Costa Mesa High cross-country coach Steve Moreno saw Diane Molina putting in the extra work during the summer. He knew that she was due for a big improvement in her sophomore season.
Molina improved all right. She earned the Daily Pilot Girls' Cross-Country Dream Team Runner of the Year award.
Molina finished in the top five of every race she ran prior to the CIF State meet in Fresno. She also had victories in the Laguna Hills Invitational and both Orange Coast League meets.
In qualifying for the state meet and taking 15th in 18 minutes 47.5 seconds in the Division IV race, Molina will no longer be able to fly under the radar. The safety net of lower-level races will vanish, and Molina will be entered into some of the premier sweepstakes races.
She has come a long way since her freshman season.
As a freshman, Molina did not break the 19-minute mark in any of her races. Although she was just five seconds away from doing so in the Orange Coast League finals in 2016, running a time under 19 minutes was the only goal she was willing to verbalize.
Molina was keeping higher hopes on the inside. A far more substantial leap was possible as a sophomore, no matter how unlikely she thought it to be.
"There was a slight chance to break 18 [minutes]," Molina said. "There was a really slight chance in the back of my mind.
"I didn't really tell anybody. I didn't want to put it out there because I was scared."
Molina is one of the youngest in her year. She was still 14 for the first two months of her sophomore season. Moreno had guarded against wearing her down, putting her in a number of grade-specific and lower-level races.
The Mustangs ace continued to run in such races as a sophomore, but the times spoke for themselves. In a frosh-soph race at the Mt. SAC Invitational, she ran 18:20, winning the race by 67 seconds.
Costa Mesa is in Division 4 for the CIF Southern Section postseason. Had Molina been entered into the Divisions 4 and 5 combined sweepstakes race at Mt. San Antonio College, she would have placed fifth in the race.
Molina is grounded in her faith. During races and practice sessions, she wears bracelets that were given to her by her grandmother. They were meant to bring her luck and keep out envy.
As evidenced by her performance in the Mt. SAC Invitational, Molina's times were improving dramatically. Her coach noticed a related change in the athlete as a person.
"Her self-esteem has just really escalated this season," Moreno said, noting that Molina became more outspoken with her goals. "As she has accomplished things, she gets more confident. As she progressed through the season, she just kept gaining in that confidence because she kept doing really well."
Molina has always relied heavily upon her faith, but beyond that, she started believing in herself and her training with increased success. She broke 18 minutes for the first time in winning the Orange Coast League finals with a time of 17:20.9.
The Mustangs star realized in that moment that she was a legitimate contender in the CIF postseason.
"As the season progressed, I just told myself, 'I don't need luck. I have worked really hard, so it should just come naturally,'" Molina said.
Molina said that the CIF Southern Section Division 4 final was the race that concerned her the most. It was the race that ended her season as a freshman, and she wanted to break through to the state meet.
She faced physical ailments in the final, including illness and a right hamstring that tightened up early in the race, but she pulled through to advance as an individual by taking fifth in 18:01.
"It was really nerve-wracking because [getting to state] was my No. 1 goal, so I prayed a lot during that race," Molina said. "I was also sick. It really hit me. 'Out of all the races, why this one?'
"I just made a little quick prayer, and I just said, 'Please give me this one last chance.' I just took it from there."
Molina, who never held back regardless of the level she was running at, is more than fine with that.
"I feel like the competition will push me to do better," she said. "I might not win. I know that. I love winning, [but] I feel like it will be a fun and exciting opportunity."
COACH OF THE YEAR
In the program's swan song as a member of the Orange Coast League, the Breakers capped it off in the only way they had known for years. Laguna Beach won a seventh straight league title, and it advanced to its first CIF State meet since the 2014 season. Lalim, who has coached the Breakers for 10 seasons, managed injuries to his team's top runner, Evie Cant, picking the opportune times to give her rest and keep her available for the season's most important races. The longevity of the Breakers' run atop the Orange Coast League is impressive because things did not always go according to plan. Grace La Montagne was the league champion in her sophomore year, but injuries prevented her from challenging her best times for the next two seasons. The Breakers were also a youthful group, starting three sophomores and two freshmen to go along with their two seniors in Cant and La Montagne.
Corona del Mar | Fr.
