SAN MARINO — It all came down to Thursday for the Rio Hondo League cross-country teams this season after the league’s opener was canceled due to lightning.
In the winner-take-all-scenario, it was the La Cañada High girls that rose to the occasion at Lacy Park in San Marino, led by standout senior Sonja Cwik, who captured her first individual title in 18 minutes 18 seconds after finishing runner-up behind South Pasadena’s Helena Van Loan in 2011.
This year Cwik dominated the reigning champion and the rest of the challengers, as she cruised down the final stretch. Her time was good for first by 13 seconds with the Spartans’ Coleen Mispagel taking second in 18:31.
“It feels so great because I just really wanted to do well at this meet, especially in my senior year,” Cwik said. “It feels so wonderful and I am also really excited because our team should be really good at the CIF and state level. I am super excited to keep going on, moving on and doing well all the way through.”
Van Loan, a senior, slipped to sixth (19:32) in her league finale after she and the other three leading runners early on — Cwik and La Cañada’s Anna Frederich — were directed off course. Cwik used it for motivation, but Van Loan couldn’t recover.
“I didn’t even expect to win because I’ve been sick, but we got redirected and I think that anger kind of propelled me to go faster,” Cwik said.
“I think she panicked and thought, ‘I’ve got to catch up right now,’” South Pasadena Coach Patrick McGrail said. “I think the panic, the extra distance and the fatigue from trying to catch up in time builds up and that can just exhaust you, and I think that happened. We were thrown off our game and we didn’t really recover from that, but that’s athletics.”
Frederich rolled her ankle in the middle of the race, but pushed through the pain to match her fourth-place finish from last season in 18:41. The Spartans wound up with four runners in the top seven, as Hannah Yoho finished seventh in 19:39. Eleanor Marki rounded out La Cañada’s scorers, as she took 11th in 20:10.
La Cañada, which is ranked fifth in CIF Southern Section Division III, cruised to its second straight league title about as easily as Cwik did. Its 25 points were less than half what second-place San Marino (54) and third-place South Pasadena (57) finished with. The top three teams move on to the CIF Southern Section divisional preliminaries on Nov. 10 at Mt. San Antonio College.
“I think we knew we’d have some girls up front, but I don’t think we had an idea it’d be quite like that,” La Cañada Coach Jenn Strople said of her team’s dominance. “Since we went to Mammoth for training, they’ve had state in the back of their head the whole time and at the end of a work out when it gets tough, one of the kids yells out, ‘Think state, think state,’ so they’ve been focused.”
San Marino’s Alissa Barraza improved on her 10th-place showing from last year with a third-place finish (18:33).
“I did not expect this,” Barraza said. “I was kind of surpsied when I was in third. I didn’t know what to do. Now I can say I really improved this year, it’s nice to say that.”
Titans Coach Eduardo Mundo was very impressed with his junior.
“What Alissa did, she’s been waiting for that big race and 18:33 on this course is special,” Mundo said. “She’s been breaking out and she just decided today to run one – good day.”
Sarah Linton and Olivia Harrigian crossed the line next for the Titans with Linton finishing eighth overall in 19:42 and Harrigian grabbing the 10th spot in 19:57. It was San Marino’s Carlin Kock (16th, 20:35) and Veronica Mejia (17th, 20:38) that sealed the Titans place, as they crossed in front of South Pasadena’s Amy Choi (18th, 21:04) and Jessica Hitchcock (19th, 21:10) to hold off the Tigers.
“We only shoot for No. 3 here,” Mundo said. “We call it incidental when we topple somebody like South Pas. That was just completely unexpected, completely. They ran of the course and that changed the game.”
There was little drama determining the league champion on the boys’ side, as well. South Pasadena ran away with the title with the top three and four of the top five finishers in the race.
“I told them after the cancellation three weeks ago, ‘Things have been shaken up, we can either use that to our advantage or we can let that get to us. It can go either way,’” McGrail said. “I think we used it to our advantage.”
The Tigers’ Paul Messana and Joshua Wilson battled it out for the individual crown down the stretch, with Messana (16:18) just edging out Wilson (16:19) by a second.
Brandon Newquist, a senior, was La Cañada’s top finisher, as he placed sixth in 16:43.03.
“Our focus was just to do the best we could for this race,” Newquist said. “We all know this course because we’ve run it in years past. We just wanted to run as hard as we could and see what happens.”
The next Spartan across the line was sophomore Ethan Angold (13th, 17:12). Dillon Bromley (17th, 17:30), Chris Skaggs (20th, 17:36) and Justin Michel (24th, 18:11) completed La Cañada’s scoring.
“We’ve been training together for a long time and we knew it was going to come down to us so we just said, ‘Whoever wins, we don’t care, as long as you gave it a good race,’” Messana said.
It delivered Messana’s first individual league title after coming heartbreakingly close the past three years.
“I’ve been getting second all three years so it’s a nice cherry on top for me this season,” he said. “As a team captain, it’s really good to lead your team, be the epitome of success and lead your team to success.”
South Pasadena’s Tyler Gershman wasn’t too far behind, taking third in 16:38 with teammate Victor Hidalgo nabbing fifth in 16:42 and Tyler Armstrong (10th, 16:45) rounding out the Tigers scoring five.
San Marino packed into second place comfortably with 53 points to finish behind South Pas (21) and in front of Temple City (74). La Cañada’s bid for the final playoff spot fell short, as it just couldn’t push up in front of the Rams, whose scoring five placed fourth, 12th, 15th, 21st and 22nd.
“It was close, they’re a little upset, a little disappointed, but they have nothing to be ashamed of,” first-year La Cañada Coach Adam Hodges said. “They all ran well today. Half of that varsity squad is coming back next year and I think this is a good start to rebuilding the program.”