Cross country becomes numbers game during COVID-19 pandemic

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Photo by Phillip Brents Granite Hills’ Mel De Alba-Ruiz turns a bend on the course ahead of a pair of West Hills runners during the teams’ Feb. 26 dual meet.

Numbers were down during the just-completed high school cross country season. There was no question about that.

Part of the decrease in participation was due to protocols mandated by state and local health officials to ensure a safe environment in which to compete. Much of the decrease, however, was due to the lack of regular in-person attendance in schools.

Until high schools across the region open up fully, not all students are able to partake of the social amenities offered by on-campus clubs and athletics.

“It’s unfortunate that we cannot reach all of the student body yet,” Granite Hills cross country coach Walter Bueno explained. “The lack of attendance is a problem. It’s been rough for all the sports.”

As an example, the Grossmont Hills League dual meet between the Eagles and visiting West Hills Wolf Pack on Feb. 26 set the tone. West Hills did not have enough runners to score in either the girls varsity or girls junior varsity duals. There weren’t enough runners on either team to score in the boys JV contest.

The boys varsity matchup featured 13 runners — six from West Hills and seven from Granite Hills. It takes five runners to score in a meet.

The Wolf Pack placed six of the first seven runners to win 18-41 to improve to 2-1 on the season while the Eagles fell to 1-2.

Granite Hills placed four of the top five runners in the girls varsity dual, though the outcome was already decided before the race started due to the lack of a fifth scorer on West Hills.

“It’s unfortunate they didn’t have more people or a full squad but we’re fortunate to have what we have,” Bueno said. “This is the first year we’ve had a course on campus. The kids are still getting used to it.”

Both genders ran in the same race — one for varsity and one for JV — rather than having four different races. It helped compress the time element.

The boys varsity race featured a tight pack for half of the 2.3-mile distance, with four of the top six runners from West Hills.

Wolf Pack senior Landon Morales just missed setting a course record with his winning time of 13:00.2. West Hills junior Mark McCowin finished second in 13:13.3 while Eagle junior Mel De Alba-Ruiz was third in 13:15.

The Wolf Pack placed the next four runners across the finish line as the field began to string along the course. Juniors Ethan Trantalis (13:38.9) and David Singley (13:40.2) finished fourth and fifth, respectively, while seniors Brandon Bennett (13:55.1) and Sean Moore (14:15.6) finished sixth and seventh, respectively.

Granite Hills placed the next six runners to round out the race. The Eagles’ five scorers also included juniors Taylor Ham (eighth, 14:23.8), Jonatan Escobedo (ninth, 14:29.4) and Alexander Cantrell (10th, 14:29.8) as well as freshman Sergio Cruz (11th, 14:42.5).

“Halfway through there was one pack,” Bueno said. “No one seemed to want it. West Hills played that one very strategically.”

In the girls varsity race, West Hills senior Angelica Emlund (15:53.9) had a 60-yard lead midway through the 2.3-mile course but could not maintain the lead as Granite Hills freshman Karli Howard (15:49.5) engineered a spirited comeback to win by four seconds.

Sophomore Kelly Cahill finished third in 16:09.8 while classmates Alexa Hernandez (16:11.8) and Emma Nixon (16:16.9) followed in fourth and fifth place to bolster the hosts. Taya O’Harran (16:26.8) finished in sixth place for West Hills while freshman teammate Lillian Bozeman (17:17.2) placed seventh.

Granite Hills finished the race with seven of the top 10 finishers. Sophomore Savannah Barre placed eighth in 17:28, followed by junior Marissa Cruz (ninth, 17:30.9) and senior Ava Guerra (10th, 17:43.7).

West Hills junior Graham Dollens (15:18.5) was the top finisher in the boys JV race that featured just seven runners (four from the Wolf Pack) while Granite Hills junior Alyssa Martinez (18:49.1) posted the winning time in the five-deep girls JV race (all Eagles).

West Hills’ boys team recorded its second consecutive win after defeating Granite Hills.

“The boys are coming along,” Wolf Pack coach Juan Naranjo said. “They’re finally getting in shape. Some didn’t run through the COVID break. They’re finally coming around and helping the team.”

Naranjo attributed low numbers and injuries to the girls’ 0-3 record.

“The ones who are out here are the ones who put in the hard work during the summer,” he said. “They’re happy to have the competition.”

Granite Hills swept both the boys and girls varsity duals the previous week against visiting Helix. The girls won by a score of 17-42 while the boys came out on top 23-34.

Howard (16:06.8), Cahill (16:16.3), Hernandez (16:25.6) and Nixon (16:29.8) paced the 14-deep girls field while freshman Colin Guffey (12:38.3) and De Alba-Ruiz (13:08.6) topped the 14-deep boys field for the Eagles.

Granite Hills placed six in the top 10 in both races.

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