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Benefield: Cross country newcomers race to records at Spring Lake

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One looked almost ticked off, the other looked nearly jubilant. One ran totally alone, the other had to fend off a pack of speedy upperclassmen wanting to make their mark on a vaunted course. Both were big winners at the Coastal Mountain Conference cross country championship at Spring Lake that determined the North Central I and II league champs.

In the varsity girls race held Wednesday, St. Helena junior Harper McClain ran alone across the entire 3.05-mile course. By the time she crested the first hill just above the start-and-finish meadow, she was gone.

Victory Christian Academy freshman Jude DeVries, on the other hand, had his hands full throughout the 3.05-mile varsity boys race, finally edging Cloverdale senior Paden Collard by three seconds in the closing sprint.

Both McClain and DeVries etched their names in the North Bay record books with their respective efforts. McClain now holds the ninth-fastest time on that course, joining a storied list of runners that includes Julia Stamps of Santa Rosa, Amber Trotter of Ukiah and Sara (Bei) Hall of Montgomery. DeVries, who is just about brand new to the sport, is now the seventh-fastest freshman to run the course since records began in 1988, according to RedwoodEmpireRunning.com, a local running website.

Despite that finish, McClain — who didn’t even look winded when she crossed the line — had disappointment written all over her face. She didn’t deny it. She came to break 17 minutes.

“I think it goes to show that I set my goals pretty high for myself and when I don’t reach them, it makes me want to push harder,” she said.

Still, that 17:18 is the new best-ever for the CMC championship meet and the new best-ever for a CMC runner. Rylee Bowen, a 2018 grad of Sonoma Academy and a three-time Division 5 state champ, previously held those records. Except for Healdsburg grad Gabby Peterson’s 17:11 last year (eighth-fastest all time), McClain’s time was the fastest on that course since Casa Grande’s Jacque Taylor ran a 17:07 in 2008.

To watch her fly along the course was to see something special.

It bears noting that this is McClain’s first-ever season of cross country. And with that limited resume, she’s posted the fastest time in the North Coast Section by a fair piece, regardless of division, and the third-fastest in California.

So when she says her goal is to win a state title, that ain’t bragging. And when she says she is going to look at her performance on Wednesday and analyze how to get more from herself at the North Coast Section meet Nov. 23 in Hayward — and at the CIF state championships at Woodward Park in Fresno a week later — she is just being tactical.

“I would use this as fuel in the coming weeks to kind of mentally think of ‘OK, you, Harper, can push yourself harder and you need to be OK with feeling the pain you know you can feel,’” she said. “That’s what I kind of like to think about once I run these races … evaluate how much pain I was in — not like an injury or anything — but physical pushing pain, think about where my head was.”

On Wednesday, McClain was alone for the vast majority of the race. She will likely be alone for much of the section championship as well. It’s the downside of being that fast.

“Running alone is difficult because you have to internally push yourself and you can’t work off of other people and use them as help. You have to have a mental gauge of where you are,” she said. “It’s a lot more mentally taxing than physically taxing for me.”

But at this point, McClain is probably used to it. Locally, there is no one close to her.

For DeVries, who like McClain is running his first season of high school cross country, the race that unfolded Wednesday was much different. It wasn’t a battle against the clock. It was a battle against fellow racers.

DeVries had traded wins with fellow North Central League II opponents all season. But on Wednesday he sprinted past them all. His time of 16:08 is in the ballpark of the time set by Piner grad Luis Luna, the all-time fastest racer on that course, when Luna was a freshman: 15:56.

Among freshmen, Casa Grande grad Matt Salazar is the all-time best with a 15:42 and Maria Carrillo grad Jordan Kinley is second on the list with the 15:45 he posted in ninth grade.

“I was going for a 16:30,” DeVries said Wednesday, still catching his breath. “It really surprised me, seeing the time, I was like shocked. I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s really cool.’”

He credited the gang of runners up front — Cloverdale’s Paden Collard, St. Helena’s Jordan Reilly and Middletown’s Isaac Rascon — for pushing the group to fast individual times.

“When I run against (Collard) it makes me feel stronger, because his stride was really good and running behind him made me stay on pace and it got me to beat my time,” he said. “He’s really fast.”

For Collard and Rascon, it was a reversal of the race last week at Six Sigma Winery in Lower Lake, when Rascon bested Collard by seven seconds for the win.

But that pack competition led to some fast times Wednesday.

“Today I really liked it because it was fast people running together, so it really made me want to go fast,” DeVries said.

His personal record puts DeVries squarely in the mix to contend in the NCS Division 5 race.

“I really want to go to state, but I don’t know if I’ll make it,” he said.

If he keeps lopping time off of his finishes in 30-second chunks, he will certainly give himself a good chance to race in Fresno.

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

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