Cross-country: After winning league title last year, Balers look for more

Vanessa Estrada runs around the San Benito High School track during practice Wednesday.

It’s a new year for the San Benito cross-country team but after coming off a pair of perfect Tri-Count Athletic League records last year, expectations – again – are deservedly high.

With returnees Vanessa Estrada, Ricky Esqueda and Steven Velarde, San Benito expects nothing less than a Monterey Bay League title and a state championship berth.

With those expectations, the team’s running leaders aren’t taking much time off.

The boys team, led by Esqueda and Velarde, runs nearly twice a day. The new upper-classmen – Esqueda is a senior and Velarde is a junior – have served as leaders for the team that returns only two runners from last year’s top-5 athletes.

Gone are TCAL champion R.J. Collins, who decided not to run, and last year’s team captains Said Hernandez and Omar Vasquez, who graduated.

“It’s going to be a lot harder, definitely for sure,” Velarde said. “We’ve lost two of our seniors and they were our top guys. So me and Ricky have to step it up. It’s going to put a lot more pressure on us. The other schools, they lost a couple of seniors too … it balances out. I think we look pretty good but it’s going to be difficult.”

But with Velarde and Esqueda taking the leadership reigns, it will be harder. The team, though, should thrive, head coach Jess Morales said.

“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “Hopefully, we will put the boys together. It’s like a puzzle. We a trying to find out who … is going to be on the varsity group. I think we have a good little team.”

Esqueda and Velarde have taken improvement to heart, leading the squad to twice-daily workouts and a camping trip to Mammoth Lakes. Both runners are aiming for a berth in the state championship this year.

“I want to qualify to go to state this year,” Esqueda said. “I’ve been working hard to get there.”

At Mammoth Lakes, a trip that Estrada also joined, the Balers ran in the high altitude to improve their breathing, Velarde said. The training method’s benefit is immediate and improves team morale and a sense of togetherness.

“It’s a bigger difference,” Velarde said. “We are training at elevation and we are getting less oxygen and we are pushing through it. And then, you know, we come here and you get a lot more here at sea level and it’s a lot easier.”

He continued: “And we take from what we learned at Mammoth and bring it down here. It’s not just all about training – it’s getting to know the people and motivating them to do well.”

With the tandem of Esqueda and Velarde, it shows.

“It works pretty well because me and Ricky are one the same level,” Velarde said. “And we are pretty great competitors. We are always pushing each other. And it pushes down on the incoming freshmen too.”

The partnership helps each of the San Benito runners to become stronger and better, Esqueda said.

“It’s good because we make each of us better,” Esqueda said. “We stay with each other and push each other.”

That atmosphere even carries to Estrada and the girls team. During a time trial workout over the summer at El Toro Park in Salinas, Estrada ran with the boy runners, surpassing her goal of a sub-18 minute time at the former TCAL championship course. With that time – breaking the 17-minute mark – Estrada is aiming for a time a minute faster and a top slot in the Central Coast Section finals.

“I felt pretty happy,” she said. “I felt like it was good because I wasn’t going my fastest. I wasn’t expecting it. And then that kind of made me say ‘okay, this year, I’m going to give it all I’ve got and everything I can.’ I want to go out with a bang.”

She continued: “I want to show people that you know what – because I’m always just a little bit away – I’m going to get closer to the people that I want to reach. I can stick with them. I can beat them. Hey, I’m not afraid and I want to show them – not for them but myself – that I can stay with them and I’m going to.”

That attitude will only make her stronger and better, said Morales, who expects Estrada to become one of the best runners in the state this year.

“She should be in the top-5 at state this year because she definitely has the determination to do it,” he said. “I know she can do it in cross-country and hopefully win CCS this year.”

The new year officially kicks off Friday for the two teams.

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