The day began with the prevailing narrative surrounding La Costa Canyon’s four-time defending CIF boys and girls cross country champions lamenting a wave of sickness which swept over the program the previous week, likely bringing with it an untimely end to the school’s dynastic run.
While Coach Bill Vice’s Mavericks were not able to extend their team streaks with either gender at the 2019 CIF Championships, it’s funny how things have a way of working out. Every new situation ultimately presents new opportunities and when those occasions presented themselves Saturday, Nov. 23, LCC took advantage with open arms. By day’s end the new history was telling the story of two Mav teams overcoming adversity to qualify for next weekend’s CIF State Championships in Fresno and La Costa Canyon boasting a boys’ and girls’ individual champion once again.
The first race of this picture-perfect San Diego day, the Division II girls, set the tone for Vice’s squad with junior Sydney Weaber out-dueling Mt. Carmel sophomore Navaya Zales while running what she called, “one of the best races of my career.” Weaber, long on talent but just now starting to put it together with the tactical side of things, faced down Zales over the last mile after the pair had broken away from the rest of the field. She wound up covering the three-mile Balboa Park layout in 17:44.9, less than a second in front of Zales. Well after the conclusion, she was still animated about what she had done.
“It was definitely a breakthrough,” said Weaber of her first prep career win. “My goal from the beginning of the season was to win CIF and, now, to actually do it feels amazing.” With several of her teammates battling health issues, Weaber tried to stay focused on the task at hand.
“The team’s achievement was important, obviously, but no matter how my team was doing, my goal was going to be to win. I ran to win today.” Vice was ecstatic with what he saw from his emerging star.
“That was a big-time performance,” said Vice. “She got off to a little bit of a slow start this year and didn’t even run until the first league cluster but she’s been crushing it recently and really kind of sitting on a race like this.
“Today, there was no holding back. She looked strong, sharp and fresh and was just on her game. I’m so happy for her.”
At the two-mile mark, Weaber saw the handwriting on the wall. “That was the turning point,” she said. “I realized that I couldn’t hear fans cheering for anyone behind me and it was just me and Navaya. I said to myself, ‘I gotta go…I can do this…I can do it—I felt like I had the energy to push through to the finish and I did it.’
“Compared to last season, the biggest change for me has been mental. I went out there today with the mindset that I had the capability of winning. I was able be keep my head in it and be strong enough to stay on the lead.”
A determined stretch run allowed her not only to outlast Zales for the gold medal but steer her team to a third place finish with 86 points, behind only Mt. Carmel (57) and Poway (61). Following Weaber across the line for LCC were Georgia Patyna in ninth, sophomore Rebakah Niednagel (11th) and sophomore Kyra Compton (29th). Compton, struggling with illness, would have been considered one of the pre-race favorites if healthy. The team placement earned the Mavericks the section’s final berth in next week’s CIF State Championships.
There was a similar story in the Division II boys’ competition where LCC ran second to Poway (60-82) but produced the top finisher as senior Andy Pueschel matched his Avocado West League championship feat of the previous week.
Senior Caleb Neidnagel, the Mavericks’ No. 1 runner and top-ranked in the section this fall, missed the league meet after battling a virus the week prior but was back for CIF although his fitness was a question.
Knowing that Neidnagel was probably not ready to clock a time that could win the race, but in the starting box for the team and not himself, Vice wanted to make sure Pueschel was ready to re-assert himself as a contender.
“I told Andy on the line, ‘it’s the same as last week, your time to shine,’ “ said Vice. “It was nothing different, he just needed to go out and win.”
Pueschel broke out strong and about a mile and a half into the three-mile course, he and Poway senior Zak Beckwith kicked free from the lead pack (the pair were ninth and 11th respectively in this race as juniors). Heading into the final half mile, Pueschel separated from Beckwith, put the hammer down and looked like he finished with something left.
“Last week’s win definitely gave me some extra confidence going into this race,” said Pueschel afterward. “But I didn’t got out quite as strongly and waited until the end to make a move because the competition was harder—I wanted to be sure I would have enough to get to the finish.
“As a senior, it’s a bummer to not win the team title but considering the guys we had sick, second is pretty good—I’ll take it. We still get to go to State and maybe we’ll be stronger there.”
A pair of out-of-the-spotlight seniors, James Miramontes (8th placed) and Alex Motawi (14th) turned in huge efforts and Neidnagel, who ran with the lead bunch as long as he could, rallied to pick up four spots in the last mile, placing 12th.
Both Pueschel and his female counterpart, Weaber were quick to point out the role that their less-than-100% teammates played in the day’s accomplishments.
“Several guys put out a really courageous effort, particularly Caleb,” said Pueschel. “I know he was sick but he put it all out there for the team. That made it possible for us to reach State. It was special.”
Weaber said, “Some girls were sick and really struggling during the week but they all said, ‘we’re going to get on the line Saturday no matter what.’
“They wanted to run for our school and each other. It was so inspiring and makes me feel so honored to be part of this team.”
Pueschel, who had some difficulty wrapping his arms around the enormity of what had happened to him, may have been an apt hero in this most unusual of championship seasons for LCC. An important but admittedly sometimes inconspicuous contributor over his four-year LCC career, he saw his talent and circumstances mesh to unexpectedly elevate him to league and section champion in a matter of eight days.
“It’s definitely been surreal,” he said with a smile. “I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet. It’s a new experience, that’s for sure, and it’s fun—winning’s fun. Maybe I should have tried this earlier.”