Benefield: Maria Carrillo cross-country runners stay ahead of new challengers

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WINDSOR — The Piner Prospectors threw everything and the kitchen sink at Maria Carrillo Wednesday afternoon, but so loaded is the Pumas’ boys cross country squad that a couple of their guys could have stopped to wash their hands in that sink and Carrillo still likely would have run away with the win.

Carrillo’s Rory Smail and Colton Swinth, both juniors, crossed the line in near lockstep for first in 17:56, although a game of roshambo broke the tie when Swinth chose scissors and Smail chose rock. Their fellow Puma, senior Will McCloud, crossed in fourth in 18:21, followed by teammate Pierce Kapustka in fifth at 18:19.

The Pumas won 20-37.

The Puma stranglehold on the top spots was broken by a huge effort from Prospector senior Nathan Hayes, who crushed his personal record on his home Foothill Regional Park course by 31 seconds to finish third, crossing the line at 18:02. Prospector Manny Delgado took sixth in 18:24 and teammate Jeremiah Caro finished seventh in 18:34.

“I’m upset that both of them beat me, but it will be good competition for league finals,” Hayes said. “I was really excited. I haven’t raced either of them yet and I really wanted to race them.”

It was a showdown that many were looking forward to since the beginning of the season. Heck, many were looking forward to it when the new North Bay League configuration was announced, a move that shifted Piner from the former Sonoma County League into a division with the likes of perennial favorite Carrillo, as well as Santa Rosa, Montgomery, Ukiah and Healdsburg.

“I knew they were going to come chase after us,” Carrillo coach Greg Fogg said. “And I knew they would strike some fear into the kids. And they did that.

“A lot of my kids said, ‘Man, those Piner guys were right on me and I couldn’t shake them off,’” Fogg said. “You are in their house. This is what they do here.”

Think Piner was fired up to face the behemoth that is Maria Carrillo? The Prospectors put up so many PRs I lost count. Piner coach Luis Rosales said every one of his guys ran their fastest race ever on that course Wednesday.

“I was happy. They competed. They weren’t afraid and we did the best we could,” Rosales said. “They ran as tough as they could. I said, ‘You know what? Show courage. Don’t give up and run smart,’ and they all did that.”

It was the first loss the Prospectors have suffered on their home course since 2007.

“They’re the best. Sometimes that happens and you don’t come out ahead, but hey, it’s not because we ran terrible,” Rosales said. “They ran pretty fast.”

Carrillo is simply too much. And there are too many of them who are too much.

The Pumas are the clear favorite to go back-to-back and win the North Coast Section Division 3 meet in Hayward Nov. 17. And, depending whose rankings you look at or who you ask, the Pumas just might be the strongest Division 3 team in the state.

“I don’t want to obsess or pay attention to rankings right now because it doesn’t matter,” Fogg said. “I think if you are in the top three, four ... unless somebody is really running away with it, even if you are ranked fifth, you’ve got a shot for the big win.”

And the big win he’s talking about is a state championship. It’s been on the Pumas’ collective mind since the team left Fresno last year with a 10th-place finish when their sights were set much higher.

And that team is largely back for more this year. And they are on everyone’s radar.

Swinth said he wants to “end on a good note compared to last year, when we kind of let ourselves down.”

As fun as the boys race was, the girls wasn’t nearly as close. The Pumas won 16-46.

Maria Carrillo senior Aimee Armstrong was never threatened. She finished in 22 flat. Teammate Jasmin Hirth finished second in 22:44 and Megan Field got third in 23:04.

The top 10 spots were nearly all Carrillo runners, except for Piner’s Ruby Loe in fourth in 23:30 and Kristianna Johnson in 10th in 24:28.

Loe, a freshman, gutted out a strong fourth-place finish, nipping Carrillo’s Lexie Lee at the line.

For as smoothly as Wednesday went for the Pumas, Fogg said he was “on edge” much of the meet. Piner’s home course at Foothill Regional Park in Windsor and it is, in a word, hard. It’s steep right out of the gate and forces runners to take on that opening hill twice. And it’s deceptive.

“You think you’re done. You’re not,” Smail said.

“I was quite honestly a little on edge because we are doing well this year and I just didn’t want anybody to get hurt,” Fogg said.

But he knew his kids had to go hard to keep Piner at bay.

“They are a legit team,” Fogg said. “We are having a good year, but Piner is not to be taken for granted.”

Certainly not. Piner finished second in the NCS Division 4 meet last season and is clearly in the mix for a top-three finish at NCS, as well as a trip to the state meet at Woodward Park in Fresno.

The Carrillo girls, who owned the day Wednesday, are strong favorites to win the NCS team title. It would be their first since 2009.

Fogg was happy with the team wins, but there was no celebration Wednesday. This is all part of the master plan.

“It’s all pointed to Woodward Park in November — the state meet,” he said.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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