Boudreau entered the Sea Kings' program with big dreams on her mind. She showed flashes of brilliance in her freshman year, one in which she established herself as the next frontrunner for CdM. She recorded grade-level victories in the Laguna Hills Invitational and the Sunny Hills Wayne Walker Invitational. Boudreau proved durable in helping her team get to the CIF State meet. If nothing else, the Sea Kings can hang their hat on the fact that Boudreau should remain among the best in her year as her career continues. She finished her first high school cross-country season by taking third in the freshman race of the Foot Locker West Regionals at Mt. San Antonio College.
Sage Hill | Sr.
As a person who had previously lived in both the Netherlands and America's heartland in Iowa, Button had been around. The senior transfer led her team to a place it had hoped to return, that being Woodward Park in Fresno for the CIF State meet. Button began her season by winning the Brentwood Invitational. She made the Academy League meets interesting, as she was always a close second to league champion Andi Carnell of St. Margaret's. Button kicked off her postseason by winning her heat of the CIF Southern Section Division 5 preliminaries. The next week, she took sixth in the section finals. At the state meet, she ran 19:11.4 to take 14th in the Division V race.
Laguna Beach | Sr.
A series of injuries to her hips and calves kept her out of action for a good portion of the regular season, but when it came to crunch time, she was there. She was the Orange Coast League runner-up to Costa Mesa's Diane Molina. After sitting out the CIF Southern Section prelims to nurse her injuries, Cant led the Breakers' CIF State-qualifying run in the Division 4 section final, placing 13th as Laguna Beach claimed the seventh and final state berth from the race. Cant set a pair of personal records. For a three-mile course, she ran 17:37.2 in winning the Iolani Invitational. She also ran a new lifetime best for a 5,000-meter course of 18:24.7 to place second in the medium schools varsity race of the Clovis Invitational.
Fountain Valley | Jr.
The 2017 cross-country season was a case of déjà vu for Faller. The junior ace of the Barons stayed true to the program's philosophy that a pack running style would better serve the needs of the team. Barons coach Jerry Palazzo said that Faller routinely ran at about 90 percent of her capability, allowing the rest of the pack to maintain contact with her for most of the race. As was the case a year ago, the pack prevailed, as Fountain Valley successfully defended its team Sunset League title. Faller placed second in that race in 18:14.1. It will be interesting to see if the reins come off her senior year. She showcased her speed with a personal record of 17:18 in the Dana Hills Invitational, which was a 46-second improvement upon her time at the meet as a sophomore.
Fountain Valley | Jr.
While a pack needs leading, it also has other members of similar stature. Feitz remains the closest and most consistent running mate to Faller in the Barons' corps. She finished fifth in the Sunset League finals for the second year in a row, a big contribution to Fountain Valley's repeat league title effort. Her times improved, as she broke the 18-minute barrier twice. Those performances came at the Woodbridge Classic (17:39.3) and the Dana Hills Invitational (17:48.7), widely considered two of the best meets for Southern California cross-country runners to chase new lifetime-best times.
Laguna Beach | Fr.
Rose's experience in youth athletics had mostly consisted of playing water polo growing up. The first-time cross-country runner trotted in at 20 minutes-flat in her first meet at the Great Cow Run. Less than two months later, she had knocked more than two minutes off of her three-mile personal record. She placed third in the Orange Coast League finals, completing the Centennial Regional Park course in 17:57.7. When the Breakers wanted to give Cant a rest in the CIF Southern Section prelims, the freshman stepped up to take fourth (18:15) in her team's Division 4 heat. Rose seemed to have a certain level of comfort with the Riverside City Cross-Country Course, as she also took third in the small schools varsity race of the Riverside Invitational.
Fountain Valley | Fr.
Fountain Valley's window for winning Sunset League titles should be far from over. Although Faller, Feitz, and Isabella Guerra will be headed into their senior years next fall, the Barons keep adding on each year. Svartstrom follows the path of sophomore Maddie Jahshan, who as a freshman worked her way into the scoring five of the Barons' pack. A seasoned runner who comes from the Equalizers club, Svartstrom started her career with a grade-level win in the Great Cow Run. She was a top-five performer in both league meets, placing third in the league finals. Svartstrom clocked in with a season-best time of 17:52.5 at the Dana Hills Invitational. She also placed 14th in the sweepstakes race of the Orange County Championships in 18:26.4.
Name, School, Year
Avery Dorff, Edison, Sr.
Grace Ellis, Marina, Jr.
Isa Glassen, Newport Harbor, Fr.
Maddie Jahshan, Fountain Valley, So.
Gigi Lee, Corona del Mar, Jr.
Marikay Schwab, Marina, Fr.
Julia Tung, Corona del Mar, So.