LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — When it became self-evident that the La Cañada High girls’ cross-country team would enjoy an exceptional year came roughly midway through the just-concluded season.
That’s at least the view a few members of the team had.
“I want to say it was at the Mt. SAC Invite when I thought we would have a special year,” Spartans junior Anna Frederich said. “We came together and really ran well, maybe for the first time all year.”
The Spartans posted some decent results in previous races, such as finishing runner-up at the Central Park Invitational Division II race Oct. 6 with 69 points or 13th at the Woodbridge Invitational in the rated race Sept. 14 with 312 points.
Yet, those two races in particular showed off the strength and potential weakness of the Spartans, whose race order vastly differed after each finish.
“I think before Mt. SAC, there wasn’t as much continuity as we would have liked,” said Jenn Strople, the Spartans second-year coach and the All-Area Girls’ Cross-Country Coach of the Year. “This was a talented team that put in a lot of work and training over the summer, but I don’t know if we had a vision of what we could do.”
The defending Rio Hondo League champion Spartans headed to the first Rio Hondo League cluster meet with some uncertainty on Oct. 11 at Lacy Park and without the league runner-up of a year ago, senior Sonja Cwik.
“I had the flu that day and wasn’t going to run,” said Cwik, the All-Area Girls’ Cross-Country Runner of the Year as selected by the writers and editors of the La Cañada Valley Sun, Pasadena Sun, Glendale News-Press and Burbank Leader, “but then we got a break.”
The skies opened that afternoon with streaks of lightening soon following, which led to the race’s cancelation and bit of fortune for the Spartans.
Having not run that Thursday, the Spartans were fresh for the Mt. San Antonio College Relays the following Saturday, as they were entered in the Division III sweepstakes.
That day, rested La Cañada ran to fourth place with 147 points and easily crushed rival South Pasadena, which finished ninth with 255 points.
Part of the Spartans’ success came from Frederich, the fastest area runner in that race, who finished fifth overall in 18 minutes, 33 seconds and even topped defending league champion Helena Van Loan (seventh, 18:37) of South Pasadena.
“It was really exciting to beat Helena because she’s such a great runner,” Frederich said. “But I remember what Sonja was able to do that day. She really showed us all something.”
Cwik turned in a gritty effort while still ill and gutted out a 24th-place finish in 19:15 and was third overall for the Spartans.
“She was great that day even though I know she was still a little weak,” Strople said. “I think after that race, we all, for the first time, thought we had a legitimate chance at state.”
Now with confidence and health, La Cañada returned to Lacy Park on Nov. 1 and received the effort Cwik had wanted to deliver for over a year.
In her return to the Rio Hondo League finals, Cwik romped to his first-ever league championship in a time of 18:18.
This was despite the fact that Cwik, Van Loan and Frederich were all directed off course midway through the race.
While Frederich (18:41) and Van Loan (19:32) slipped to fourth and sixth, respectively, Cwik rallied and avenged an 18-second loss to Van Loan from the previous season.
“Helena is such a great runner, but this was my senior year and I had to win,” Cwik said. “There was no tomorrow for me, just today and that race.”
Cwik also paced the Spartans to a 25-54 team championship over San Marino, the second straight title for La Cañada under Cwik’s leadership.
“There was a point where I was worried, especially when they took the wrong turn. At that point, anything can happen,” Strople said. “But when I saw Sonja turn that final corner and Anna wasn’t that far behind, I knew we were OK.”
Nine days later, the goals had shifted for La Cañada at the CIF Southern Section Division III preliminaries at Mt. SAC, as the Spartans now needed a team top-five finish in their heat to advance to the Southern Section finals the following week.
Once again, Cwik took on the role of leader in racing to second in 18:25 and trailing only Bonita’s Mackenzie Landa (18:08). As for her teammates, the Spartans finished third in their heat with 106 points and advanced to the finals.
“This was real special for us because we came to the place where we had our best race of the season and were able to advance to the finals,” Spartans sophomore Coleen Mispagel (sixth, 18:42) said after the race.
While winning a Rio Hondo League championship and advancing to the Southern Section Finals were all attainable goals, qualifying to the CIF State Meet in Fresno seemed unlikely.
“We were all aware of the history of this program and how teams from La Cañada used to advance to state every year,” Strople said. “It had just been awhile since we last did.”
No La Cañada team had advanced to state since the 1990s, a feat the 2012 Spartans knew would be difficult.
“We knew we were going to have to run our best race,” Cwik said. “It really didn’t matter what order we finished individually, as long as we made it as a team.”
In their final race at Mt. SAC this season on Nov. 17, the Spartans accomplished an achievement a generation in the making by finishing seventh with 217 points and gaining the final qualifying spot over eighth-place Granite Hills by a point.
“When they made the announcement that we qualified, I couldn’t believe it. It was a dream come true,” Cwik said. “Since the Mt. SAC invite, we had talked about coming back to Mt. SAC for prelims and finals and getting to state, but it was also kind of a dream.”
Cwik ran third for the Spartans in taking 30th in 17:44 behind the duo of Frederich (10th, 17:17) and Mispagel (25th, 17:41).
“Everyone knew that every point mattered, every point,” Strople said. “That was our motto going in and that proved correct today.”
All that remained for Cwik and Co. was the state swan song on Nov. 24 at Woodward Park.
That afternoon, Cwik raced to 15th individually in 18:45 and the Spartans took 11th overall with 266 points, 10 points out of the state top 10.
“Maybe that was the only disappointment this season,” Cwik said. “I think we had wanted to finish in the top 10.
“But considering everything we were able to this year, I can’t complain. This was an amazing year.”