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By Joe Naiman
Village News Correspondent 

Sullivan girls take first at Mt. SAC meet


Last updated 11/21/2019 at 4:28pm

Braden West takes the lead from the beginning of a middle school cross-country boys' race at Mt. San Antonio College Invitational in Walnut and is powering up Reservoir Hill as if it is flat.

The Mt. San Antonio College Invitational is one of California's most prestigious cross-country meets, and Sullivan Middle School cross-country coach Tamara Miller took her eighth-graders to Walnut, Oct. 18, to participate in the youth races for eighth-grade boys and eighth-grade girls. The Wildcats won the girls championship while the Sullivan boys placed fourth.

Cross-country team scores add the positions of a school's first five finishers; the sixth and seventh runners are not scored but can add points to other teams' totals. Sullivan's girls accumulated 38 points. Twin Peaks Middle School in Poway had the second-place score of 47 points, Pinon Mesa Middle School in Phelan was third with 95 points, and Mesa View Middle School from Huntington Beach had the fourth-place total of 97 points.

"Sullivan girls went with the expectation that we would have fun, try something new and finish strong," Miller said. "I knew they had the potential to win overall, but I did not tell them that prior. I wanted them to go in without nerves and just enjoy the challenging course. I knew they would push themselves, because they always do. I never have to worry about the team, as they are extremely consistent and dependable."

The course for the eighth-grade runners was 2 miles. Makenzie McRae of Mesa View was the first girls' individual finisher with a time of 12 minutes 41 seconds. Sullivan's Rori Gartner had the fourth-place time of 13:26.

"Rori is one of the strongest, most determined runners I have ever coached," Miller said. "Rori has long, strong legs that can turn over rapidly when a sprint is called upon."

Stefania Sesock of Visalia's Ridgeview Middle School also had a time of 13:26 to finish fifth and a fraction of a second behind Gartner.

"Rori is fiercely competitive and does not like to lose, both in the classroom academically and athletically. This competitive drive mixed with her physique that fits the mold of a cross-country runner is what pushed her to beat out the fifth-place girl by less than one second near the finish line," Miller said. "She saw she could catch the fourth runner and put her mind in the right spot to get the job done."

Miller was standing at the top of Reservoir Hill and couldn't see the exact location of the finish line but could observe Gartner challenging Sesock for fourth place.

"You could see so clearly she was gaining on her," Miller said. "I am so proud of her for putting in the hard work and leading her team as the top runner for Sullivan at Mt. SAC."

Sullivan runners took both eighth place and ninth place with Avery Lynas finishing in 13:46 and Abby Petersen posting a time of 14:00. The top 15 finishers in each race received individual medals, so Lynas and Petersen joined Gartner in taking home both team medals and individual medals.

Sahara Khoury finished one position away from a medal; her 16th-place time was 14:36. Maya Khoury took 18th place and had a time of 14:39.

"That does not surprise me," Miller said of five of her runners finishing among the top 20. "My top five are always in the top 10 of our league, finishing three strong and two right behind. I knew they would be right up there in the Mt. SAC race as well," Miller said. "They are consistent, determined and push one another."

The Khoury sisters are fraternal twins.

"They push one another and stay close to the top three," Miller said. "It is a dream to have five girls so closely packed together because it equates to a winning team each and every time."

The times gave Sullivan a 73-second spread between the Wildcats' first and fifth finishers.

"The girls met my expectations with the 73-second spread. All season their spread has ranged from 51 to 80 seconds, so the 73 fell within that range," Miller said. "It just goes to prove further how consistent the girls are. When one pushes faster in a race, the other four respond. They are a dream team to coach, and it gives me chills to watch them race and finish each meet."

The race had 174 finishers. Sullivan's sixth runner, Ava Papoulias, placed 45th with a time of 16:07. Papoulias skipped fifth grade and is only 12 years old.

"She is not too far behind my top five, and I am certain she will be right in the mix in another year or so with this top five," Miller said.

Sullivan's seventh finisher, Madeleine Dahlgren, placed 77th at 16:37.

"The eighth-grade girls' team is near perfect in cross-country and will be a contender for a state team when they are in high school," Miller said. "I am not sure the girls actually realize the caliber of their team, nor all the greatness their future has in store."

Sullivan's boys had 155 points.

"I am beyond proud of our boys' team," Miller said.

Palos Verdes Intermediate School, which is in Palos Verdes Estates, had the premier score of 82 points. Quail Valley Middle School in Phelan had 97 points for second place. Corona's El Cerrito Middle School had the third-place total of 136 points. The fifth place team, DeAnza Academy of Technology and the Arts in Ventura, accumulated 172 points.

"We have always had two runners place one and two in our league, Braden West and Devin Huntington, who lead the boys' team each race. Braden and Devin inspire their teammates to do better just through their running success," Miller said. "Above that they are both extremely hard-working and very positive, which translates into two tremendous team leaders."

Alex Naehu of Palos Verdes won the boys race in 11:45. West had the second-place time of 11:57. The Sullivan boys were in a race with 247 runners, and when the other eighth-grade boys' race is included West's time placed second among 470 harriers.

"Braden is a powerhouse, a human born to run with a natural raw talent you don't find very often," Miller said. "He makes it look so easy and finishes with energy left in him to continue for miles more."

Miller takes responsibility for West not finishing first.

"Mt. SAC is quite a distance from Sullivan, and I did not have time to go up and see the course before race day. I trusted the course map which only showed three switchback hills, which were toward the latter part of the two-mile course," she said. "I competed at Mt. SAC in middle school and high school but did not fully recall how many switchbacks there were."

