Daniel Niednagel was expected to be a good--not necessarily great--runner at Dana Hills High School this year.
Most considered Mike Farrell, who finished the cross-country season as the top junior in the county last year, as the favorite not only in the South Coast League but in the county. This year, many expected the lanky San Clemente High School senior to dominate county competition.
But Niednagel, a junior, had other thoughts. He was the fastest county runner in four of the five invitationals in which he competed--Las Vegas, Laguna Hills, Dana Hills and Central Park--and was the county's fastest at the Southern Section finals, where he placed seventh.
But Niednagel's best performances seemed to be those fueled by his rivalry with league opponent Farrell, who until this year had never lost a race to Niednagel.
Niednagel and Farrell faced each other four times this season, with Niednagel, the Times' boys' cross-country runner of the year, winning three of the races.
Their first race was a South Coast League dual meet at San Clemente. Farrell led for most of the race, but Niednagel hung on and finally outkicked him in the stretch to win by five seconds.
"Everyone thought he would win the first time," Niednagel said. "I thought I could go with him, but I wasn't really sure. When I beat him, I was kind of surprised."
Their next meeting, at the Orange County Championships, evened the score. Farrell forced the pace from the beginning, taking the lead for good at the two-mile mark. Six seconds separated Farrell and Niednagel, the runner-up, for the county title.
Six days later, they raced for the South Coast League title. Niednagel beat Farrell, a two-time league runner-up, by nine seconds.
Finally, at the Southern Section championships, Niednagel defeated Farrell by six seconds.
For some athletes, such constant see-sawing may intensify a rivalry to the point where one sees the other as his enemy. But Niednagel and Farrell have remained friends throughout the season--they even had friendly chats during races.
In the Southern Section meet, Farrell passed Niednagel with less than a mile to go, only to have Niednagel pass him back for good a few yards later.
"When he passed me back, he said, 'Go for it,' " Farrell said. "I couldn't answer. I was too much out of breath. . . . We spoke to each other a lot while we ran. At the league finals, we were talking about the Orange County meet. At the two-mile mark, we said, 'Oh-oh, here comes the tunnel where everyone yells, we better plug our ears.'
"I think the rivalry helped us both."
Although the two are not quite finished racing against each other--track season is only two months away--next year, with Farrell in college, some believe Niednagel will have little trouble dominating county competition.
Eddie Salinas, a junior from Saddleback, finished only paces behind Niednagel in several races this season. And Mark Gonzales, a La Habra junior who showed tremendous improvement this season.
Although Gonzales never competed with Niednagel in the same race during the regular season, Gonzales finished the 5,000-meter race at the Kinney Western Regional championships last Saturday 11th overall, in 15:19, 41 seconds ahead of Niednagel.
"When I saw how he did, I just go 'Whoa!' " said Niednagel, who added that because it was not a team competition, he did not take the race very seriously.
"I mean, that's fast . He really showed he can run with the big boys."
ALL-COUNTY: BOYS' CROSS-COUNTRY FIRST TEAM
Name Yr. School Mark Gonzales Jr. La Habra Daniel Niednagel Jr. Dana Hills Eddie Salinas Jr. Saddleback Robbie Price Sr. Saddleback Mike Farrell Sr. San Clemente Jose Sandoval Sr. Valencia Jeff Matsumoto Sr. Mater Dei
Name Yr. School Tony Bergman Sr. Whittier Christian Mike Cowdrey Sr. Trabuco Hills David Crain Sr. Laguna Beach Kory Lynch Sr. Villa Park Tom McCauley Sr. Mater Dei Frank Quinonez Sr. Santa Ana Blake Rothschild Jr. El Toro