Sep. 18—It’s still early in the cross country season and runners are obviously still working themselves into shape following a nearly two-year hiatus from the sport while working through the COVID-19 pandemic.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that one of the biggest topics of conversation among competitors at Saturday’s Ridgeview Wolf Pack Invitational was the course itself — and more specifically, “Tank Hill.”
The largest of several hills on the Hart Park course, with its signature water tank at the plateau, immediately follows a pair of inclines, with the “Tank” serving as a wake-up call for many aspiring runners, and even a few of this year’s top finishers.
“Believe me, it hits you like a wall,” said East senior Nathanel Rodriguez, who conquered the steep elevation en route to winning the boys varsity race in 17:42.79. “It’s really hard. The first two courses of the year we ran were really flat. And just that year off, I didn’t really run that much, so I definitely need to mix in a bunch of hill training.”
A second-team BVarsity All-Area cross country runner as a sophomore, Rodriguez was pushed by Garces senior Fletcher Bank (18:02.62) throughout much of the first half of the 5K course.
Rodriguez eventually took control, pulling away for a nearly 20-second victory over Bank, who doubles as a star soccer player for the Rams and is headed to play at Stanford next season along with his brother Palmer.
“My game plan was to start real slow, draft a lot, but they went out blazing,” Rodriguez said. “I really wanted to win. I wasn’t really focused on my time, I just really wanted to run for place. But he pushed me a lot those first two miles.”
Although he won with a comfortable margin, Rodriguez said he wasn’t physically at his best. The 17-year-old had a sore left arm and felt flu-like symptoms the past couple of days after having his second vaccination shot on Wednesday, and the hills took their toll on him, as well.
“My feet burned really bad, especially on the downhill of the water (tank hill),” said Rodriguez, who dropped to the ground and took off his shoes shortly after crossing the finish line. “By the time I was finished, I felt like that asphalt burned my shoes. My legs feel fine, it’s more my arms, driving up those hills, just trying to pump my arms.”
Despite his post-race condition, Rodriguez understands there is a natural progression to a season, and there’s still plenty of time to make improvements.
“I feel like I did all right,” said Rodriguez. “I’m not where I want to be, but these next few races, I’ll be top level.”
Highland sophomore Jaxon Sweet (18:31.17) finished third, followed by junior Jesus Salgado (18:44.18) from Wasco, which finished second in team points.
Juniors Alberto Guevara (19:07.39) and Ishmael Nungary (19:15.08) finished fifth and sixth, respectively, helping Foothill take first as a team. Francisco Nevarez (20:11.69) was 12th, with Jacob Nungary (14th in 20:18.70) and Anthony Gonzalez (16th in 20:27.21) rounding out the Trojans’ top-five runners.
The girls varsity winner, Highland sophomore Mia Torrecillas, and teammates Lianna Guerra and Jasmine Vasquez, also survived their battle with the hills, finishing 1-2-3 to help the Scots win the team title at the event.
“Going into the race I felt pretty good,” said Torrecillas, who finished in 19:13.38, followed closely by Guerra at 19:22.25. “I did want to separate myself more from the competition, but those hills were really hard. I’ve gotta start training harder, but overall I felt good.”
Although Torrecillas wasn’t pleased with her time, she gained plenty of respect for the course, which serves as Highland’s home course during the season, with a few variations.
“This was the first course that was actually challenging,” said Torrecillas, who won her season-opening race in the Central Valley Classic at Fresno-Woodward Park and finished second to Guerra last weekend at Independence when she missed a turn. “I’ve been trying to moderate my practices to include more hills, and not to make it too hard since I had the race coming up (Saturday), but enough to benefit me for the race.”
Vasquez (21:45.69) and Lesslie Mireles (8th in 23:12.25) gave the Scots four runners in the top-10, with Savana Drewery (16th in 26:07) rounding out Highland’s scoring runners.
“They all work really hard, they have a good work ethic,” Highland coach Rick Hitchcock said. “I think we try to teach them that. Nothing comes easy. If you want something positive to come out of life, running or whatever, you have to work at it. They should do really well, and should be one of the better teams in the Valley if we keep everybody healthy. You never know what’s going to happen, but they should do very well in the state, if we make it that far.”