Santa Rosa's Luca Mazzanti named All-Empire boys cross country runner of the year

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ALL-EMPIRE: BOYS CROSS COUNTRY RUNNER OF THE YEAR

Luca Mazzanti, sr., Santa Rosa

FIRST TEAM

Brian Schulz, sr., El Molino

Ben Lawson, jr., Maria Carrillo

Wes Methum, sr., Rincon Valley Christian

Robert Swoboda, sr., Ukiah

Jonny Vargar, jr., Piner

Andre Williams, soph., Kelseyville

SECOND TEAM

Lucas Chung, soph., Windsor

Paden Collard, fr., Cloverdale

Justin Cox, soph., Sonoma Valley

Jack Dunbar, jr., Petaluma

Zachery Esponda, sr., Casa Grande

Joey Johnson, sr., Sonoma Academy

Kheva Mann, jr., Sonoma Academy

Cooper Moore, sr., Maria Carrillo

COACH OF THE YEAR

Kelly Blanchard, Healdsburg

Elite talent ran through the Redwood Empire this cross country season, with two Sonoma County runners finishing in the top five in divisional state meets. The talent-packed pool of runners made it difficult to choose an All-Empire athlete of the year. But one runner from Santa Rosa High School outran the rest — Luca Mazzanti has been chosen by The Press Democrat as boys cross country athlete of the year.

Mazzanti, a senior at Santa Rosa, ran his way to record-setting numbers this season, with several top 10 finishes and wins.

“I put a lot more work into this cross country season than I have in others,” Mazzanti said. “I bought into the whole process.”

Buying into the rigorous training of a long cross country season can be difficult for a senior in high school, but it all paid off for Mazzanti in the final race of his high school career. At the state meet in Fresno, Mazzanti ran the third-fastest time ever for a boy from the Redwood Empire at 15:24.30, only 10 short seconds off the state champion.

“You only get a few perfect races all season long and that day it just all clicked,” said Santa Rosa High School’s distance coach, Carrie Joseph.

Joseph and Mazzanti put a lot of planning into the race. In 2015, Mazzanti ran the same race and got swallowed up by the pack early, but having that experience benefitted Mazzanti this tiem around.

“Early in the day we were shooting for a top-20 finish, but I knew if Luca was on his game he could get into the top 10,” Joseph said.

Joseph and Mazzanti focused on starting him out in front early on to try and break away from the pack, since there were more than 200 runners in the Division II contest. Mazzanti did just that and kept it that way for the remainder of the race.

Mazzanti also took home championships at the Viking Invitational and the North Bay League meet.

He also had to overcome challenges throughout the season on and off the course.

Mazzanti said one of the toughest aspects of being a distance runner is that “sometimes running can just suck.”

“Sometimes you’re tired, it’s raining and you’re hungry, plus all your friends are out and you just have to ask, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Mazzanti said.

But at the end of the day, his competitive drive pushes him through. Mazzanti takes pride in being a competitive person in everything he does and is thankful for running, calling it “his outlet to be competitive in a healthy way.”

Joseph applauded Mazzanti for his mental fortitude and believes it’s what separates him from other runners.

“Committing yourself to distance running is almost like committing yourself to suffering,” Joseph said. “Some people burn out and don’t have the mental strength to keep going, but Luca just does.”

Inaddition to the mental aspect of distance running, Mazzanti had to deal with an injury late in the season.

He took a spill while running in Trione-Annadel State Park and injured his hip. Mazzanti was on the shelf for 18 days without running. His return race was the NBL championship — which ended with Mazzanti atop the leaderboard.

ALL-EMPIRE: BOYS CROSS COUNTRY RUNNER OF THE YEAR

Luca Mazzanti, sr., Santa Rosa

FIRST TEAM

Brian Schulz, sr., El Molino

Ben Lawson, jr., Maria Carrillo

Wes Methum, sr., Rincon Valley Christian

Robert Swoboda, sr., Ukiah

Jonny Vargar, jr., Piner

Andre Williams, soph., Kelseyville

SECOND TEAM

Lucas Chung, soph., Windsor

Paden Collard, fr., Cloverdale

Justin Cox, soph., Sonoma Valley

Jack Dunbar, jr., Petaluma

Zachery Esponda, sr., Casa Grande

Joey Johnson, sr., Sonoma Academy

Kheva Mann, jr., Sonoma Academy

Cooper Moore, sr., Maria Carrillo

COACH OF THE YEAR

Kelly Blanchard, Healdsburg

“It speaks to his toughness,” Joseph said. “I tried to tell him to ease into it, but he was fully confident he could run at 110 percent.”

Mazzanti and Joseph focused so hard on mental preparation this season that they even came up with several one-syllable words that Mazzanti could mutter to himself — like “go, surge, fight and power” — when the running got tough. Mazzanti credits little things like that in helping him cross the finish line throughout the season.

He also credited the talented crop of competition he gets to run against. Brian Schultz from El Molino, who placed third in the Division 5 state race, was one of Mazzanti’s toughest competitors this season — and the Panther believes he wouldn’t have been so successful without that competition.

“Having local guys like Brian to race against really pushes me,” Mazzanti said. “They keep me honest, because if I let up I know they will be right behind me.”

Mazzanti will graduate in May and plans to continue running, but doesn’t know where yet. He is in the process of checking out a few more schools where he’s been accepted, but is primarily focused on getting a college education that will challenge him.

“Running is really important part of my life, but it’s not the end-all, be-all for me,” he said. “I know focusing on my academics and education will set me up for the rest of my life.”

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