Despite frequent interruptions, Montgomery grad Mariah Briceno pushes ahead

Mariah Briceno’s high school cross country and track career had unique twists of adversity during her sophomore, junior and senior years of competition.

The recently graduated Montgomery senior had three seasons in cross country affected by wildfires and her final season in track was cut short by the COVID-19 shutdown.

Yet through it all, Briceno’s resilience and strong work ethic elevated her to finish her career as one of the elite cross country runners in Montgomery’s history. She was also a stalwart presence on the track team. Briceno was named to the All-Redwood Empire first team in both sports in 2019.

“Mariah had every single year affected by an event ― it’s crazy. She fueled herself the right way to overcome adversity. She didn’t let it become a roadblock,” Montgomery cross country and track and field co-coach Melody Karpinski said. “Over the last four years, she really blossomed as an athlete.”

Briceno’s four-year Vikings running career included the following interruptions: The 2017 cross country season halted for nearly two months due to the Tubbs fire; unhealthy air quality from the Camp fire in Paradise that forced the cancellation of the 2018 North Coast Section cross country race (preventing Briceno from qualifying for the state championship); the 2019 Kincade fire that led to her moving to San Diego for several weeks to continue training during the cross country season; and the COVID-19 shutdown that ended this spring’s track and field season after only one meet.

She had planned to compete in three events this spring ― the 800- and 1,600-meter races and the 4x400-meter relay.

Briceno said her Christian faith and her coaches’ mentoring were big factors in getting through the setbacks.

“I had to keep faith in the process,” Briceno said. “My coaches taught me that I am way more capable than I thought I was. They taught me I was capable of achieving anything I wanted to.”

Briceno was a cheerleader before high school but said she wanted to try something different, so she tried out for the track and cross country squads.

“Freshman year I wanted to try out a different sport,” Briceno said. “I enjoyed the running community and it wasn’t like other sports.”

By her sophomore year, the 5-foot-2 Briceno was becoming competitive in her track events, but even better at cross country.

“I prefer cross country,” Briceno said. “I like longer distances and I have the stamina for longer distance.”

Briceno was a second-team selection in the North Bay League in 2016 and 2017 in cross country and blossomed her junior year. The NBL championships were canceled in 2018 due to smoke from the Camp fire but she qualified for the NCS that year. However, about 10 minutes before the NCS race was set to begin it was called off due to poor air quality and Briceno was not chosen to advance to the state meet in a controversial decision by the selection committee.

“I felt very upset having worked so hard to get to the state event,” she said. “I knew I had to work harder the next year.”

Briceno said she was motivated by not getting selected for the state cross country meet her junior year and made it her mission to make it her senior season, which she did.

During the 2019 season, Briceno moved to San Diego for two weeks to live with her sister Vanessa while school was shut down due to the Kincade fire. She finished fourth at the NBL Oak Division championships and in 11th at the NCS meet, securing the final qualifying spot for state with a late kick to pass a competitor near the finish line.

“Mariah ran her heart out at NCS and pushed herself to the limit. She made a very aggressive move on the last hill to secure her spot at state,” Karpinski said. “She has an excellent work ethic. She is one of the hardest-working and most consistent athletes I have had over the years.”

Briceno had a good first mile at the state meet in Fresno but had a difficult time during the second mile before rebounding in the final mile and a half. She finished 55th out of 201 competitors and said she was happy with her performance and placement.

“I am very competitive,” said Briceno, who was named Montgomery’s 2019 cross country runner of the year. “Losing is definitely hard, but I learn from my mistakes.”

Making the state meet and finishing in the top 25% capped Briceno’s cross country career on a high note.

“Mariah was super determined to make the state meet last year,” Montgomery cross country and track and field co-coach Bryan Bradley said. “She has that competitive nature that she not only wants to beat everyone else, but also her personal best.”

This spring, Briceno was primed to have strong performances in her events on the track to end her high school running career. Previously, she qualified for the NCS Redwood Empire meet in multiple events her first three seasons and ran the first leg of the 4x400-meter relay team at the prestigious NCS Meet of Champions in 2018.

Then COVID-19 hit and her high school running career came to a sudden end after one track meet.

“It was devastating, but I knew others on the team were going through the same thing. It was disappointing to not have the senior activities,” said Briceno, who was recruited by UC Riverside and St. Mary’s but choose to attend The Master’s University in Santa Clarita on a partial athletic scholarship. “I felt like I’d fit in more at a smaller school and being at a Christian school was important.”

Briceno, who had a 3.5 GPA at Montgomery and was a team captain in both sports, said she plans on majoring in kinesiology in college and wants to become a physical therapist specializing in sports medicine. She plans on running for both the cross country and track teams, competing in the 800 and 1,500 meters.

“Mariah is doing everything that is needed to be a great athlete in college,” Bradley said. “She is going to be successful in college.”

Briceno said she is excited to start college and is planning on moving in to the campus dorms in August if the health situation allows. Karpinski said she thinks Briceno will excel in the small-school environment and that the NAIA school has a strong running program that will mentor her.

“Mariah had so many interruptions in high school that it somewhat prevented her from reaching her potential. She has a lot of potential in track that hasn’t been reached yet,” Karpinski said. “I anticipate in college she will continue to grow as an athlete. She has so much left to give.”

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