Benefield: Empire pair wins state cross country titles after leaving it all on the course

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FRESNO — Congratulations, Sonoma County, you have not one but two state champs. Two local runners walked, perhaps limped, away from Fresno’s Woodward Park as CIF state cross country champions on Saturday.

Healdsburg senior Gabby Peterson and Sonoma Academy senior Andre Williams, both running in Division 5, are state champions after racing away from their competitors and taking the top spot on their respective podiums.

Peterson, who dominated in her track season as a junior before heading into her senior cross country campaign, kept the company of Village Christian’s Mia Barnett until, well, until Peterson just ran off with it. Her margin of victory — 35 seconds — was by far the largest of the day.

“I was feeling really good, so I wanted to continue that momentum,” she said of her move at the end of the second mile.

As she normally does, Peterson made it look effortless. She’s nearly expressionless when she runs and only has smiles for people when the race is over.

Maybe Saturday the smiles were making up for what had to be a disappointing 25th-place finish here her junior year, or because she finally, finally got to run after two weeks of race cancellations and rescheduling because of poor air quality.

Peterson, along with every other North Bay runner, has been stymied in recent weeks by the horrible air lingering in the skies as a result of the deadly fires in Butte County. She didn’t even get to race the section final last week.

“I was a bit bummed out because I really wanted to race, but I think it was the right decision. Over the weekend the smoke was really bothering me, so I think running in it wouldn’t have been the best for me personally,” she said.

“I just had to roll with the punches, metaphorically,” she said.

She and her Healdsburg teammates used two area gyms to get in their workouts. As thankful as she was to get access to those workouts, Peterson looked happy to finally be outside Saturday.

“That was a lot of treadmilling,” she said.

If these two weeks have been long, Peterson said after the race this win has been on her mind for four years.

“Coming in my freshman year, I got 81st and I really wanted to win a state title,” she said. “It’s just been an ongoing goal. It’s fun to see it come to fruition.”

And last year, as decorated as her season was, she left the state meet with a 25th-place finish and a time of 19:07. Her 17:44 Saturday was a far cry from a year ago.

As she did in track, Peterson writes positive thoughts and reminders on her arm before she races. Her inked words Saturday?

“I said, ‘Every opportunity,’ ‘You can do it’ and ‘Push yourself,’” she said.

On Saturday, she did all three.

Earlier in the day, Sonoma Academy’s Williams became the first local state champion of the day when he won a duel with Jack Adelman, a sophomore from St. Margaret’s Episcopal in San Juan Capistrano.

But at first glance in the moments after the race, it was hard to tell who won. Both Williams and Adelman were sprawled on their backs, mouths agape. It was not a picture coaches might use to recruit someone to the sport of cross country.

It looked like misery.

I asked the dumb question of Williams: How was he feeling?

“I’m dying,” he said. “This is it.”

He was struggling to sit up when he said it. But he was smiling.

“I’m happy. It doesn’t look like it but I’m very happy,” he said.

Williams was the picture of an athlete who leaves it all, and perhaps a little more, on the race course. He was spent.

But after last year’s fourth-place finish with a time of 15:52, Williams has had his eyes trained on this day and this race for 365 days.

“I thought he got me for a little bit on the uphill,” he said of Adelman. “He was attacking it pretty hard.

“I just held on for as long as I can, then he started falling back a little bit and I was like, ‘I gotta go,’” he said.

In Williams’ words, his move “was not pretty.”

But man, was it effective. Williams entered the final stretch of the course, a slow rise into a gauntlet of orange mesh fencing with hundreds of fans hanging over the edge, in a commanding lead.

Adelman tried to catch him and was turning his legs over furiously, but Williams’ lead was too big.

His time? 15:32. Twenty seconds faster than last year and three places up the podium.

How do you top that?

“I’ll have to set more goals now,” he said.

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

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