Cross-country: Balers bring three runners to state finals

San Benito's Vanessa Estrada competes in the CCS cross country event Saturday at El Toro Park in Salinas.

When San Benito’s Vanessa Estrada toes the starting line at Saturday’s California Interscholastic Federation State Championship at Woodward Park in Fresno, it will be the beginning of the end for her career in the Baler uniform.

With sophomore teammate Amy Quinones at her side, Saturday’s race will be Estrada’s final cross-country race as a Baler. The race will be a passing of the torch to Quinones, who like Estrada is making her first state final as a sophomore, and boys No. 1 runner Steven Velarde.

For the first time in school history, the Balers will send three individuals to the state championship, creating further proof of the recent dominance of the boys and girls cross-country teams. On Saturday, Estrada hopes to make an even further statement in her Baler finale, she said.

“Finally, I’m completing my goals but I’m making new goals as a I go,” she said. “That’s something that I love to do. I’m so happy where I’m at right now but I know that I need to create new goals because there is still more that I want to achieve. It’s so unreal. It’s unreal to think that I’m going to be gone. But I want to be gone by leaving a statement.”

After winning her first Central Coast Section title two weeks ago, and her third consecutive league title, Estrada expects to improve on her 17th place finish a year ago. In fact, she expects to be in the top five.

“I’m ready to compete,” she said. “I know what to expect. Last year, I had a curve ball thrown at me when I was sick. This year, I’m not sick and I know what to expect. The first year I was a shocked. Last year, I got a little bit of an idea and this year, I know what to expect. I think I’m ready to compete with the top girls.”

The race, though, will be the closing of an incredible career, which includes three league titles and numerous school records, SBHS cross-country coach Jess Morales said.

“She has developed to be such a good runner and a good athlete,” Morales said. “It’s amazing to see how much she has grown from her sophomore to her junior year to now. It’s amazing. She is a leader and she takes off at the gun popping.”

He continued: “She grew into a big woman now. She became an athlete. It’s awesome to see that.”

And for the first time, she won’t be alone at the state stage.

Velarde, who entered the season as the Balers’ No. 2 runner to Ricky Esqueda, clinched his first state berth with a fifth place finish at the CCS championship. Throughout the season, Velarde improved exponentially, improving his time by nearly 40 seconds.

“He was a follower all along,” Morales said. “Steven needed to follow Ricky but then for some reason, Steven got a taste of being up there with Ricky so many times. He started to pass him up and started taking his own toll.”

Eventually, it led Velarde to his fist league title and a strong finish at the section championship.

“I’ve seen the drive and the determination that he had in the last 800,” Morales said. “He needed to really step it up and he didn’t want to let up. He needed to be there and he wanted to be there and that’s what he did.”

Velarde’s success started early for the junior – before the season even started, he said.

“It all started in the summer and, you know, it’s where I put in the majority of the work,” Velarde said. “It prepares you for the regular season. I started training with coach Morales. He kept giving me workouts and when I got into the races, all that training built up.”

Velarde was dominant in the league races, taking first in all five Monterey Bay League meets. Right behind him was Esqueda, cheering Velarde on.

“I have to give him a lot of credit,” Estrada said. “We went on a lot of runs together. We were always together. Right there by my side, pushing me and helping me out. We come to the workouts and he said ‘lets go Steven come on.’ I just fell like he was right there motivating me to keep on going.”

He continued: “I really appreciate all the stuff he does for me.”

With one more year in the Baler uniform, Velarde hopes the state finals will only be a stepping stone to what’s to come, he said.

“I just hope to keep improving and helping out the team too,” Velarde said “I think it’s going to be a good experience. I’ve been working hard for this. I just hope that it helps me out for future races as well. Hopefully, I will go next year as well and feel more prepared.”

Another first time state qualifier is Quinones, who is already gathering comparisons to Estrada. And Estrada, who is Quinones’ neighbor, has taken the sophomore under her wing.

“I’ve taken her under my wing, treating her like a sister,” Estrada said. “I’m trying to guide her and telling her what to expect with my knowledge – giving her knowledge that I didn’t have.”

She continued: “I think she is going to be an amazing runner.”

The races begin at 9 a.m. Saturday in Fresno.

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