Balers’ cross country on a solid run

The San Benito High girls cross country team has been producing solid results once again. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Lauren Okamoto is having fun running again, and that is great news for her and the San Benito High cross country program. The junior is having a strong season leading a young Baler girls squad, while seniors Christian Chavez and Isaac Gutierrez have posted the fastest times for the boys team.

Year in, year out, the Haybalers’ tradition-rich cross country program keeps running at a high level, a byproduct of talent, work ethic and the school having one of the largest enrollments in the Central Coast Section. Okamoto finished first in the first two Pacific Coast League Center Meets, including posting a time of 19 minutes, 1 second at the second league meet at North Monterey County High on Oct. 3.

San Benito took second in the team standings to North Salinas, which won by seven points. Sophomore Cynthia Tena placed seventh overall in 19:48, followed by freshman Gabby Romero (11th in 20:21), sophomore Maria Silva (20th in 21:13), and freshman Melina Chavez, who finished in 25th place in 21:25. Okamoto added a third first-place finish this season last Saturday in the Pacific Grove Invitational, winning her division in a time of 21:01.31.

“I’m really proud of this team because we lost a lot of varsity girls (from last year’s team), so going into the season a lot of the girls were a little anxious of living up to the expectations the girls teams here have done before,” Okamoto said. “I’m really proud of how they’ve handled the pressure, and they’ve been killing it. We get along really well and have great team camaraderie. It’s really fun to train with them, give them tips and help out because I was once in their position, too.”

Indeed, when Okamoto burst onto the scene as a freshman in the 2017 season, she showed plenty of promise, just like the freshmen on this year’s team in Romero and Chavez. After a terrific freshman season, Okamoto didn’t progress as much as she would’ve liked as sophomore, as she would suffer from bouts of anxiety in several of her races. However, this season Okamoto has made it a point to focus on the present, and it’s been beneficial in a huge way.

“I’ve been able to stay mentally present, which is a big accomplishment for me because a lot of times I tend to overthink and get anxious before a run,” she said. “Sophomore year didn’t work out how I wanted it to because I think I put too much pressure on myself. I kind of lost how running used to make me feel and it became work. So even though I upped my mileage, was doing a lot of better workouts and was in better shape, I didn’t perform as well. I also peaked too early. This year I’m learning to enjoy running again and not taking it too seriously (as if life revolves around results), which helps a lot.”

Going into the second league meet, Okamoto wasn’t actually feeling great physically, noting she had tired legs. But once Okamoto got out on the course, she performed well, only thinking about the process of running and not about specific times or placement.

“To come back to the same (North Monterey County) course and beat my time by a lot was a big confidence booster,” she said. “I was able to stay present and not get too ahead of myself. Usually at this time of the season I start thinking about certain races, but this year I’m just thinking about the workout of the day and keeping things fun.”

Whenever Okamoto has a feeling of anxiousness, she reminds herself to focus on her breathing, which keeps her mentally focused and relaxed. While not the vocal type, Okamoto leads by example, which is just as effective in that the younger girls look up to her to see how she goes about practice. On the boys team, Gutierrez has been a revelation, stunning even himself.

The senior wasn’t even competing on the varsity team last year after a bout with some knee ailments curbed his mileage, then his confidence. Gutierrez was on the varsity squad as a sophomore, so to take a step down last year was a bit demoralizing. Gutierrez was determined to turn things around once the 2018 season ended, as he upped his mileage and ran track in the spring before hammering workouts in the summer. The hard work has paid off in a big way, as his times are around a minute faster than last year.

At the second league meet, Gutierrez nailed a personal-record of 16:20 to take ninth overall in the Gabilan Division race. Minutes after he crossed the finish line, as some of the pain started to wear off, Gutierrez saw his time and couldn’t believe what he had done.

“It felt incredible,” he said. “It felt like it was the biggest accomplishment I had ever done in running. Last year I was nowhere near the varsity team, and this year I had hopes to do better, but didn’t think I would go this fast.”

Gutierrez’s time of 16:20 is approximately 5:15 mile pace, which was tops on the boys team for that meet. Chavez, a returning senior, finished 14th overall in 16:32, followed by senior Rudy Rodriguez (18th in 16:38), senior Emiliano Quintero (23rd in 16:45), and juniors Mack Richards and Anton Borges, who hit identical times of 17:02.

Gutierrez was also the team’s top placer in the first league meet, clocking a 16:37 to take seventh overall. As a sophomore, Gutierrez was a valuable member as the team’s No. 5 scoring runner. At the league finals, he was the team’s fifth finisher in a solid time of 17:24 at Toro Park in Salinas. At the CCS Finals, Gutierrez came up clutch, finishing as the team’s No. 2 scoring runner.

Unfortunately, Gutierrez couldn’t follow up a breakout sophomore season in 2018. He struggled with knee ailments earlier in the season and never felt like he was 100 percent until the latter stages of the season, and by then it was too late for him to get his times where they needed to be. Which makes his comeback senior season all the more rewarding. Gutierrez ran with his cousin, Juan Gutierrez, a former San Benito standout who is running at Hartnell College, during the summer. Those workouts made a huge impact in his progress.

“I basically got college training from my cousin,” Isaac said. “I put in a lot of extra work to get better. I’m much more confident now. The plan is to go a little bit faster, but only time will tell if that happens.”

Gutierrez is the rare competitive runner who doesn’t use a watch to track his pace. Rather, he goes by feel and where other runners are to judge his pace and how he is doing. For some, that can be a sound strategy, and it’s obviously working well for Gutierrez, who got his season off to a nice start by running a 16:52 at the season-opening Jackie Henderson Memorial Meet on Sept. 14.

Chavez covered the course in 16:49, and he’s been one of the most consistent Baler runners since his sophomore year. He performed well in the Pacific Grove Invitational, posting a time of 17:27.44, tops on the team. Gutierrez likes to take things out with controlled aggression in the first mile before picking up the pace on mile two. In the league meets, as long as Gutierrez has the lead pack in view, he knows he’s in line for a strong finish.

Balers coach Ralph Chavez usually yells out his runners’ times during the race, which lets Gutierrez knows if he needs to pick things up or conserve some energy for a great kick in the final 800 to 1200 meters. Gutierrez didn’t start running for a team until he got to high school, as baseball and football were his favorite sports. Once he tried out and made the cross country team in his freshman year, he had an inkling he could excel in the sport.

Now in the twilight of his high school career, Gutierrez knows what it takes to run with or slightly behind the lead pack. None of the Baler runners want to peak too soon, and Okamoto has made it a point to have a gradual buildup in her season training so she is fresh for the biggest races of the season: the league and CCS Finals. Chavez, who is in his first season coaching the Balers, said it’s been a pleasure coaching a group of runners who work hard and push themselves to the limit.

“Christian and Isaac are always pushing each other, which is really good,” Chavez said. “Rudy is also another guy who’s stepped up his game big time. He’s put in a lot of miles over the summer and is right in there with them. I would say between Isaac, Christian, Rudy and Nano, they’re being really good role models for the underclassmen and showing the guys what it takes to be a varsity runner.”

Chavez also had words of praise for the girls team, noting Okamoto leading the way and juniors Rian Hepner and Camilla Aguilar Hernandez—who finished as the team’s No. 6 runner in the first two league meets—as a big improver who has the potential to continually lower her times.

“I see the girls team growing week after week,” he said. “They’ll definitely be fighting for a league championship this season and if they continue to stick together and work hard in the off-season, they will be quite a team to deal with in CCS (in the future).”

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