experience. Freshman Kayla Giddings also placed second in her initial high school competition, further impressing Leung.
Neil Chen, Thai Villaluna and Benjamin Hughes each finished in the top 20 for high school boys’ juniors, who combined to finish fourth as a team.
Each school is allowed to send a maximum of seven runners to the starting line. The five fastest times are combined to calculate a team score.
“We had a very good showing,” said Leung. “We had a lot of solid individual times, which says a lot about the future of the program.”
GIRLS: FEW, BUT MIGHTY
When it comes to deciding the makeup of the girls’ varsity cross-country team, Leung has a simple solution.
“We only have seven girls, so they are all varsity,” said the seventh-year coach.
The aforementioned Anya Tang is in her fourth year and is also a mainstay on the Lady Titans’ track team.
“Anya is one of our captains,” said Leung. “She has always been one of those girls who has been willing to take a chance and she did so at Rosemead.”
Leung explained how Tang decided to take the lead at the end of the first mile.
“She decided to go for it to see how capable she is,” Leung said. “She shocked everybody. I expect to see the same this year as I have seen during the rest of her high school career. She is a tough runner.”
As is freshman Giddings.
“I have known Kayla since she was in 8th grade and heard the many stories of how fast she is,” said Leung. “She is still raw and new to the sport, but Kayla is capable of beating anybody as long as she puts her mind to it. If she ever reaches her expectations, it will be amazing.”
Senior Katelyn Hansa holds down the other captain spot.
“Katelyn is one of the most rewarding girls I have ever coached,” Leung said. “She was very shy at the beginning of her career and she has now grown into someone who really competes well.”
Hansa finished second in the Rio Hondo League finals of the 400-meter dash this past June.
“Katelyn is getting used to the distance mileage again and she is going to be an important member of our team.”
Freshman Eve Rios also impressed her coach.
“This is the first year she has ever run cross-country after a long career in gymnastics,” said Leung. Her 33rd-place finish in the first race of her career was an impressive way to begin her career.
“Neither of us know what she is capable of but she is very athletic,” Leung said. “She is still getting used to the sport and we are going to rely on her to score some key points during the league meets.”
Sasha Redshaw, a sophomore, joined the cross-country team to get in shape for soccer, Leung said.
“Sasha had exactly one practice before her very first cross-country race and she still earned a medal for finishing in the top 50,” Leung said. “She is another very raw, very athletic talent. It will take some time to see what she is able to accomplish. And getting in shape for soccer will benefit her in both sports.”
It must be, as they say, “going around.” Juniors Janelle Heimerl and Alyson Garcia cited a similar motivation for joining the cross-country team.
“They both came out for cross-country after hearing a bulletin announcement that we needed more girls decided to come out for the team,” Leung said with a chuckle. “I am very grateful that they were willing to take up the challenge.”
Whereas the ladies team is comprised of mostly novices, the gentlemen have several veterans, led by junior Neil Chen.
“Neil is following in the footsteps of his older brother, Sean Chen, from the class of 2019,” Leung said. “And just like Sean, he is the best runner on the team as a junior, but Neil is a little bit faster. He has been a key member of this team ever since his freshman year. I can’t wait to see Neil continue to succeed in this sport.”
Junior Thai Villaluna has been an All-Rio Hondo League runner his first two years and Leung expects that to happen again.
“Neil and Thai are good friends and they work well together,” said Leung. “They are always right there near each other at practices and competitions. They are very strong competitors and excellent team members.’
Junior Benjamin Hughes has running in his genes.
“It is really impressive,” said Leung. “Benjamin’s father was a marathoner and his mother is very involved in athletics and Benjamin is one of my best runners. I have actually coached him since he was a middle schooler. I always knew he was going to be a key member of the cross-country team one day. Benjamin is also going to be fighting for an all-league spot this year.”
“It is rewarding to see how much he has grown during the four years in the program,” Leung said. “Gavin literally joined cross-country because he wanted to do a sport and now he is capable of continuing his athletic career to the next level if he wants to. The other kids look up to him and, like everyone else, I have high expectations.”
Senior Ethan Foong has impressed Leung with his dedication.
“Ethan has been part of the cross-country team since his freshman year, as well,” Leung said. “Now that he is a senior, I expect him to fight for a CIF spot at the Rio Hondo League finals. Ethan is a great kid to have on the team.”
Senior co-captain Lucas Levy has impressed his coach on and off the course.
“It is a big deal when a cross-country kid becomes ASB president,” said Leung of Levy, who was elected to that position in the spring. “Lucas is the most humble kid on the team and he always puts the needs of others before his own. Even when he is not competing, he is everywhere, supporting his team. Lucas has a lot of enthusiasm.”
Described by his coach as a “karate kid” due to his participation in that sport, freshman Essien Gagnon finished 23rd in his race last Saturday and earned a spot on the varsity squad.
“For his first meet, Essien showed a lot of promise,” Leung said. “He has a lot of room to grow and I am looking forward to working with him in the upcoming years.”
It is the upcoming weeks and months that have Leung’s attention as South Pasadena is expected to be favored in the Rio Hondo league’s boys’ competition and La Cañada to defend its title in the girls’ race for the crown.
“Both teams are very good but I must say I like our chances,” said Leung. “The main goal is to make it to the postseason for both the girls’ and boys’ teams. We have not done that since 2017 and I think we have a chance. This is going to be a very promising season if we can stay healthy and stay committed. If we do, we can get it done.”
Leung points to the family-like atmosphere on his teams as a leading reason for his optimism.
“This is a very tight-knit group,” Leung said. “Everyone gets along together very well. There is a great mixture of youth and enthusiasm here.”
Excellent starting points, for certain.