The Wildcats arrived at the meet approximately one hour before their initial race and were unable to walk the course beforehand.

"Braden made a move on the second switchback to take the lead and lengthen the margin between him and the second runner. He trusted, as did I, that there was only one more switchback. He trusted his sprint to finish through and win the race," Miller said. "Unfortunately the map was not accurate and there were six to seven switchbacks. The top finisher capitalized on this and Braden took second."

Miller said that West met her expectations.

"His finish was strong, and he never let up. I can guarantee you Braden will never let that first-place runner beat him again, nor will I ever not double-check the course in person," she said.

Reservoir Hill in the middle of the third mile of the 2.93-mile high school course has an average 8.8% grade over the 0.15-mile ascent in which the elevation changes by 70 feet. Poopout Hill late in the second mile has an elevation change of 73 feet over 0.12 miles for an average grade of 11.5%. The middle school course included Reservoir Hill but not Poopout Hill.

Miller ran cross-country at Fallbrook High School before graduating in 1993 and ran cross-country for the University of California Riverside. Her races included the Mt. SAC Invitational.

"I knew it was a tough course. I remember it being my biggest accomplishment but also my worst enemy," she said. "I did not want to set my runners-up to be nervous or think it was impossible. I applied what I knew in terms of it being a true cross-country course that will challenge them in ways they are not used to in races within our league. However, I was not able to take them for further training off our campus that would have allowed me to apply more of my knowledge."

The elevation differences at Mt. SAC exceeded the North County Middle School cross-country League courses.

"The hills definitely presented a much more difficult race than my runners are used to. The most challenging course we face is Kit Carson, which only gives us one rolling hill," Miller said.

"I train my runners on hills, but not like the type Mt. SAC has. We are on a very small campus and our adjoining road is very dangerous to run on. Every property surrounding us is private, so I find myself fortunate to have permission to use one hill directly across from our campus," Miller said. "If Sullivan had all the available terrain and elevation to train for Mt. SAC, then I am confident that my teams would do even better, especially individual runners."

Huntington took ninth place with a time of 12:26, so Sullivan took home two individual boys medals as well as three individual girls medals and the girls team championship medals and plaques. As the coach of the winning team, Miller received a Coach of the Year plaque while the team was also given a championship plaque. Nathan Sarigumba became the 42nd finisher 13:27 after the race began. Tony Cortez finished in 73rd place and had a time of 14:22. The 77th-place time of Dominic Sales was 14:26.

"Would I like to see the boys finish with a lower spread of time between the one and five runners, sure," Miller said. "However, these boys continue to improve and I am confident they will take the championship home in our league."

Fisher Phillips had a time of 14:27 for 79th place. Aragon Elkins took 85th place with a 14:40 performance. The eighth Sullivan finisher, Riley Waddell, placed 87th overall and completed the course in 14:43.

"At Mt. SAC the boys went out to have some fun and in the end raced well and put up a great performance," Miller said. "Each race my three to five runners continue to close the margin on Braden and Devin, resulting in stronger team wins. In reality my five through eight runners are always packed together, so my fifth runner could be someone different in a given race. They work with one another to get the job done and prove they are a team to beat."

Sullivan had 11 boys in the race. The 144th finisher, Nicholas Schumann, posted a time of 16:01. Benjamin Ho placed 176th at 17:12. Adam Bernier was the 185th finisher and took 17:33.

Miller began teaching at Sullivan Middle School in 2014 and founded Sullivan's cross-country team in 2015. This is the first year Miller has taken teams to the meet hosted by Mt. San Antonio College.

"Traditionally Sullivan really enjoys the Moonlight Beach Encinitas race we compete in every year for our league. This meet along the beat always falls one day before Mt. SAC, so I would always choose to take my entire team to Moonlight Beach," Miller said. "Who wouldn't want the experience of running in the sand along the Pacific Ocean as a middle schooler?"

Diegueno Middle School hosts the Moonlight Beach meet. The growth of the North County Middle School Cross-Country League to 29 schools and more than 1,000 runners caused the league to be split this year, and Sullivan and Diegueno are in different circuits.

"Sullivan no longer had that race on the schedule. I took this opportunity to enter Mt. SAC and start a new tradition for Sullivan runners," Miller said.

Miller only took her eighth-grade runners to the Mt. SAC meet.

Rori Gartner, Avery Lynas and Abby Peteresen work together in a lead pack to conquer the Mt. San Antonio College course.

"I took my eighth-grade varsity teams only for a few reasons," she said. "First, yes, I was concerned it would be too challenging for some of my new and younger runners, and I feared it might scare them away from continuing with the sport. Second, I have a large team from 43 to 53 runners each year and I am only one coach to all of them. Driving a distance and managing four different entries seemed like a tall order," Miller said. "Lastly, and the biggest reason of all, is that I want younger Sullivan runners to have something to look forward to their eighth-grade year, and Mt. SAC seemed like the logical answer. The eighth-grade varsity teams that run for me have also been my students and runners for one to three years. They are a tight-knit family, and I wanted them to enjoy an experience that will be unforgettable."

The runners and all family members present had dinner at an Olive Garden restaurant during the return from the race.

"The experience was meant to be new, fun and memorable, and that it was," Miller said.

Miller believes that the Mt. SAC races prepared her runners both for the North County championship meet and for their future high school running careers.

"I believe Mt. SAC made Kit Carson seem like a walk in the park," she said. "Mt. SAC has also inspired many of my runners to continue with cross-country in high school, as they now were able to experience just one invitational among hundreds that are headed their way in the next four years. They really enjoyed the race, the challenge and look forward to their future in cross-country."


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