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HAYWARD — It had been seven years since the schools of the Redwood Empire were shut out of the North Coast Section cross country team championships. But heading into Saturday’s final race at Hayward High, the Division 2 boys competition, the area that has produced legendary runners like Julia Stamps, Amber Trotter and Luis Luna had failed to secure a banner.

The Maria Carrillo boys weren’t expected to win the race, either. Or at least they weren’t the top-ranked team. Coach Greg Fogg knew otherwise.

“If you look at the top three teams going in, that was us, Redwood and Granada,” Fogg said. “The Granada coach told me before the race: ‘I know you’re ranked third, but I have you ranked first.’ I told him, ‘So did I.’ I think all the coaches thought we were the team to beat.”

And the Pumas were. Getting a strong team performance without placing anyone in the top seven, the Maria Carrillo boys preserved the Empire’s streak and brought home their fifth section title, and third in the past four years.

The Pumas head to Fresno later this week to run in the CIF State Cross Country Championships. They won’t be alone. Carrillo will be joined by three other local teams — the Pumas girls, the Piner boys and the Sonoma Academy girls — and by 13 runners who qualified individually.

None of those individuals made a bigger splash than Sonoma Academy sophomore Rylee Bowen, who won her second consecutive NCS championship in Division 5 and finished as the fastest Redwood Empire girl by completing the 3-mile course in 17:29.7.

The fastest Empire boy was El Molino junior Brian Schulz, who crossed in 15:28.3. We’ll never know whether he could have won with a clean race.

Schulz was leading as he approached the 2-mile split, coming down a soft descent to the high school blacktop, when an event volunteer motioned him to bend to the left. That’s the proper direction on lap 2, but not on lap 3. He was supposed to veer right.

“Maybe she thought I was warming up,” Schulz offered. “I think the guy from Arcata followed me, but the dude from Drake figured it out and powered ahead. I probably should have jumped the fence; I didn’t know if they would disqualify me.”

With bystanders shouting and pointing, Schulz reversed course and took aim at Drake’s Jeremy Leary. He made a strong push, too, but that left him too depleted down the stretch. Schulz finished 11 seconds behind Leary, a noble performance under the circumstances.

Schulz understands it’s his responsibility to know the course. He also acknowledges that it’s easy to make mistakes when suffering from the oxygen deprivation inherent in distance running.

“When you’re tired, you’re not able to make good decisions,” Schulz said.

Two other Empire runners, Santa Rosa teammates Daniel Pride and Delaney White, finished second in their Division 1 races. Neither had a shot at winning – both finished behind kids (Tim Chrisman and Brook Starn, both of Monte Vista) who placed top-five all-time in D1 at NCS – but both exceeded expectations.

“I knew that Brook was too good to catch,” White said. “But I knew that I could get second. One of my goals, I wanted to come around that finishing backstop, because you can see the finish, and she’s not gonna be done yet. And I achieved all my goals today. I really wanted trip No. 3 (to state)!”

One of those goals, and perhaps the biggest, was setting a personal record at Hayward. White knocked almost a minute off her previous best.

Casa Grande senior Adria Barich ran a strong race, too, in Division 2. Hers was a strange path. By halfway through the second mile, she was all alone, two speedy runners dueling far ahead of her and the main pack way behind. It suited Barich fine.

“I actually do like running alone,” she said. “A lot of times this season I’ve been alone, so I’ve gotten used to kind of challenging myself and pushing myself on my own.”

Also qualifying for Fresno were Santa Rosa’s Luca Mazzanti in Division 1; Sonoma Valley’s Travis Claeys and Amy Stanfield, Piner’s Cynthia Rosales and Analy’s Emma Douch in Division 3; Healdsburg’s Gabrielle Peterson and Cardinal Newman’s Noel Clark in Division 4; and Sonoma Academy’s Kheva Mann and Technology’s Iris Berto in Division 5.

Cardinal Newman was hoping to score another qualifier. Kasey Braun was seeded fourth in D4. But running isn’t the sophomore’s primary sport; she skipped the NCS championships to play in a lacrosse tournament out of state.

The Piner boys’ third-place finish signals the evolution of the Prospectors program. They’ve gone to state before, but usually carried by a star runner like Luis Luna or Efren Reyes. This year’s squad doesn’t necessarily have a standout.

In fact, the boy thought to be Piner’s No. 1 runner, Jonny Vargas, finished behind the supposed No. 2, Aidan Carpenter at Hayward. Coach Luis Rosales said it’s been like that all year.

“We don’t have any really great runners,” Rosales said. “What makes them unique, they’re all close (in ability). In fact, if you look at our No. 1 to No. 7, our 1 was at 15:59 and our 7 (Jacob Hayes) was just over 17 flat. That’s like one minute separating our top seven guys.”

It was a big day for the coach. Cynthia Rosales is his niece.

Carrillo coach Fogg enjoyed his day, too, despite a lingering cold and a hoarse voice. He said his girls’ times were “perfectly aligned with what I expected.” Fogg spotlighted seniors Carolina Avelar and Allie Ahern for running particularly strong for the third-place Pumas.

As for the victorious Maria Carrillo boys, one of the keys was the performance of Jordan Scobey. Recognized as the Pumas’ top runner, he has been nursing injuries and laying low of late. Fogg asked Scobey to go all out for NCS, and the senior finished eighth.

Maybe even more important, Fogg said, was the race run by senior Jeffrey Marin, Carrillo’s No. 5 finisher.

“He ran awesome. He really won it for us,” Fogg said. “All my other kids were super solid, but they usually say you’re only as good as your No. 5.”

Saturday, that was pretty good. Good enough for another section banner, anyway.

“NCS is the pinnacle of our season, in my mind,” Fogg said. “I look at state as a total bonus. The way it’s structured, we’re in Division 2 and we’re competing against much larger schools at state. NCS is a good measure for us because it’s all equal-sized schools. So we really try to focus on peak performances at NCS. I think my boys definitely did that today.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.