Healdsburg boys, Gabrielle Peterson chasing NCS cross country glory

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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.

“After cool-down, we found out where we were,” Healdsburg sophomore Dante Godinez said. “Everyone was fooling us. They were gonna say we lost and see our reaction. But Eli (Kroger, a senior) ruined it and told us. It was a big stress reliever.”

Godinez is clearly Healdsburg’s No. 1 runner. After that, Blanchard never knows how her boys will stack up on a given day. At the SCL meet, the Greyhounds’ five scorers all finished within 25 seconds of one another.

Healdsburg’s pack mentality helps buoy the team both in practice and on race day.

“When we’re doing a workout and we see one of us is falling behind, we can help push that person,” senior Jonathan Ramirez said. “In order for us to compete well, we have to compete well together, because we don’t have one or two carrying us in the front.”

The Healdsburg girls team doesn’t boast the same depth. Peterson had to work out with the boys to stay sharp. She has always managed to keep up.

Peterson had never run competitively — had never played a school sport — until she decided to give cross country a try as a freshman. In typical fashion, she wrote the coach a formal email: “Dear Mrs. Blanchard, I am inquiring…” Etc.

Peterson showed promise from the start, but had to adapt to high mileage.

“It was definitely a long learning process,” said Peterson, a 4.0 student. “When I first joined, my goal was just not to be last in every race. As I started realizing that I could do more, I started readjusting my goals.”

Blanchard said Peterson rarely spoke a word that first year, but has come out of her shell as a sophomore. The coach doesn’t try to hide her affection.

“You look at her, she is your dream athlete to coach,” Blanchard said. “She’s like your dream person.”

Even though Peterson can be a little, shall we say, OCD. She eats the same meal the night before a race, the same breakfast that day. Heading into competition, Blanchard draws a course map and uses it to plot strategy with her runners. Most of them, she says, promptly abandon the plan as the race unfolds. Peterson, on the other hand, insists that Blanchard help her strategize in minute detail — what pace she’ll run from Point E to Point F, for example, or when to make a kick.

Blanchard said that Peterson comes so close to her preconceived marks that it gives the coach goosebumps.

“At league, she’s like, ‘I want to be at 12 minutes at the two-mile mark,’” Blanchard said. “It’s literally 11:58. She has no watch on. She tells me, ‘I want to be in third place here.’ She’s in third place there.”

If that’s what Peterson needs to excel, it’s working. She qualified for the state meet last year, and even though NCS Division 4 has gotten tougher in 2016, Blanchard expects her to make a return trip. The coach thinks her boys team also has a chance to run at the state meet in Fresno — which would be a first for the program.

“It’s funny because they always say, ‘Oh, our school’s known for football,’” Ramirez said. “No. Our school now is known for Healdsburg cross country and girls golf. It’s really a good thing.”

You can reach staff writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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