It was a little closer than expected, but the San Benito High girls cross country team accomplished what it set out to do Oct. 30 at Toro Park in Salinas—win the Pacific Coast League Finals to complete a “perfect” league season.
In edging Alisal High by six positions, the Haybalers went undefeated in league action, capturing all three PCAL Gabilan/Mission Division Center Meets before the finals. San Benito had already clinched the league championship by virtue of winning the three Center Meets because the league champion is determined by a points system consisting of the Center Meets and Championship Finals.
However, the Balers wanted to put an exclamation point on their title season by winning the league finals.
“The girls were undefeated and wanted to go out on top by winning the final league race,” Balers coach Ralph Chavez said. “They ran the way they were supposed to, finished the way they were supposed to and had a great race. It was a little nervous for the coaches, but it was all good in the end.”
San Benito qualified both its boys and girls teams to the Central Coast Section Championships at the famed Crystal Springs Course in Belmont on Nov. 13. The girls team delivered on expectations to win the league finals. Sophomore standout Kendra Melching finished second in 20 minutes, 23 seconds at the 3.0-mile course.
Cynthia Tena (fifth in 20:46), Melina Chavez (eighth in 21:12), Valeria Esqueda (10th in 21:30) and Mia Briano (14th in 22:15) were the five scoring runners for San Benito, which totaled a low of 39 points to Alisal’s 45. Melching, Tena and Chavez came through like they’ve done all season, but in a championship race, there needs to be at least one runner who has a career day to vault the team over the top.
That turned out to be the freshmen duo of Briano and Esqueda. Their final placements were critical because Alisal’s top five runners took sixth, seventh, ninth, 11th and 12th, respectively. That means had Briano and Esqueda not run well, Alisal would’ve gained those positions and came out on top.
However, both Esqueda and Briano nailed huge personal-records at Toro Park to close the deal. Chavez said Esqueda coming in as the fourth scoring runner “was awesome,” while Briano was usually the team’s sixth or seventh placing runner for virtually the entire season until her league finals performance.
“Mia from the get-go made the varsity squad and consistently put in the work and time at practice,” Chavez said. “You could count on her, but it wasn’t until this day that she had the race of her season and a huge PR. It helped solidify the championship for us.”
Briano was averaging in the 23-minute range for 3 miles prior to the league finals, but came up huge when the team needed her the most. Melching also came through amid a season in which she wasn’t always at 100 percent, Chavez said. However, the team’s top runner has performed admirably throughout.
“She showed what she could do,” Chavez said. “She didn’t miss any league meets, but we were resting her a little bit and not letting her practice at times so she could recover more. During our Center Meet 2, she really gutted it out.”
Tena is the only senior on the team and has been a stalwart for the better part of four years.
“With Cynthia being the only senior, the girls really wanted to send her off with a championship,” Chavez said. “This was her first championship, so it was really cool to do that.”
Melina Chavez has made vast improvement since her freshman year and proved to be a vital piece in the team’s success. Meanwhile, the boys team is hoping to lay the groundwork to set up a run similar to what the girls are currently doing. The girls finished third at the league finals in 2019 and second in 2018, setting themselves up for this year’s breakthrough.
Junior Luis Silva was the only runner from the team to earn a top-20 finish, placing 12th in the Mission Division race in 17:42. Silva got faster as the season went along, building expectations for a strong finish to this season while looking ahead to a potentially spectacular senior season.
“Every year Luis has come back a stronger runner,” Chavez said. “You can see him progressing very nicely and as a senior next year I see him as a top runner in the league. He has the potential to do it.”
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]