Competing with Northern California's best, Taylor Falk is aiming the Santa Rosa JC women's cross country team back toward the state finals.
That the former Casa Grande standout overcame a badly broken foot and ankle to run stronger and faster reflects hard work by both the SRJC men and women to make the Bear Cubs program a consistent contender for state championships.
"We're hoping to build something. We want to win conference and qualify for state. That's the goal," Falk, a sophomore, said.
Similarly determined are the SRJC men, led by a freshmen trio: Cristian Nazarek and Matthew Taylor from Santa Rosa High and Jaime Silva out of Piner.
"We are just trying to build a good team, a good environment," Silva said. "They were your rivals and now you get to practice and train as teammates. That pushes you."
Both teams look to improve on last season's results, when the women grabbed the last NorCal spot at state and the men were edged out for a state berth.
Santa Rosa's final tune-up is the Pat Ryan Invitational today at Spring Lake. The Big 8 and NorCal finals follow ahead of the California Community College Athletic Association Championships.
"They work off each other really well. The athletes are coming on strong," second-year coach David Wellman said. "The season is going incredibly well."
Highlights include a pair of men's meet wins and a women's first. In the highly competitive American River College race, the men took third behind the hosts and conference rivals while the women edged Modesto, their primary Big 8 competition.
The foundation for success has been smarter training and a focus on staying healthy. Putting in less mileage early, the team also has trained in the pool in addition to steady strength work.
"We're definitely ahead of schedule," Nazarek said. "By the time state rolls around, we will be at our strongest."
With more than a dozen runners, the men have numbers to push in practice and finish strong at meets.
"Having more runners is just better for training and bonding," Silva said. "In practice, there's a little competition. That makes it fun."
The push in practice carries into races. The top seven are close in time, translating into lower meet scores as they finish in a pack.
"It's great to have all the athletes pulling to be the best," Nazarek said. "In a way, it makes us close."
While smaller in numbers, the SRJC women are similarly determined to move up the state ranks. Now with a complete team and consistent training, the women could win a conference crown.
Falk has been a consistent lead pack finisher. Tori Dwyer, from Sonoma Valley, and Luz Huerta, out of Santa Rosa High, have made major gains on the season.
"We didn't really expect to be doing this well. Our girls improve every week," Falk said.
Falk is healthy and strong despite having two screws in her left ankle, which were inserted after she was hit by a car three years ago. The incident sidelined Falk for her senior season at Casa Grande.
Rediscovering a passion for running on the SRJC team, Falk wants to finish her Bear Cubs career among the state's best.
"I just really appreciate running more than ever," she said.