Balers going faster and higher

Balers senior Ben Hagen has already hit PRs in the high jump and long jump in the first two meets of the season. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The San Benito High track and field team has had a handful of athletes advance to the CIF State Championships the last couple of years, and this season the goal remains the same: win a league championship and have some individual finishers in the Central Coast Section Championships to qualify as many athletes as possible to state. Senior Ben Hagen has a legitimate chance to earn a state berth; after all, he was just two inches and one spot away from advancing to state last season.

Hagen took fourth in the high jump—he went 6-foot-2—in the 2018 CCS Championships. A mark of 6-4 would’ve qualified him to state, and the near-miss drove him to a productive off-season in which he seemingly improved in every facet of the event. The hard work paid off as Hagan nailed a personal-record (PR) of 6 feet, 3 inches in the high jump last Saturday in the Willow Glen Invite.

“CCS last year definitely boosted my confidence,” he said. “From the league meet on I had in my head that if I made 6-2, I had a good chance of going to state. I set out what I wanted to do by going 6-2, and that was an incredible feeling of accomplishment. But at the same time there was a feeling of motivation having gotten so close to state and missing out by one spot, that it made me work that much harder to make sure I don’t miss out by one spot again. I want to get to that next level.”

In addition to the high jump, Hagen also competes in the long jump and triple jump. In the season-opening meet against Alvarez on Feb. 27, Hagen went 18-4 in the long jump, smashing his previous PR by seven inches. Even though the high jump is his best event, Hagen takes pride in the other jumps as well.

“I was so happy (to hit 18-4) because the long jump has never been my best event,” he said. “Going into the jump I wasn’t expecting that much, but from the moment I jumped, I felt it all click and felt I got far. It felt amazing.”

Speaking of feeling amazing, that’s exactly how to describe Emily Quinby’s state of mind these days. The senior mid-distance sprinter feels she’s ready for a breakout season. Most athletes will say that, for the simple fact that optimism reigns at the beginning of the season. However, Quinby has legitimate reason to believe the 2019 season will be her best one yet. Last summer, Quinby was diagnosed with anemia, an her low iron levels resulted in a noticeable dip in energy levels. Once the senior got her iron levels back up, she felt like a whole new person, both physically and mentally. Quinby’s signature event is the 400-meter run and the 4×400 relay. She also might be on the 4×100 relay squad.

“I’m really looking forward to breaking my PR (in the 400) of 63 seconds,” she said. “I feel like it’s going to come very soon. I was very focused last year and I think with everything I’ve been working on, I’ll be hitting my goal times.”

The 5-foot-11 Quinby plans on going sub 60 seconds in the 400 while also establishing a PR in the 800, something she hasn’t done since her freshman season. Judging by the way she ran in the season-opening dual meet against Alvarez on Feb. 27, Quinby is primed to have the best season of her career. She covered the 400 in 1 minute, 4.50 seconds, which isn’t far off from her PR of 1:03.90. Quinby followed that up by lowering her time to 1:04.11, good for third place in the Willow Glen Invite.

“I felt really great and really strong (in the Alvarez dual meet),” she said. “Our training has been going really well this season, and I can’t wait for the next couple of races to see my improvement because I’m really going to push myself.”

Quinby advanced to the CCS Semifinals in each of the last two years, but has been unable to qualify for the Finals. She’s looking to change that this season, and one of the reasons why Quinby is confident she can take her running to another gear is because she’s coming off a strong cross country season.

Quinby competed in cross country in her junior and senior years, and there’s no doubt it helped her develop into an overall stronger runner. With the help of Balers sprints coach Ryan Shorey, Quinby feels like all of the work she’s doing will result in faster times soon. Quinby has been working on being more aggressive off the blocks and developing a great finishing kick resulting in a sub 60 second time, something she’s done many times running her split in the 4×400 relay.

“I’m looking forward to getting that in the open 400,” she said.

