Off to the races

Phillip Brents

Thu October 30, 2014 9:15pm

Sydney Leverett

To say that the Olympian High School Eagles cross-country team is flying high is an understatement. The Eagles made a statement by defeating resident powerhouse Otay Ranch in boys varsity and boys junior varsity action in the teams’ opening Mesa League dual meet on Oct. 3. Olympian head coach Jesse Matias, an Otay Ranch alumnus, called the win over the standard-setting Mustangs “obviously a big step forward for our program.”
“Otay Ranch has a great tradition of success in cross-country, so we have always held nothing but respect for their program,” Matias explained. “(Beating them) was a great way for us to start off our dual meet season but we still have a long way to go. There are four other talented teams that we will have to face before the culmination that is league finals.”
Making strides
The Eagles’ young talent has clearly performed well this season. The team held time trials on Sept. 5. Top finishers in the boys field included Nathan Sanchez, Diego Arriola, Sydney Leverett, Isaiah Duenas and Oscar Montero-Vega; top finishers in the girls field included Isabella Fernandez, Djoana Nicolo, Zuri Smith, Alexandra Martinez and Trier Lucas.
Olympian officially stepped off the 2014 season by competing in the Mustang/Phair Co. Invitational Sept. 12 at Rohr Park. The Eagles showed a glimmer of what was to come by claiming the top finish in the Blue Division boys junior varsity race.
“We had a great day,” Matias offered in an understatement.
 Impressively, the Eagles had three runners place among the top 10 finishers in the field of 168 runners. Senior Fil Punzalan finished fourth overall in the 2.3-mile race while sophomore teammate Marlon Cortez placed seventh. Punzalan and Cortez said it was important for their team to get a good start to the season.
“It was our debut, we wanted to be one of the best teams here and we made a great impression by winning the JV race,” Punzalan said.
“It was probably our first chance to make an impression in San Diego among all the schools,” Cortez said. “I think we did a good job.”
Measuring up
Arriola and Tejeda, both sophomores, finished first and second, respectively, to lead Olympian to a first-place finish in the boys frosh/soph division at the South Bay Invitational Sept. 26 at Rohr Park. Arriola was the runaway winner in the 5K race — 40 seconds ahead of Tejeda.
The Eagles placed four runners among the top seven finishers in the 223-deep field and five runners among the top 15 place-finishers. Cortez finished fifth while freshman Nicholas Albro was seventh.
“Our strategy was to run as a team and stay together as a pack where everyone could pace each other,” Arriola said. “However, it didn’t work out that way as some of our guys kind of died on the course. We had to improvise, but we still managed to come out on top.”
Where Eagles dare
After excelling at the JV and frosh/soph levels, it was finally time for the varsity team to turn in its own breakthrough performance. That came in the dual win over Otay Ranch. Olympian recorded the first five runners to cross the finish line, led by Leverett, a senior. Following Leverett’s lead were Punzalan, Arriola, Sanchez (a junior) and Tejeda.
As far as defeating the mighty Mustangs for the first time, Matias said it was a special achievement more because of Otay Ranch’s status as a program rather than his own personal connection to the school.
“It feels good to win period,” Matias explained. “I have nothing but respect for Otay Ranch coach Ian Cumming and what he was able to do with Otay Ranch as a brand new school. He brought immediate success to that program and we, as athletes, were grateful to have him. Hopefully next year we will be able to win on all three levels when we make a trip to their home course.”
Moving up
In terms of the program and its development, Matias said the pieces are “finally starting to fall into place.”
“We are still doing many of the same things we did three years ago when I set out to try and turn the program around,” he said. “It has been a real pleasure to witness the transformations that have occurred in our program.
“The first and biggest step for me three years ago was to increase our numbers. With more students involved, we could cultivate more of a pack mentality that is so critical to success in cross-country. I was fortunate enough to also have a few talented and experienced runners on my arrival. These juniors and seniors helped set a standard and the appropriate example for those new to the sport.
“Our goal from the beginning was that while we may not have had the most talented teams, we wanted to be the hardest working group out there. We have also had an extremely positive response to the growth in our program, from our student body to the teachers, the administration and to the community as a whole.
“This year our team maxed out at over 150 participants early in the season. It is an incredible thing and I am extremely blessed to have such a large, talented group of individuals who allow me to be their coach day in and day out.”
Matias has obviously not led the turnaround in the Olympian program single-handedly. Assistant coaches include Ashley Abshier and Jacob Roach, both ORHS alums as well.
“We were all teammates together at Otay Ranch,” Matias said. “We have all worked diligently together to make the program flourish. They are a huge help to a coach who has to manage a large team such as ours. We would not be where we are without their hard work and support.”
Final grade
The Eagles will find out what their final grade will be for this season when they vie against familiar foes at the Mesa League Finals Nov. 14 at Rohr Park. The league championship is weighted equally on the regular season dual meet finish and the order of finish at the league finals. A first-place finish in both could buoy Olympian to a history-making league championship.
“When I began coaching, it was my hope to add another dimension to this league — to have another competitive program thrown into the mix, making every dual meet that much more exciting,” Matias said. “It was our hope as coaches that the more competitive every individual program could be, the better off our league and conference would be. We have to continue to do our very best to ensure the South Bay is well represented both at our CIF finals and at the state meet.”