Gabrielle Peterson weighs 98 pounds. The Healdsburg High sophomore smiles shyly but incessantly, and when she speaks it’s so quietly that you have to lean in to hear. She is the definition of sweetness.
And then you find out more. Peterson is not only a league-champion runner. She’s a scrappy wrestler and, as of this summer, a black belt in kempo jiujitsu. She could probably drop you like a laundry hamper if it came to it. Up to now, she has never needed to.
“No, and I’m very thankful for that,” Peterson whispered Wednesday as she sat on the bleachers beside the Healdsburg track. And she smiled sweetly.
The Redwood Empire’s top distance runners will assemble at Hayward High on Saturday for the North Coast Section cross country championships. El Molino’s Brian Schulz, Sonoma Academy’s Rylee Bowen and the Maria Carrillo girls are among the favorites to advance from there to the state meet. But don’t underestimate Peterson. And don’t sleep on the Healdsburg boys, either.
After years of looking at the backs of runners from Piner, Petaluma and (before league realignment) Casa Grande, the Greyhounds are ascendant. Peterson became the school’s first Sonoma County League cross country champion since the late, great Sarah Sumpter in 2007. And on the same day, at the SCL championships at Spring Lake on Nov. 5, the Greyhound boys claimed their first title since 2004, and their first outright banner since 1997.
The turnaround has been sparked by head coach Kelly Blanchard and assistant Matt Blanchard, a husband-and-wife team that has injected optimism and energy into the program.
When Kelly Blanchard arrived as an assistant five years ago, a total of nine kids were running cross country at Healdsburg. Last year, her second as head coach, the team had grown to 18. This year the roster is 37; it exploded so quickly that the Greyhounds had to raise money for additional uniforms.
Wednesday was Kelly’s 31st birthday, and the runners had not forgotten. Members of the girls team brought cupcakes, and when the boys returned from a run through the neighborhood, they came bearing long-stemmed roses. The athletes call the Blanchards “Mom” and “Dad.” She tends to refer to them as her kiddos.
The Blanchards are serious runners, though. They met on opposite sides of high school meets. Matt graduated from Rancho Cotate in 2002 and ran at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Kelly graduated from Healdsburg in 2003 (her younger brother, Andrew Rogers, won a state wrestling championship for the school in 2006) and competed at Oregon and Hawaii at Hilo.
“The fact that we run with them — they can’t complain too hard when we’re doing the same workouts,” Kelly said.
When Blanchard started coaching here, the Greyhounds’ summer program was sporadic at best. This past summer there was full buy-in, and the results were definitive. Healdsburg and Piner, the dominant SCL team, trained together on Saturdays during the preseason, and veteran Prospectors coach Luis Rosales told Blanchard her squad was the team to beat in 2016.
“We didn’t really even see it as a possibility,” Blanchard said.
Flash-forward three months, and the Healdsburg boys were league champions. The race at Spring Lake was typical. No Greyhounds boys finished in the top five overall. But five of them were among the top 13.