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San Benito cross country to kick off return of high school sports

Balers senior Mack Richards was training diligently even when the season was in doubt. He's confident his hard work will pay off in Thursday's dual meet against Carmel. Photo by Robert Eliason.

For the first time in nearly a year, area high school sports competition is officially back. The San Benito High cross country team is set to become one of the first prep sports programs from either San Benito or Santa Clara County to return to official competition when it has a dual meet against host Carmel High on Thursday at 4 p.m. 

The coronavirus pandemic shelved sports in March 2020, cancelling all the spring athletics and delaying the fall and winter sports seasons. Some of those sports may not return until the 2021-2022 school year; however, among the Season 1 sports, cross country had already gotten the go-ahead to move forward even before the California Department of Public Health’s latest update on Feb. 19 which paved the way for other outdoor sports such as baseball, football, lacrosse, softball, soccer, and water polo to begin competition on Feb. 26 in any county with a case rate at or below 14 per 100,000 residents. 

For Haybalers senior Mack Richards, the return to play has rejuvenated his spirits and outlook. 

“Once we got the go-ahead to start official practices and that we would have a season, that is when I totally stepped it up another level,” said Richards, who along with fellow senior Anton Borges are the top two returnees in the program. “It felt so good to get out there on the track again with teammates and coaches because we need each other to improve. There is a big difference running on our own and then being surrounded by others who share a passion for running.”

In addition to the Carmel meet, San Benito hopes to finalize a home race with Palma and Notre Dame-Salinas on March 2. Even though the current climate forbids large groups from meeting together—thereby eliminating large-mass competitions like a league championship event—the Balers could come close to getting in a half-dozen or so before the season end date in early April. For Richards, that is a huge win. 

“I’m just thinking how can I push myself further and get my body stronger and healthier and do my best even though it’s not going to be a regular season,” he said. 

Balers coach Ralph Chavez said athletic directors are working tirelessly behind the scenes to get competitions scheduled, which is not easy given all of the extra rules and protocols they have to implement due to the pandemic. 

“They’re working out the logistics because this is so new,” Chavez said. “Now they have to figure out how the students are going to social distance on the bus, what area they’re going to be able to social distance once they get to another school, all those types of procedures where you’ve never had to think of anything like that before.”

Coaches and administrators also have to make sure multiple people are not in the bathrooms simultaneously, which means there will probably have to be one person in charge of overseeing that area. In terms of getting a course set up, San Benito is ahead of the game because it already has marked a 3.0-mile River Parkway Course adjacent to the football stadium, the same site it has used in the past for its season-opening race. 

“The only difference now is we can’t start the race on the track like we used to because of the (new) bypass (completed with the renovation of the athletic facilities),” Chavez said. 

In addition to Carmel, Notre Dame-Salinas and Palma, Chavez said Christopher, Gilroy, Pacific Grove, York, and Trinity Christian have all expressed an interest in competing, but that doesn’t mean all of them will have courses ready for dual meets. 

“Other schools that may not be able to get a course together may be coming here since we’re good to go,” said Chavez, who credited assistant coaches Maxine Cunningham and Tracy Bloomfeldt for being instrumental in helping to manage the San Benito program. 

In a normal year, Chavez said 45 to 60 kids compete on the boys and girls teams. Not surprisingly, the number of participants on this year’s teams have dwindled to 22—12 on the boys side and 10 on the girls team. 

“A lot of athletes have reached out telling me they wanted to come out, but they couldn’t because maybe their parents had some health issues or their parents not wanting them to come out simply out of safety,” Chavez said.  

However, the team’s top two returners from the boys side—Richards and Borges—are both back, having finished 20th and 35th, respectively, in the 2019 PCAL Championships, the last time the season was contested. Chavez has been impressed with Richards and Borges’ work ethic and dedication.

“If we had a regular season this year, Mack would be in contention for an all-league spot,” Chavez said. “He’s been putting in some big miles in between our practice days and even when we took a break, he was still maintaining his training. And Anton has been the captain of the team for the last couple of years, and he’s the inspirational-type athlete and definitely leads by example through his work ethic.”

Sophomore Gabby Romero and freshman Kendra Melching highlight a girls team that is young but talented, according to Chavez. It consists of two juniors and the other eight are freshmen and sophomores. 

“The girls team is stacked and very competitive,” he said. 

Richards confirmed what many have known for a while: students are having a tough time with remote learning and not having sports competition since last March. 

“It’s been kind of rough,” he said. “I really like to be around people and being engaged in the classroom, so it’s tricky trying to stay engaged with remote learning.” 

Despite the less than ideal situation, Richards has maintained a 4.6 GPA, and he can finally envision toeing the starting line for an actual race against another school. 

“I’m so pumped,” he said. “I’ve been working so hard for the past four years to get a chance to compete at the highest level I can. I’m ready to get going and break my records and show what I can do.”

Gabby Romero and Kendra Melching lead the San Benito High girls cross country team into Thursday’s season-opener against Carmel High. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Mack Richards leads the San Benito cross country team at a recent practice. Along with fellow senior Anton Borges (not pictured), Richards is expected to have an outstanding season. Photo by Robert Eliason.