By Ray Hamill — Both the present and future of high school cross country in Humboldt County appears to be in pretty good hands.
On Saturday, a pair of seniors and a pair of sophomores will head to Fresno for the CIF state championships, two of them having previously qualified for the prestigious race.
“It’s definitely exciting,” said McKinleyville head coach Amber Coley, whose team has now sent runners to the state meet in all but one of the past 10 years.
The Panthers will be represented this year by senior H-DNL champion Adam Vera, as well as sophomore West Wood, whose notable improvement as the season wore on earned him the attention of the advancement committee.
Vera is making his third trip to the annual event in Fresno, having also qualified as a member of the Mack team as a freshman and a sophomore.
Also making the trip is Fortuna sophomore Collin Stockwell, who pushed Vera all the way to the finish line in the league championships, while surprising many with how quickly he rose to the top of the league.
And closing out the foursome is Arcata senior Riley Martel-Phillips, the three-time league champion who is making a second straight trip to the state meet.
That familiarity will help in what is a tricky course to navigate correctly.
“It’s a tough course,” Arcata head coach James Washington said. “There are rolling hills and some flats, and when you go out it’s downhill, so you don’t want to go too fast in the first mile.”
Adopting the correct strategy will be key for all four.
“There’s only one hill, but it’s at a time of the race where people are getting tired,” Fortuna co-head coach Josh Quintal said.
It’s also a course that may suit Stockwell, who has performed better in hilly courses than on the more flat terrains.
The sophomore standout has taken the local league by storm this season, reaching the top a little quicker than anticipated.
And that’s something Quintal puts down to his demeanor.
“He’s quietly confident,” the coach said. “He’s confident and real humble about it. Collin just quietly goes about his job. And I think that’s why a lot of people didn’t know about him.”
Wood has also surprised some people this season.
“He’s an endurance runner who’s learning how to find speed,” Coley said. “He’s loved running since he was a young kid. He enjoys the process.”
For Vera, who set a school record at the league championships and has won the past two H-DNL titles, the trip to state was expected this season.
“He’s a super dedicated athlete,” his coach said. “And he’s had to work really hard to get to the level he’s at.
“He’s an athlete. He doesn’t complain about workouts, and he’s engaged in the conversation at workouts.”
Setting the standard
The Panthers have been setting the standard in the sport locally in recent times, and it’s not something they shy away from.
“For our team now, it’s one of those things we’re shooting for every year, to have an individual or a team go to state,” Coley said.
The boys team, which barely edged Fortuna for the H-DNL crown in dramatic circumstances, was expected to challenge for one of the coveted team spots at state, but was overlooked when the championship races were canceled this week and the decision went down to an advancement committee.
However, the committee’s decision to include both Vera and Wood as individual qualifiers is one Coley believes they got correct.
“Adam and West advancing is what we expected to happen if we had run the race,” she said. “And I’m really happy for them to get there.”
A good listener
Martel-Phillips was also expected to qualify after a dominating season on the North Coast, and the advancement committee saw it that way as well.
“She’s a hard worker, and she also listens,” Washington said. “She’s a good listener. And she’s my team leader.”
The longtime coach also paid tribute to the senior’s ambition to succeed.
“She’s driven to be a good athlete,” he said.
The coach also believes Martel-Phillips will benefit from the experience of having raced at the Fresno course a year ago.
“If she can go out conservative, and don’t go out and get caught up in the fast pace, she’ll be fine,” he said. “And since she’s already been there, she has the experience and knows what to do.
“And that makes a big difference.”
Expected to qualify
The Arcata girls team was expected to qualify for the state meet, after being ranked No. 3 or 4 in the section the entire season, but was overlooked by the advancement committee, which seeded them sixth, with the top four teams qualifying.
It came as a shock to Washington and his runners, when the decision was announced on Tuesday evening.
“I thought my girls would have gone as a team,” he said. “We were seeded all year at three or four, and all of a sudden how we get to a six I don’t know.
“I wish we could have run the race. We would not have taken sixth, I can tell you that. These young women were ready to go.”
The coach says he filed a petition with the CIF.
“It’s unfair. It’s totally unfair,” he added.
Several runners impacted
The NCS was forced to cancel five of the 10 scheduled championship races on Tuesday due to poor air quality at Hayward, but drew a lot of criticism for not having a better back-up plan.
Several H-DNL runners were impacted, with many of them at the starting line and about to get under way when the announcement was made.
The decision of who moved on then came down to the advancement committee, with the choices not sitting well with many.
Fortuna senior Agustin Garcinuno was one of those affected the most by the decision, getting overlooked after not having the opportunity to compete for a coveted state spot in his final season, as was Arcata senior Claire Monge.
Early last week, Quintal proposed moving the races to somewhere in Humboldt where the air quality was better, but says he never heard back from the NCS despite reaching out to them on a couple of occasions.
“We have good athletes up here, but no one knows what we have up here because no one comes up here to see,” Washington said.
Four of those good athletes will now get the chance to show the rest of the state what they have.
“It’s really cool,” Quintal said. “I’m excited for the county. We’ve got some youth going. West and Collin both going to state is a big deal for the county.”