Benefield: Santa Rosa Junior College cross country team loads up for another run

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Santa Rosa Junior College cross country coach David Wellman looked around at the bodies sprawled hither and yon, everyone vying for a small slice of sidewalk on which to do abdominal work. It was just too crowded. It was clear he’d have to find a new space to do this particular team workout going forward.

But he was smiling as he said it.

“That is one of the reasons the team is going to do so well,” he said. “In the past, it’s been 20 on the roster and 11 would show up.”

On Wednesday morning, there were 24 athletes at the voluntary workout done in part on the trails of Annadel-Trione State Park and in part in this Bennett Valley neighborhood, where runners were put through drills and then a series of core exercises. He had two runners on vacation, two more were sick — but the vast majority of his bulging roster was there on the ground, elbowing for a bit of space on the pavement.

“This year we are maybe missing two or three people a day — which is incredible, that commitment,” he said.

Success for the Bear Cubs this season won’t come only because they have strong numbers, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

“I think it’s just the character of the athletes we have this year,” Wellman said. “Maybe there is a little more excitement about the team because somebody heard, ‘This person is going to be out.’ Through the grapevine, the excitement kind of grew.”

Nowhere is the excitement more palpable than on the women’s side. The women are defending Big 8 Conference champs and finished second at the NorCal regional championship. And everyone on that roster is back, Wellman said.

“We are returning the entire team from last year … plus adding four freshmen right up there with our second and third from last year,” he said. “As long as we stay healthy, we should be very competitive.”

In addition to sophomore stalwarts Ana Palafox out of Vintage High, and twins Evelin and Jackie Ramirez (who graduated from El Molino), the Bear Cubs add Santa Rosa High grads Bria Keelty and Katrina Frandsen into the upper echelon of their ranks. There are even more runners just behind that group.

“That will really help out in moving our pack up a little further,” Wellman said. “Last year was a great freshman class and this year is just as good as last year’s. It kind of has multiplied.”

To maximize his multiplication of talent, Wellman has adjusted his workouts at this early point in the season. He’s setting the pace of training runs for a group of four to five runners, rather than giving runners a target pace unique to them. The idea is for the fastest runner in the group to lead the pace and teammates learn how to hang on as a group.

“I’ve started to realize that in cross country you need that pack mentality,” he said. “The people in the back have to work a little bit harder.”

When I asked freshmen Keelty and Frandsen about those workouts, they both laughed.

“It’s humbling,” Frandsen said.

But in a good way.

“Being in an environment where everyone is hardworking and they are driven and everyone is out here and they want to work hard, it’s really positive and encouraging,” she said.

And for Keelty, she said the “pack mentality” isn’t all about pace. There is team building happening.

“I love that I am surrounded by a lot of different people who are all about the same pace,” she said. “I’m trying to go harder and stay with the group.

“We have been training really hard this summer,” she said. “We’ll definitely try and get the title.”

That should strike a bit of fear in the Bear Cubs’ opponents, because the team was already loaded before their infusion of freshmen.

But Wellman, while speaking of the potential of his current group, acknowledged that community college athletics can be tricky to read year to year because of the massive amounts of roster turnover. It’s the prospect of starting over every season.

“Every year it’s a whole new ballgame,” he said. “A group that last year would have won NorCals might not even be good enough to win their conference and vice versa — a team that was fifth could end up winning conference, winning NorCals.”

That point hits close to home on the men’s side this season.

The Bear Cubs will be without defending NorCal champ Jonny Vargas this fall and without state-meet qualifier Patrick Lynch. Vargas, a Piner grad who was the first Bear Cub from the men’s side to win NorCals since 1987, decided not to compete this year. And Lynch, who prepped at Petaluma High, is still working his way back from injuries he sustained when he was hit by a car while training last spring.

Despite those two losses, Wellman is optimistic.

“Our top five is close to what our top three did last year,” he said. “We should improve.”

The Bear Cub men add Piner grad Nathan Hayes and Tech High grad Bailey Williams, while returning Healdsburg High alum Andrew Magdaleno.

“I think we definitely have the talent and the drive to do well,” Wellman said. “It’s a matter of staying healthy and performing at the right time.”

But the first order of business is finding a bigger plot of land to hold workouts.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 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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