The 400 meter run also happens to be Robert Mendoza’s signature event. Mendoza finished in seventh place in the 400 in last year’s CCS Finals, in a time of 50.78 seconds. Six days earlier, Mendoza ran a 50.59 in the CCS Semifinals, just five one-hundredths of a second off his PR of 50.54, which he established midway through last season in the CCS Top 8 Classic. Indeed, the 2018 season was one to remember for Mendoza, who was a part of the 4×400 meter relay team that advanced to state, finishing in 14th place in a PR of 3:20.34.

Mendoza and his brother, Ivan, along with William Castellanos return from that relay group, meaning the San Benito 4×400 relay team has another opportunity to advance to state. Finding the fourth athlete to complete the team will be a work in progress, but there are plenty of capable runners in Tristan Camacho, Anton Borges Elliot Ruiz and Dillon Engler, who won the 110- and 300-meter hurdle races at Willow Glen.  

The 6-foot-2, 170-pound Mendoza had a strong showing at Willow Glen, taking second in the 200 in 23.56 seconds and first in the 400 in 52.66 Mendoza had a breakthrough in last year’s CCS Top 8 Classic, nailing his PR with a run he didn’t see coming.

“I wasn’t doing good at the time and actually came in as an alternate and ended up running 50.5,” he said. “That might have been my favorite part about last year because it was really surprising. From there I gained a lot of confidence because I had never gone that fast. Once I hit that time, I knew I could do it again. It was a breakthrough that day and I took off from there.”

Mendoza is confident he can run sub-50 seconds in the 400, as long as he improves in a couple of areas.

“I’m not really good off the blocks,” he said. “One thing I’m trying to fix at the moment is keeping my form near the end of the race and to not slow down on the backstretch. I know what I can do and I know what I need to fix, so I really expect myself to be in the top three (of CCS), honestly. I think I can go below 50 seconds for sure.”

A free safety and wide receiver on the football team, Mendoza enjoys track to a greater extent. In years past, it was the other way around where football was his favorite sport. However, Mendoza has seen his potential in track and appreciates the 1-to-1 coaching to athlete relationship in the sport. Coaches say Hailey Cross is an example for the younger athletes to follow, as she is diligent in her preparation and takes to coaching well.

Also a solid runner for the girls cross country team, Cross regularly does the 800-meter run, a much shorter distance than the 3.0-mile cross country races.

“I did the mile once in my freshman year and liked it, but coach saw I was strong in the 400 and added me to that relay,” said Cross, who finished second in the 800 in 2:32.69 and fourth in the 400 in 1:04.67 at Willow Glen. “I like the shorter distances for track because I’m more of a track person than cross country.”

Cross had a solid junior season on the track, advancing to the CCS Semifinals in the 800, where she ran a PR of 2:28.69. She was also a member of the 4×400 relay team that won the event in the Gabilan Division Finals. Cross’ season was all the more rewarding considering she didn’t run her sophomore season due to injury.

“The highlight last year was getting back into it and returning to the form I was,” she said.

Cross will probably run the 400 more than she did last season, and hopes to go sub-60 seconds while also going sub-2:25 in the 800. Shorey has been working with Cross on her form and technique, and Cross hopes it pays off.

“My knee needs to come higher and on the back action where my legs kind of drag behind me when I’m running, I want more front action where my knees come up to where it’s parallel to the ground,” she said. “I want less back action and less time on the ground.”

Cross knows it’s worth investing her time in the younger athletes, some of whom may lack the confidence to continue with the sport.

“Some of them might think they’re not good enough to make it,” she said. “So I want to encourage them because if they keep going, good things can happen.”

Elliot Ruiz is another standout for the Balers. The senior took third in the 800 at Willow Glen in 2:05.85. Sophomore Ellie Miller, who is coming off a terrific freshman season, won the high jump at the Willow Glen Invite with a mark of 4-8. Freshman Mia Villegas placed second in the long jump in 15-6 and fourth in the 200 in 29.34.

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