After Valley fire, Middletown cross country team gets back to work in Viking Opener

Times, places and personal bests gave way to something much more important Saturday at the Viking Opener cross country meet at Howarth Park in Santa Rosa.

A group of Middletown High runners became the school’s first athletes to return to competition after the Lake County town was devastated by the Valley fire that destroyed homes and businesses. The smoke that hovered in the area prevented runners from training, as if they could focus on such a thing with their homes in the path of the flames.

“It felt great to just be back out here running,” said Middletown senior Diego Munoz, who covered the 2-mile course in 12 minutes, 3 seconds in the senior boys division. “I just wish we’d have had more chance to really train for this race so we could’ve run better.”

The fact that Middletown runners were there in a variety of makeshift uniforms brought a smile to the face of coach Sara Carlisle. “We expected to have 15 or 16 runners here,” she said. “I think some of them didn’t realize some roads were still closed and that it would hard to get here. But, it looks like most everyone we expected got here.”

Middletown runner Rachel Harvey arrived as the junior girls race was about to begin. Runners were already at the starting line. “Get your number and go,” Carlisle told Harvey, who clearly felt she’d missed the event. “You can just run behind the field.”

When the field of runners passed the large crowd of spectators at the start-finish area, Harvey was among them, running while she was still securing her race number to her shirt.

“The smoke didn’t go away until Monday,” said senior Jacob Olson. “I got back to run on Tuesday. Running just lifted our spirits.”

Individual and team performance were hardly of any meaning to a Middletown team that was starting the long, slow process of getting the school’s athletic program back in gear.

“Our sports will bounce right back,” Munoz said. “Everybody’s working hard. We’re getting lots of help and donations from so many people. We’ll be back.”

Santa Rosa’s Daniel Pride stole the spotlight among runners for whom running their best was the day’s goal. He became only the ninth boy in the history of the Viking Opener to cover the hilly course in under 10 minutes. He won the junior boys race in 9:56.

“I’m not much of two-miler, really,” he said after kicking to a victory over El Molino’s Brian Schulz. “I felt great. The race went like I expected. I felt strong at the end.”

Schulz finished in 10 minutes. The boys record, 9:40, was set by Novato’s Erik Olson in 2009.

The event featured races for middle school runners, frosh-soph girls, freshman boys, sophomore boys, junior boys, junior-senior girls and open division races for boys and for girls.

McKinleyville senior Morgan Coonfield ran an 11:24 to beat a pair of Empire stars in the girls’ junior-senior race. Coonfield outran Santa Rosa’s Delaney White (11:39) and Casa Grande’s Adria Barich (12:10).

Coonfield made the 5-hour drive south from McKinleyville after a difficult week.

“I haven’t felt good,” she said. “I got braces and they’ve been bothering me. I wanted to run a 5:15 first mile, but ran 5:27. It worked out.”

Casa Grande’s Matt Salazar won the senior boys title with a time of 10:24. Novato’s Matt Lovetri was second (10:33), followed by Sonoma Academy’s Caleb Richards (10:34) and Roseland Prep’s Juan Valerio (10:41).

Roseland Prep won the senior boys team title on a sunny, warm day that was dominated by Santa Rosa High’s boys and girls. Santa Rosa won the team titles in five different divisions.

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