Balers set for another strong run

Balers freshman Cynthia Tena was the top girls finisher in the Earlybird Invitational.

If there is ever a given in high school athletics, it’s the San Benito High cross country program will either be winning league or be in contention for league championships. This year is no different, as the Haybalers have a talented and hard-working group of runners who are relishing the challenge of fending off teams in what has to be the strongest the Gabilan Division has been in recent memory.

“Between our boys and girls teams, we could have one of our best combined finishes ever,” Balers co-coach Ryan Shorey said. “For the girls, I think realistically they can make a run at state again. And the boys there is a lot to be seen, but they can do some special things as well.”

San Benito knows what it must do after getting a glimpse of the best at the Earlybird Invitational at Toro Park on Sept. 15. Featuring a loaded field including premier teams outside of the section, the San Benito girls took 10th in the combined results, while the boys finished a respectable 16th.

In order of finish for the girls team by time, it went Cynthia Tena, Lauren Okamoto, Hailey Cross, Mariah Changco, Rian Hepner, Emily Quinby and Isabela Arreola. Tena, a freshman sensation, finished in 20 minutes, 21 seconds. For the boys team, the order of finish went Elliot Ruiz, Josue Murillo Gonzalez, Christian Chavez, Joseph Loredo, Julian Arreola, Anton Borges and Emiliano Quintero.

Shorey and co-coach Leanna Morgan have helped preserve and add onto a program where cohesiveness and team bonding matters. Recent Balers’ standouts including Sam Cortez, Ellie Kliewer, Brianna Martin, Gabriella Alvarez and Jose Ruiz all came by unannounced to offer their encouragement to the team at different points before the season started, Shorey said.

“It was completely unplanned from our end, which was really cool,” Shorey said. “They told them what cross country meant to them and what it means now. Gabriella is the first-ever female president at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, so that is a neat thing to see.”

There’s always exciting up-and-comers in the program, and the boys team has already shown that with sophomores Borges and Murillo Gonzalez, who had an excellent time of 17:28 over the 3.0-mile course, good for 22nd best among all sophomores in the field.

“We’re definitely excited about that because that means if you have sophomores on the varsity, we’re looking to have quite bit of success in the near future, too,” Shorey said.

Of course, the trio of Ruiz, Chavez and Loredo are back and aiming for their fastest times ever.

“They’ve done everything it takes to take it to the next level in league and CCS,” Shorey said.

Ruiz had his best season as a sophomore, and plans on rebounding from a so-so junior season. He’s already taken steps to ensure that he’ll be fresher at the end of the season compared to last year.

“During the summer I trained, but not at my normal intensity,” Ruiz said. “I kind of took it easy because last year I did too much too fast and I think it affected me at the end.”

Ruiz points to chemistry and a genuine friendship among the runners as key to the team’s success. During practice, Ruiz, Chavez and Loredo are often shoulder to shoulder, and depending on who is stronger on a particular day, the first to complete the workout. 

“Overall, we have great chemistry because we always hang outside of school,” Ruiz said.

Even though the boys team lacks a runner who will compete for an individual CCS title, it has tremendous depth—perhaps the most it’s had in recent memory. No less than 15 runners finish a workout together, speaking to the nature of just how close in talent the runners are. That makes picking the sixth and seventh runners in the lineup a tough chore because everyone is close in times, but it’s a great problem to have.

Meanwhile, the girls team will be formidable yet again, with the freshman Tena and sophomore Okamoto leading the way so far. Tena took eighth among all freshmen at the Earlybird, while Okamoto—who had a time of 20:51—finished 16th amongst the sophomores. Shorey said some of the runners don’t realize just how good they are, and hopefully will get more confident as the season goes along.

“Lauren has been killing it and absolutely murdering the workouts lately,” Shorey said. “I think she’ll be kicking butt this year.”

Cross is an ultra-reliable runner and had a terrific performance in the season-opening meet two weeks ago, and, even more important, has assumed a huge leadership role on the squad.

“Hailey is our vocal leader and has helped lead the team in everything,” Shorey said. “She’s really done a nice job stepping into that role that (past standouts) Amy Quinones, Katherine Monteon, Bri Martin, and Sam Cortez had in leading the team.”

If Tena does this season what Okamoto did last year, the Balers are set for a potentially special season. Conventional wisdom had it that Tena would be vying for the fifth spot, given that she’s a freshman. However, her performance at the Earlybird Invitational was striking. Shorey was almost prophetic when talking about Tena a couple of days before the Earlybird.

“You never know what a freshman will do, which makes it exciting,” he said. “You can easily see a freshmen move up quite a bit from race to race.”

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