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When El Molino mountain bike coach Mike Warren first saw Neva Titus ride, he was terrified.

“She scared the crap out of me the very first time I saw her ride,” he said. “It looked to me like she was out of control, (going) 90 mph. But it’s just the way she is. She can handle it. She’s tough as nails.”

She has slowed down not a whit on her bike.

Titus, a junior and three-year veteran of the Lions’ mountain bike team, has been the squad’s top point getter all season long and a key player in the team’s second-place finish in the state high school mountain bike championship in Petaluma on May 20.

This was a group that scratched and clawed to get points all season but could never break the top two places in NorCal league races.

Warren, who has a racing background of his own, was clearly sold on his racers’ ability, but didn’t quite know where to put his expectations heading into the massive event at Petaluma’s Five Spring Farm. And part of that uncertainty was the structure of the state race.

Riding since January, the Lions headed into a state championship that was organized differently than league competition. The state race is all or nothing. No team comes in with points or places. How you race on the day is how you finish in state.

All season long, El Molino’s Division 2 team had to battle it out against both high school teams with riders all from one school and teams that featured riders from multiple campuses who ride under the umbrella of one “composite” squad.

It’s a formula that is great for riders who don’t have enough classmates to form a team, but it also means that sometimes some of the best riders can band together and form a sort of super team. The Southern California division of the mountain bike league doesn’t pit high school squads against composite squads during the season for that reason, Warren said.

“Those composite teams are basically all-star teams, so it’s not fair,” he said. “Southern Cal has picked up on that.”

The different categories made a difference at the state championship races, but Warren, who had wanted to crack the top three in league standings, tried to temper his expectations.

“So this time we were very laid back. We were not going to believe it until it happens,” he said. “And then when it did, they were so excited.

“Each one of them wanted to hold the trophy. It was really neat.”

In the NorCal League title chase, El Molino finished fourth behind Vacaville, Spartans High School Mountain Bike Composite and San Marin High.

El Molino’s second-place finish in Division 2 at the state races was the top team finish among Redwood Empire squads.

After grinding since January, there was almost disbelief for the Lions at their finish.

“I was completely shocked,” junior Spencer Babcock said. “When I saw it, I thought it was a mistake.”

No mistake. Babcock took 37th in the Division 2 JV boys’ race, while teammate and fellow junior Taj Krieger finished in 27th place.

Titus, racing the JV girls’ race, finished in 13th place. Mael Chevrolet broke the top 10, finishing 10th in the sophomore boys’ race.

And it wasn’t just the Lions who rode fast. Among the nearly 1,000 racers who converged on Five Springs Farm in Petaluma to race in 11 categories, a slew of North Bay riders put up some fast times.

Other local finishers included Clear Lake High’s 14th and Casa Grande’s 15th-place finish in the Division 2 high school category. Middletown finished in 29th, Sonoma Valley 37th, Cardinal Newman 39th, and Kelseyville 47th.

Cardinal Newman’s Luke Lamperti, racing in the varsity boys’ race, finished seventh, and Casa Grande’s Jessica Moser finished fourth in the freshman girls’ race.

In the composite category, the Annadel Composite team finished in fifth place. The Mendocino Coast Racing Composite team finished in 23rd.

Nathan Thalhamer of the Annadel team finished first in the freshman boys Division 2 race, while teammate Travis Tucker finished sixth. Riley Mullen took fifth in the sophomore boys’ Division 2 race.

Lions coach Kate Aldridge said the team’s growth and success is part of a bigger picture in Sonoma County.

“There is a lot of bike presence in Sonoma County,” Aldridge said. “A lot of the parents ride. Six kids rode the (Levi’s Granfondo).”

That said, some kids sign onto the club roster with very little experience, coaches said. The Lions, and all teams, take them all.

“We get kids who can’t even shift their bike and now they are racing,” Aldridge said.

Thank goodness for that attitude or we’d never see the likes of Titus on the trail. As a freshman, Titus signed up for the team at the urging of Babcock, who said he signed up less because of bikes and more because the team seemed cool.

“Everyone looked fun and happy,” Babcock said.

Titus said at that point, she hadn’t quite found her athletic niche.

“I was having a hard time with other sports,” she said.

“I had only ridden down my road,” she said. “I had never been on a trail.”

That’s kind of the special nature of mountain bike teams. They take all comers, and everyone rides to their own ability.

“Nobody is starting over anybody else,” Warren said. “You really get out of it what you put into it. If you work hard and train hard, you are going to do well. If you goof off, you miss practice, you are not going to do well. You are hurting yourself.”

Lesson learned, according to Krieger.

“Freshman year I didn’t put enough work in outside of practice and it showed,” he said.

Warren emphasizes this. The Lions typically ride as a group three days a week, but it’s not enough to get some kids the results they are looking for come race day.

“What makes a kid successful is riding in between those days,” he said.

When the Lions hoisted the second-place state trophy on the podium, it was a pretty successful day indeed.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 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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