The question was inevitable.
Would Bill Hartman's San Clemente High School boys' cross-country team still have been able to win the Orange County Cross-Country Championships Saturday if Saddleback, the county's top-ranked team, had participated?
Few, including Coach Hartman, wanted to venture a guess. "I'm just glad we were able to prove ourselves today," he said.
Most of the county's top teams competed in the county championships at Irvine Park in Orange, but Saddleback chose to compete in the Mt. SAC Invitational in Walnut. There, the Roadrunners placed fifth in the team sweepstakes division.
But as it turned out, neither Saddleback's absence nor the light morning drizzle could dampen the spirit of county competition in the boys' and girls' seeded varsity races.
In the boys' division, San Clemente, the county's second-ranked team, placed five runners in the top 40 to win, with 101 points. El Toro, ranked ninth, was second with 123, followed by Huntington Beach (134), Santa Ana (138) and Corona del Mar (139).
The race started in a fury, with Jeff Matsumoto and Tom McCauley of Mater Dei leading a tight pack through the first half-mile in a near sprint. Once the runners hit the first steep, dirt hill, though, San Clemente's Mike Farrell surged to the front.
Sweeping down the hill, past hundreds of fans roaring their approval, the runners nearly tumbled on the soft, steep turf as they headed back toward the flats. At 1 1/2 miles, Farrell ran with Matsumoto and Dana Hills' Daniel Niednagel at his side and five other runners a half-step behind.
Finally, at the two-mile mark, Farrell made his move, quickly leaving Niednagel, his South Coast League rival, and the others 10 yards behind. Over the final mile, the 6-foot-2, 145-pound Farrell let his lanky stride do the rest as he cruised in to win in 15:20, the fastest time of the day and six seconds ahead of Niednagel.
"I knew it was gonna be me and Dan, me and Dan," said Farrell, who two weeks ago was outkicked by Niednagel in a South Coast League dual meet. The two will meet again Friday in the league finals, also at Irvine Park.
"I got him by five seconds last time, he got me by six today," Niednagel said. "The only way to beat him is to stick with him and outkick him. I couldn't do it today."
Those running against Katella's Martha Pinto know the feeling.
Pinto, a junior, won the girls' varsity race four, one that highlighted teams with particularly talented individuals, in the fastest time of the day for girls, 17:35.
Pinto now has run the fastest girls' time at the past three county championships.
"This is her race every year," said Huntington Beach's Natalie Adam, who finished fourth in 18:23. "Martha's incredible."
Pinto went out very fast--as usual--and didn't let up until she passed the first mile in 5:41 with a comfortable lead. Villa Park's Susannah Thrasher, second in 18:06, and Ocean View's Christie Engesser, third in 18:15, ran the second- and fourth-fastest times of the day.
"When we were first starting, we were sprinting," Pinto said. "My coach said, 'OK, slow it down,' but I was afraid to. I didn't want them to get ahead. After I got ahead, it was hard to keep up the pace because I was all alone."
In the girls' seeded team race, No.1-ranked Woodbridge placed five runners in the top 25 to win, with 69 points. Fourth-ranked Irvine was second with 108, followed by Los Alamitos (153), Newport Harbor (159) and Capistrano Valley (168).
Newport Harbor's Kim Robinson had little trouble winning the race in 18:10, as runner-up Tracy Fatone, a Los Alamitos sophomore, could attest.
"That was the hardest race of my life," Fatone said. Then, pointing to Robinson, Fatone added: "She was always in front. Makes me sick! Do you realize how good you are?"
Robinson, who won the same race last year in 18:22, said: "Coming down the last hill, I was afraid because they're all sprinters. I thought they were gonna get me. Especially Terri Smythers (third in 18:28) because she's really fast."
The seeded girls' race featured 13 runners who finished in less than 19 minutes (five more than last year), and 40 girls under 20 minutes (eight more than last year). Kaci Keffer (sixth) and Cathi Peck (seventh) both ran 18:52 to lead Woodbridge to its first county title.
"I had one wish today: that every team would do their best, because I wanted us to win it with everyone strong," Woodbridge Coach George Varvas said. "Today was kind of scary for me, but for my girls it was just another day in the park; you know, business as usual."
ORANGE COUNTY CROSS-COUNTRY CHAMPIONSHIPSAt Irvine Park, Orange
1. San Clemente 101; 2. El Toro 123; 3. Huntington Beach 134; 4. Santa Ana 138; 5. Corona del Mar 139; 6. Fountain Valley 149; 7. Laguna Beach 151; 8. Villa Park 165; 9. Mater Dei 188; 10. Esperanza 205; 11. El Modena 207; 12. Dana Hills 217.
1. Farrell (San Clemente) 15:20; 2. Niednagel (Dana Hills) 15:26; 3. Lockwood (Fountain Valley) 15:37; 4. Lynch (Villa Park) 15:37; 5. Matsumoto (Mater Dei) 15:42; 6. Cannon (Corona del Mar) 15:44; 7. Rothschild (El Toro) 15:44; 8. White (Fountain Valley) 15:46; 9. Crain (Laguna Beach) 15:46; 10. Simon (Villa Park) 15:49.
1. Sunny Hills 58; 2. Santa Margarita 83; 3. Buena Park 96.
1. Sandoval (Valencia) 15:39; 2. Lynch (Laguna Hills) 16:10; 3. Chesworth (Valencia) 16:19.
1. Newport Harbor 68; 2. Trabuco Hills 99; 3. La Habra 110.
1. Gonzalez (La Habra) 15:27; 2. Cowdrey (Trabuco Hills) 15:48; 3. Mahon (La Habra) 16:02.
1. Woodbridge 56; 2. Los Alamitos 66; 3. Westminster 81.
1. Kyle (Los Alamitos) 15:41; 2. Adams (Los Alamitos) 15:53; 3. Estrada (Savanna) 15:57.
RACE ONE (SEEDED TEAMS)
1. Woodbridge 69; 2. Irvine 108; 3. Los Alamitos 153; 4. Newport Harbor 159; 5. Capistrano Valley 168; 6. Tustin 181; 7. Corona del Mar 182; 8. El Toro 182; 9. El Modena 200; 10. San Clemente 201; 11. Dana Hills 216; 12 Foothill 232; 13. La Habra (no score).
1. Robinson (Newport Harbor) 18:10; 2. Fatone (Los Alamitos) 18:24; 3. Smythers (San Clemente) 18:28; 4. Roda (Irvine) 18:39; 5. Dahlberg (El Modena) 18:47; 6. Keffer (Woodbridge) 18:52; 7. Peck (Woodbridge) 18:52; 8. Williams (La Habra) 18:54; 9. Mattson (Newport Harbor) 18:58; 10. Samkus (Capistrano Valley) 18:56.
1. Mater Dei 27. (Only team with required five runners)
1. Flathers (Mater Dei) 19:37; 2. Chonette (Mater Dei) 19:57; 3. Plascencia (Santa Ana) 20:08.
1. Santa Margarita 28; 2. Laguna Beach 80; 3. Cypress 83.
1. Carter (Laguna Beach) 19:31; 2. Mathson (Santa Margarita) 20:27; 3. Markel (Santa Margarita) 20:39.
RACE FOUR (SEEDED INDIVIDUALS)
1. Villa Park 64; 2. Mission Viejo 69; 3. Ocean View 85.
1. Pinto (Katella) 17:35; 2. Thrasher (Villa Park) 18:06; 3. Engesser (Ocean View) 18:15; 4. Adam (Huntington Beach) 18:23; 5. Hildebrand (Mission Viejo) 18:35; 6. Bendz (Costa Mesa) 18:45.