Accomplished LCC distance runner looks forward to upcoming year

LCC's Caleb Niednagel
(Clark Kranz)

Transferring midway through high school is never easy.

Playing sports helps. And when you’re really good, it makes the transition that much easier.

Such were the circumstances of standout distance runner Caleb Niednagel’s transfer to La Costa Canyon from Dana Hills High School of Dana Point (Orange County).

“It was very difficult,” Niednagel said. “To start completely fresh was difficult, but the team at La Costa Canyon was really welcoming and they made the transition as easy as possible. I’m really thankful for them.”

The Mavericks are thankful to have him, too.

Niednagel made an immediate impact in his first year at LCC as a junior, placing in the top five in the track and cross country state meets.

He placed fifth in Division II in the 3,200-meters at the state meet in Clovis (near Fresno) on May 25, clocking a personal record 9:01.74.

Niednagel placed fourth in the Division II cross country on Nov. 24 of last year, clocking a 15:07.3 on the rugged 3.1-course at Woodward Park in Fresno.

Niednagel has competed in three state meets. He was a sophomore at Dana Hills when the Dolphins qualified for the cross country state meet as a team.

“I was really nervous stepping up to the line, I felt like I was gonna throw up,” Niednagel said of his first experience at the state meet. “A lot of nerves, but as soon as the gun went off and the race started, it becomes like every other race, it’s just that the competition around you is better, so you just go out there, execute your race plan, try to catch as many guys as you can.”

As the child of competitive runners, Niednagel was literally born to run.

His father, Daniel Niednagel, and mother Beth (Bartholomew) Niednagel, were high school stars at Dana Hills and Fremont of Sunnyvale (Santa Clara County). They were both competitive runners at UCLA, where they met.

His coach at Dana Hills, Craig Dunn, was a former teammate of his father, who attended the same school.

“Growing up, running has been all I’ve known,” Niednagel said.

But Niednagel has played other sports.

He grew up playing competitive baseball, but the athletic shortstop gave up the sport to pursue track at the prodding of a coach that encouraged him to pursue track his freshman year at Dana Point. He also played soccer.

He’s become an avid spikeball player, competing in the fast-growing beach sport in which two teams of two players each exchange volleys by ricocheting a ball off a small trampoline.

Niednagel has been playing the sport recreationally daily this summer. He loves “the excitement and adrenaline of the sport.”

“While you’re playing, you’re constantly diving around trying to make plays with your teammate,” he said.

But his passion is running.

“I kind of find it freeing,” he said. “When you’re running, you forget about the rest of what’s going on. You kind of have fun with the people you’re running with and have your mind relaxed for that period. That’s part of what makes running fun.”

Niednagel has collegiate aspirations as a distance runner.

He confirmed that he’s received offers from four-year schools but hasn’t yet committed. He said his preference is to stay on the West Coast, noting that he’s been in contact with several Pacific-12 Conference schools.

Niednagel is hoping to win a state championship for LCC in a second straight year.

Last season, Kristin Fahy, who will compete for Stanford later this year, won state titles in track and cross country.

Niednagel credits Fahy with elevating the Mavericks practices, with her propensity for training harder than most rubbing off on teammates.

“Seeing that next-level athlete, you kind of need to increase your workouts and make them quicker in order to succeed,” Niednagel said. “That’s something I learned from her.”

Niednagel believes his experience at three state meets will benefit him as he pursues another title for LCC.

“I think it’ll help me a lot now that I’ve been to (track and cross country),” he said.

“I know what to expect, so now it’s more spending the whole year getting as prepared for those races as you can. Those races only happen once a year, so you don’t want to blow it.”