Baler girls are 8-time league champs

Elli Kliewer helped lead the Balers to a eighth straight league title. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Barring food poisoning or some mid-race injuries, it was a foregone conclusion the San Benito High girls cross country team was going to win another league title at last Saturday’s Monterey Bay League Championships at Toro Park. The Haybalers’ superiority showed as they ran away with the league championships with 72 points. North Monterey County was a distant runner-up with 112 points. Having won the MBL Gabilan Division for as long as it has existed—six years—and two Tri County League titles before the formation of the MBL, San Benito has captured eight—count ‘em, eight—consecutive league championships.

A league dynasty indeed.

“It felt great,” said Mariah Changco, whose time of 20 minutes, 22 seconds was good enough for second on the team behind Elli Kliewer’s 19:46. Kliewer took fourth overall. “It was a great confidence booster for CCS, and hopefully another step for us going to state.”

San Benito’s quest for a berth in the CIF State Championships will be determined on Nov. 11 in the CCS Championships at Toro Park. The Balers must finish among the top two teams in the Division I race to qualify for state. The Balers are currently ranked fourth among all Division I teams in the section, so almost every scoring runner will most likely need to nail personal-records (PRs) to punch their ticket to state.

A daunting task? Yes. Impossible? Hardly. The Balers are seemingly peaking at the perfect time, meaning all of the runners are capable of posting lower times. A year ago, the Balers were worn down entering the CCS Championships at Crystal Springs in Belmont, and they left with disappointment.

This time, they’re more confident in their fitness as a result of last year’s experience, knowing they’ll be on fresher legs for CCS. San Benito co-coaches Ryan Shorey and Leanna Morgan will make sure of that. The squad’s latest league title means no sports team at the school has had as much sustained excellence in terms of winning championships for the last decade.

“For the girls team, Saturday wasn’t so much about winning league,” Shorey said. “We were expected to win league, but what we needed to do was beat ourselves in a sense. We needed to know we could compete at a higher level as a whole team. It was a day to build more confidence in regards to state.”

The San Benito boys also performed well in taking second at the league championships and third overall for the season. Just as he’s done all season, standout junior Joseph Loredo led the Balers with a sixth-place overall placing—combining the Gabilan and Pacific Division runners—in 16 minutes, 47 seconds. Luis Mendoza (17:01) took 10th, Elliot Ruiz (17:08) finished 13th, Gerald Maresh (17:21) was 17th and sophomore Isaac Gutierrez (17:24) rounded out the team’s scoring with a 19th-place showing. Other team members included Christian Chavez (17:39) and Emiliano Quintero (18:26).

Shorey said he was proud of the boys’ performance, as all but one of the runners established season-best times at Toro Park. On the girls side, the three runners who figured into the scoring after Kliewer and Changco included Lauren Okamoto (16th in 20:35), Samantha Cortez (18th in 20:46) and Makenna Parks (23rd in 21:00). Other team members included Hailey Cross, who ran a PR of 21:20 and Emily Quinby (21:49).

Changco’s performance couldn’t have come at a better time. Changco has high expectations for herself and trains with intensity, a byproduct of spending time growing up with her older brother Elijah, the former Balers standout who is now excelling on the Sacramento State cross country team.

Mariah has always looked up to Elijah, and the two still text each other regularly.

“If it wasn’t for him, I would be playing volleyball,” she said. “But I took up cross country, and I’m glad I did because I fell in love with it.”

Changco would love to break 20 minutes at the CCS Championships. If she can do that, the Balers might well be on their way to making state.

“I have the right mindset and want to improve,” she said. “Last year wasn’t the best season for me—it’s one I’m trying to forget.”

Shorey said Changco’s attitude and ability to push herself has made her one of the team’s top three runners time-wise this season.

“The difference in her first year to this year in terms of demeanor and level of expectation has changed a lot,” Shorey said. “And you’re seeing the difference in maturity as time has gone along.”

Like Kliewer, Changco likes Toro Park—especially the three hills that dot the high school course. Changco gets inspired whenever Elijah texts her about his results.

“He’ll text me often letting me know how he did or to give me advice,” Mariah said. “That motivates me to do better.”

It shows.

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