Benefield: SRJC's Jonny Vargas off and running for cross country team

Folks in these parts may have known about Vargas because of his exploits over four years of cross country and track at Piner, but the wider junior college racing community now knows him, too.|

Reesey Byers will never be a cinematographer.

Byers, an assistant cross country coach at Santa Rosa Junior College, had his phone's camera trained on the steep rollers on the 4-mile NorCal Preview Meet course at Shasta College Saturday.

Before the camera rolled, he and head coach David Wellman had watched a pack of 30 or so runners head into the trees. The Bear Cubs' lead runners, freshmen Jonny Vargas and Patrick Lynch, were in that mix of runners, but on the back side of the group. Byers expected that same pack, give or take, to emerge and hit the only hills of the course - a couple of man-made inclines carved out of bare dirt.

So when Vargas, a standout runner from his Piner High days, emerged from the trees in first place and almost sprinted over the rollers while the chase pack lagged, Byers - well, Byers went berserk.

The camera starts to shake and then drops so we see only dirt. And more shaking. And lots of yelling.

“What? Are you kidding me? Oh my God,” he screams. “Where did that come from?”

Vargas' pace was 5:07 per mile over the 4-mile course, finishing in 20:30 - nine seconds ahead of second-place finisher Patrick Olson of Hartnell College in Salinas.

And that, running fans, was Vargas' coming out party on the junior college racing circuit. Folks in these parts may have known about Vargas because of his exploits over four years of cross country and track at Piner, but the wider junior college racing community now knows him, too.

And that's just fine.

“He thrives on that,” Wellman said. “I don't think it's anything new to him to be the one with the target on his back, the one who people are gunning for.”

Vargas will have a hard time hiding now.

Santa Rosa JC freshman Jonny Vargas wins NorCal Preview Meet

Santa Rosa Junior College freshman and Piner grad Jonny Vargas won the NorCal Preview Meet at Shasta College Saturday.

Posted by PD Preps on Thursday, October 11, 2018

“It was an army of JC kids and I wasn't really expecting it to be that deep,” Byers said of the field Saturday. “It was a war zone. We told the guys to go out conservative. Jonny was really, really smart.”

It was clear Vargas was fit and capable, but when he emerged from the trees, ahead of the “army” of runners, it was a sight to behold, his coaches said.

“All of a sudden, it was that movie scene, that iconic scene,” Byers said. “I still thought Jonny was in like 40th place and he's just charging up that hill and looks stronger than I have ever seen him.”

Vargas' win in commanding style puts his name in the conversation of perhaps a top-10 finish at the state championship meet in Fresno Nov. 17.

“He is going to be really tough to beat this year because he can handle any kind of terrain,” Wellman said.

And Vargas has found a rhythm, Wellman said.

“After the first meet, he was kind of down,” Wellman said of the Big 8 Conference Preview at Diablo Valley on Sept. 14. Vargas finished that race in fifth place.

“He got passed in that last mile and was a little frustrated,” Wellman said. “These last couple of weeks, something has changed.”

But unlocking Vargas ain't easy.

He's a guy who is wicked fast and runs incredibly smooth, and yet describes feeling out of sorts plenty of days before he works out and races.

“It happens every time. Or not every time, but sometimes I just don't feel like running,” he said. “Sometimes I feel lazy, stressed out, dehydrated, telling myself ‘I don't want to run today, this sucks.'”

And even on Saturday, before his explosive “Here's Jonny!” moment, he wasn't sure it was his day.

“I wasn't feeling it,” he said. “I was feeling just regular, not feeling like running. But after our warmup, I was feeling great, ready to go.”

Vargas insists that once the race is on, he can usually shake it off.

“Only by running during the race” can he solve the woes, he said. “There is no yes or no - I just have to do it.

“I don't really care whether I'm hurting or not,” he said. “Either way, I'm going to hurt. For me that doesn't matter at all.”

Vargas is balancing a lot. He has a full academic load. He works about 27 hours a week in shifts that end at 11 p.m. And he has training five days a week at 7 a.m. So perhaps he can be forgiven if he isn't always feeling fired up to run or if he oversleeps and rolls into practice about 25 minutes late, like he did Thursday (despite setting two alarms).

And still Vargas works hard and runs fast. Very fast. And he's a racer.

Speed Round Q&A with SRJC's Jonny Vargas

He'll eat any food and he'd rather be The Flash than Superman. Learn this and more about Santa Rosa JC freshman cross country runner Jonny Vargas in this edition of Speed Round Q&A

Posted by PD Preps on Thursday, October 11, 2018

“He's always been one of those runners, if you can get him in the race in the last 20 percent, if he's close to the lead or in the lead, he's going to pull out on top,” Wellman said. “He just has this final gear that comes out of nowhere.

“If he's in it, he uses it,” the coach said. “It's absolutely a will to win. It's kind of interesting - in training and workouts, he'll grind through a workout and be pretty consistent through every repeat or lap that we do in our workout, but when it comes to race time, it is a little something extra that you don't see in workouts. He's the one who wants to win.”

On Saturday, with his nearest competitor dropped, it wasn't necessarily the will to win that saw him through. The race was in the bag. He turned on the jets at the end because he remembered how excited Wellman and Byers were for him when he crested those hills in first place.

“I liked the expression, how my coaches, they were excited, they were happy that they saw me going up the hill and I was like, ‘Since I made them happy, I gotta … finish even stronger,'” he said.

Now that Vargas has officially announced his presence on the scene, his coaches are indeed looking for him to finish stronger. As in stronger in the final two meets of the season. The Bear Cubs host the Pat Ryan Invitational at Spring Lake Saturday, then it's the Big 8 championship at Diablo Valley College Oct. 28, the NorCal championship Nov. 2 at Shasta College and the state championship Nov. 17.

Wellman thinks Vargas has the goods to finish in the top 10 in the state. If history is a guide, that is an almost otherworldly target. Vargas has made Wellman a believer.

Among his skill set, he has this going for him: The NorCal championship will be held on the Shasta course that Vargas just dominated. That is no small advantage.

“I had this talk with my coach,” Vargas said. “Now that I've ran that course, I think I can do the same tactic and at least go faster, push a little harder.”

Saturday's race was the warning bell for all of the other state hopefuls. Now, with Vargas' commitment to racing faster, pushing harder at NorCals, the gauntlet has been officially thrown down.

Hopefully Byers will be on hand with camera, and commentary, when it goes down.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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