Benefield: SRJC's Jonny Vargas keeps outrunning the competition

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How big was Jonny Vargas’ win at the NorCal Championship cross country meet last Friday?


For perspective, get this: Vargas’s title run, coming on the heels of his Big 8 title win on Oct. 26, is the first time a Bear Cub from the men’s squad has been NorCal champ since 1987. More perspective: That’s when Ronald Reagan was president, a dozen eggs cost about 78 cents and “Walk Like an Egyptian” by The Bangles was the hottest song of the year.

“It is absolutely a big deal,” coach David Wellman said. “This is my sixth year as head coach and seventh year with the program, and we have never had anybody as confident with the drive that Jonny has. As far as a surprise, I wouldn’t say it was a surprise, I would say it was more of a culmination of the work that he’s done and the ability he has to kind of make these confident moves. It wasn’t like I expected him to win; it was more that I knew he had it in him to win.”

Vargas has got to be just bubbling over with confidence at this point in his freshman campaign. His season has been nearly flawless.

He finished fifth at the Big 8 Conference Preview at Diablo Valley College on Sept. 14, then reeled off four straight wins: at the NorCal Championship Preview in Redding on Oct. 5, at the Pat Ryan Invitational on Oct. 13, at the Big 8 Championship at Diablo Valley College Oct. 26 and at the NorCal Championship Friday.

“It’s a big deal, to be honest,” Vargas said. “I never thought that I would be one of the fastest runners in college, the champion of NorCal. I only thought I would be one of the top runners, but I never thought I’d be champion.”

But that humble streak is countered by the killer instincts of a racer, Wellman said.

When he crossed the line five seconds ahead of the second-place finisher at NorCal, Wellman said there wasn’t a ton of celebration from Vargas.

“He was excited, but he was like, ‘Yeah, of course. That’s what I planned to do and that’s what we did,’” Wellman said.

Both Wellman and Vargas acknowledge that the state meet is a whole different kettle of fish when it comes to speed. But from the beginning, Wellman has said his No. 1 has the ability to finish in the top 10 at Fresno’s Woodward Park course Nov. 17.

“He’s in that zone — he doesn’t know who he is racing and it’s almost like he doesn’t care who he is racing,” Wellman said.

It’s the other runners who will need to know where Vargas is, not the other way around.

And an ace in the hole for Vargas could be a fellow Bear Cub, freshman P.J. Lynch, a graduate of Petaluma High. Lynch raced his way to the state meet and could fare well in Fresno, according to Wellman, if he is able to embrace a certain strategy: Balance.

“At every race this year, P.J. has been like, ‘Man, I feel fine. I have more,’” Wellman said. “I told him, ‘You should feel like you gave everything.’”

So Lynch turned his usual race strategy on its head Friday and went out guns a-blazing … and blew up.

The good news is that he finished 29th in 22:13 and earned a trip to the state meet. The better news, Wellman said, is “we learned.”

And Vargas couldn’t be happier that his training partner will be around and training for the next two weeks.

“He’s the one who makes me work even harder,” Vargas said. “We push together, each workout we do. It’s very fun. He’s a great guy.”

Also fun? The women’s team raced its way into the state meet with gargantuan efforts from all six Bear Cubs on the roster at the NorCal meet, earning a surprise second-place finish.

“I am really proud of them for how they raced,” Wellman said.

Fresh off of a Big 8 title win on Oct. 26, the women’s team again got a strong showing from Ana Palafox, a freshman who prepped at Vintage. Palafox, who ran to a fourth-place finish in the Big 8 meet, finished seventh at NorCals to lead the Bear Cubs.

Next it was twins Evelin and Jackie Ramirez, freshmen who prepped at El Molino, who finished 18th and 19th, respectively.

At mid-race, Wellman thought the second half of his team was too far back to make a move. He was wrong.

Marisa McGettigan, a freshman from Los Altos High, and Miranda Huntsigner, a freshman from Maria Carrillo, had more to give.

“Those two, plus Dana Johnson, made a huge move at the very end of the race,” Wellman said. “I didn’t think we had a shot at getting DeAnza, but because of those three runners in the back making that huge move at the end, we were able to overpass DeAnza.”

It was so close and there were so many moving parts when Johnson, who prepped at Santa Rosa, crossed the line in 48th place that Wellman and assistant coach Reesey Byers were stunned when the podium places were announced.

“To hear that we got second, which was not something in the plans, I was so happy and excited,” he said. “They went above and beyond. I am really proud of them for how they raced.”

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

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