Cross Country: Balers strong as usual

The San Benito High cross country team takes off to start its Oct. 7 home league meet.

By all accounts, the San Benito High cross-country course isn’t exactly at the top of the list when it comes to race destinations. Just take it from the Haybalers’ top finishers—Elijah Changco from the boys team and Brianna Martin from the girls squad—when San Benito hosted a Monterey Bay League Center Meet on Oct. 7.
“I don’t like it because it’s dusty and rather boring,” said Changco, who won his race in 16 minutes, 1 second, besting second-place finisher Christian Aldape of North Salinas by 8 seconds.
“I actually hate the course. It’s kind of flat and dry,” said Brianna Martin, who finished second in the girls race in a personal-best 19:36, the first sub 20-minute run covering 3 miles in her career.
Although most of the runners might not care for the course, they said whenever there’s a chance to hit a personal record (PR) or run against competition—as was the case in this instance since it was the MBL’s second meet of the season—plenty of positives can come out of it.
And to be fair to San Benito, for the schools that do have a home cross-country course, none of them compare to Toro Park in Salinas or the famed Crystal Springs course in Belmont. Although Changco and Martin had strong days, it was a mixed bag overall for the boys and girls teams.
On the girls side, San Benito easily outdistanced second-place Salinas by a score of 30-77 (in cross country, the team with the fewest points wins). In the boys team competition, San Benito was a distant third to first-place North Salinas, which had three runners among the top 11 finishers.
Changco’s teammate and co-No. 1 runner on the team, Juan Gutierrez, took fifth in 16:25. However, the Balers didn’t have anyone else in the top 20, as junior Angel Cortes came in 22nd, Arturo Chavez 36th, Tony Matarazzo 45th and Luis Mendoza 46th.
This day belonged to Changco, who has been trying to get faster on the hills, the place where races are most often won or lost.
“I kind of struggle on the hills, and that’s where my weakness is,” he said. “I’m trying to work where I won’t lose time going up on the hills.”
Since the Central Coast Section Championships will be held at Crystal Springs in November—there are three challenging hills where runners can make a serious move—Changco knows he’ll have to improve his hill work if he wants to contend for an individual championship in the Division I race.
Fortunately for Changco, he’s got Gutierrez by his side everyday in practice. The two push each other daily, and if it’s Changco finishing faster one day, Gutierrez will be faster the next.
“One day I can go hard and drag him along, and the next week he could be going harder and drag me along,” Changco said. “We’ll do whatever it takes to keep up with each other. Whoever is leading, neither one of us would tap out because we’re both very competitive. We like to keep pushing and in the races we usually take turns taking the lead. We both have different strengths and weaknesses, so we make a good duo.”
Changco and Gutierrez have led the Balers since the beginning of the 2014 season, months after one of the greatest male runners in school history, Steven Velarde, graduated. They’ve taken on the leadership role of the team, and try to set a great example for the next potentially great generation of San Benito runners waiting to make their mark.
Changco said this hasn’t been his most consistent season, but he’s running slightly faster times than at this same point from a year ago. In cross country, times don’t lie, and Changco has every right to feel optimistic that this could be his best season yet. Meanwhile, the always-solid girls team is looking for a great finish, too.
The girls are rated among the top five teams in Division I, and only one of their top runners, Katherine Monteon, is a senior. Super sophomore Samantha Cortes is the team’s top runner, having posted a number of great results this season. Fellow sophomores Elli Kliewer and Kira Emma finished ninth and 11th, respectively, in the home league meet.
The Balers have a pair of freshman sensations in Hailey Cross and Mariah Changco, who placed fifth and eighth, respectively, in 20:17 and 20:21. San Benito also has a deep and talented roster, one of its best lineups in recent memory. Martin, who has been on the varsity team since she was a freshman, is hopeful the league meet will give her an extra boost for the rest of the season.
Martin has struggled with asthma at times this season, but she’s learning how to deal with it and some of its triggers.
“I have a sports-induced asthma and a allergy-induced asthma,” she said. “The allergy-induced asthma I have no control over because of the pollen in the air. But the sports-induced asthma I feel is influenced a lot by anxiety. Before the race, I felt a lot of anxiety. Once I calmed myself down, I was able to run the way I wanted to.”
And that means fast. Martin has been the team’s third to fifth best runner this season—give or take, depending on the race—but she’s hoping her runner-up finish gives her a much-needed energy boost for the rest of the season.
“This race shows me I can do it, and the mental part is half the battle for me,” she said.
When asked if she was satisfied with her performance, Martin replied: “Oh my God, yes. I don’t know how I did it. I’ve been struggling with asthma the last couple of races, but for some reason I was able to breathe freely.”
Martin actually never liked running until she tried out for the cross-country team as a freshman. She actually quit playing soccer at age 6 because she didn’t like the running aspect to the sport, but now she’s matured to become one of the key athletes on the squad.
This was the first time Martin was the team’s top finisher, so it was no surprise during the race she felt a bit awkward as she sped by her teammates.
“I passed our team’s first runner and was kind of scared because I’m thinking, ‘Maybe I’m going too fast and I’m going to die out later,’” she said. “Luckily, I was able to keep on going strong.”

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