Editor's Note: The following announcement first ran on La Jolla Country Day School's Torrey Times on Nov. 25, 2012.
By Scott Sanders
A little XC history: Since it was first run in 1987, the State cross country meet has always been held at Fresno's Woodward Park. The La Jolla Country Day boys team history at this event began in 1999, when the boys were the San Diego D-5 runners-up and therefore a State qualifier. The trip to State was a thrill, but looking back it's easy to see that we were were green with inexperience and had few expectations; we were just happy to be there. The boys repeated the feat in 2000 and finished 8th in the State, and we started to think about the real possibility of becoming one of the best programs in the State. In 2001 San Diego Section realigned its divisions and LJCD was placed in D-4. The much-improved boys were the best D-4 team in San Diego, but were also the smallest D-4 program in the entire State. Over the next ten years the boys won San Diego CIF D-4 nine times and finished as high as 8th at State (2009). In 2012 the divisions were realigned again, and we found ourselves back in D-5. A rival coach in another section told me recently, "they finally put you in the division where you belong." Insofar as we will be competing against schools our size at the State level, he's right.
2012: The trip to the State Meet remains a thrill, and we continue to be happy to be there. But this year, we had our eyes on a podium spot. For much of the season the boys have been ranked 4th in the state, and our 2nd place showing at Mt. SAC gave us confidence that we could compete with the state's best. Most significantly, this year's team has proven itself to be the best in school history. They won the section championship with the best team time and lowest score ever, and posted the 11th best result in San Diego across all five divisions. They are much more than a good D-5 team.
The D-5 boys race was the first one of the day, and as we drove to the course in the early morning hours the fog was thick and temperatures were in the low 40's. We found our familiar spot to set up our canopy, and the boys, quiet, and subdued with nervous energy, set out on the warm-up. The fog had lifted and the sun was slowly warming things up, but it was still chilly: perfect running weather. Walking to the starting area, the loose and playful group of the evening before was now focused and intense. Introductions, final stride-outs and words from the coaches, a cheer of "Big Blue!," instructions from the starter, and then the gun. The colorful singlets of the many teams blur across the tawny field, framed by the grey sky and the red and gold leaves. At the same time, coaches, parents, and friends have a race of their own to the best viewing spots.
The first mile is always lickety-split fast as the excitement of the moment and flat course drive the competitors forward. The LJCD boys were in good shape, all in the front 3rd of the still-huge pack. Chip timing now provides immediate scoring updates as runners cross a sensor pad at the mile and 2.1 mile marks, and after one mile LJCD was not among the top three. But the race really begins in the 2nd mile, as the runners wind through a section of the course where there are few fans and the excitement of the start is replaced by the reality of the difficult task at hand. Pretenders fall back and seasoned racers settle into their pace and work their way up. Approaching the two-mile mark, LJCD's David Castillejos was in 13th place among a small pack or racers, looking good. Darin Wong was a few seconds back, and Julius Diehr was a few more seconds behind him. Then after another gap of about 10 seconds, the strength of the Country Day team, its depth, was on full display, as runners 4-7 were all running together. As the boys cross the 2.1 mile mark, we heard the announcer say that LJCD was in 3rd place, behind Flintridge Prep and St. Joseph's Notre Dame. Could they hold on over the last mile? Move up? More excited than nervous, the coaches ran to a good spot to cheer the boys on and watch the finish.
As the first 10 runners came into view, David was not among them and I had a pinge of worry. Over the years I've seen many a strong race fall apart in the last mile, even half mile. But no, there was David just a little further with Darin also in view. David didn't have anything left in the tank for a kick, but would hold on to finish in 16:21 and 17th. Darin crossed the line in 16:26 and 23rd, marking the best 1-2 finish in school history. Then Julius was flying down the last couple hundred yards towards the finish: 16:41 and 32nd. Jeffrey Clancy ended his XC career by accomplishing his goal of running sub-17:00: he finished in 16:59, good for 46th. J.J. Juarez-Uribe and Ariel Smotrich also completed their XC careers with personal bests of 17:03 (53rd) and 17:10 (60th). Jackson Daugherty, in his first race at State, finished in 17:11 (64th). This is the first time we've had four runners go sub-17:00, the first time all seven went sub-17:15. Every one of the boys ran a personal best for 5K! This is exactly what we were hoping for: the best race of the season when it mattered the most.
As the boys collapsed in the finish area, for a few moments it didn't matter what place we came in, it was enough knowing that each boy had run his best. But of course we wanted to know the result of those collective efforts. We found out not from the announcer, but from our cell phones as friends and family following online texted congratulations. 3rd place! Cheering, hugs -- we were all elated. For the first time in school history, the team made it to the podium. St. Joseph's ended up edging Flintridge by one point, 86-87, and we had 130, 27pts clear of the 4th place team. On the bus ride home, after receiving medals and the plaque, after the many photos, phone calls, and handshakes, after the celebratory trip to In-N-Out, the coaches could look over the numbers and put the race in perspective: The boys' team time of 83:30 (avg.=16:42) beat the former team best by 99 seconds; this time would have been good enough for 4th in the D-4 race; the boys beat all the San Diego schools in both D-4 and D-3.
Needless to say, it was a fun bus ride home as the boys continued to relive the race and receive congratulations from their friends. For this coach, it was easily the most enjoyable ride back of the 14 I've made. The season is officially over as we drive south from Fresno, and instead of it being bittersweet as I mull over things that went well and those that might have gone better (a coach's endless burden), it was just sweet, listening to the boys and proud of how they had run and what they had accomplished.