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Woodbridge in the Running Once Again : Girls’ track and field: Five athletes could help Warriors replace Mission Viejo as county’s best.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Varvas, coach of the Woodbridge High School girls’ track and field team, says he’s optimistic that the Warriors can win their third consecutive Southern Section 2-A title this year.

“I like our chances a whole lot,” Varvas said. “This is our best team ever.”

If that’s so, the Warriors might be in for even greater accomplishments. Namely, replacing Mission Viejo as Orange County’s top team.

Woodbridge will have its chance at the Orange County Championships, April 21 at Rancho Santiago College. Mission Viejo is the county’s two-time defending champion.

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“They’re such a good team; you’ve got to be lucky,” Varvas said. “They’re the slight favorite, but our chances are good. We don’t have the field event people they do, but I think our running is very, very strong. It’s just wait and see.”

This year, Woodbridge is led by a corps of five: seniors Kaci Keffer, Kristina Lockwood, Michelle Muniz, Cathi Peck and junior Amy Robles. All contributed to the team’s past two 2-A championships and all figure significantly in Varvas’ designs for a third.

A quick look at these athletes:

Keffer, the team’s most versatile athlete, runs the 300-meter hurdles (a best of 43.8 seconds), the 400 (56.7), the 1,600 relay (55.3 split), the 800 (2:22) and is a four-year member of the Warriors’ cross-country team.

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Keffer never played organized sports before high school, but when she and her family moved to Irvine five years ago, her father enrolled her in the Woodbridge cross-country program without her knowledge.

“I came home one day and my dad said, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re going to be at practice every morning at 7 o’clock,” Keffer said.

Keffer’s strength is her ability to handle pressure, usually accomplished with a good dose of humor.

As a freshman, Varvas told her she would be anchoring the Warriors’ 1,600-meter relay team at the prestigious Southern Section Masters meet. Keffer was told the team had to place sixth or better to advance to the state championships. Running against athletes much older and stronger, Keffer shocked her coaches and teammates by taking her team from sixth to fourth with a lifetime best split of 55.9 seconds.

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From that point, Varvas said, the expectations have only increased, but she has handled them impressively.

Lockwood, who is a sprinter, hurdler and triple jumper, is only 16, young for a senior. She is probably the most improved of the bunch.

“Kristina wasn’t very impressive when she first started,” Varvas said. “But she has always wanted to succeed so much, nothing has stopped her.”

Lockwood holds the school record in the 100-meter hurdles at 14.7 seconds, and three weeks ago, she won the 100-meter dash at the Irvine Invitational in 12.5 seconds. She also is the lead-off runner on the 400-meter relay team.

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“Ever since she took over at lead-off, Woodbridge has never been behind (in the relay’s opening leg),” Varvas said, adding that his 400 relay team lost just once last year, finishing second to St. Bernard in the 2-A final.

Muniz, who has the school record in the 100 meters (12.4) and also runs the 200 (25.8) and 400 (58.3), is the daughter of Louie Muniz, a former high school hurdle star who now assists Varvas as the team’s hurdle coach. Michelle’s brother, Louie Jr., was a standout on the boys’ team last year and is now competing for UC Irvine.

“I remember her first trying to get over the hurdles as a freshman,” Varvas said. “She was so nervous, trying to hurdle in front of her father, she nearly killed herself. We knew right then she was not going to be a hurdler.”

And so, since her sophomore year, she has been the team’s top sprinter.

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“She’s the steadying factor on our team--pressure does not change her mood,” Varvas said. “She’s very methodical in her work, and goes after what she wants and does it.”

Peck, who Varvas calls “the most unique individual we have,” is the team’s top distance runner. After a stellar freshman year, Peck suffered from some inconsistency as a sophomore and junior, but this year she is looking sharp.

In the 1,600-meter race at the Brea Relays, Peck stayed with two of the state’s best runners, Shelley Taylor of Edison and Karen Hecox of South Hills, through 1,500 meters before finishing third in a personal best 5 minutes 10.3 seconds.

Besides running, Peck surfs and is training to become a lifeguard.

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“She’s very sensitive and concerned about what’s going on around the world,” Varvas said. “She’s the free spirit on our team, the one that won’t conform to anything .”

Robles, who runs the 800 and the 1,600, is the team’s most natural talent.

“She can basically get out of bed and run faster than anyone,” Varvas said.

During track season, Robles also competes on the Warriors’ swim team, which means she often is in competition three to four days a week. Though Varvas said he thinks the swimming may help her running physically, he has noticed a few mental slumps here and there.

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“The first two years, the strain of competing so much would cut into her (performance on the track),” he said. “But this year, she’s so much better. She’s used to doing well, and she has a lot of talent, so her races have been very consistent.”

Though she has yet to better the 800-meters time she ran as a freshman (2:16), Robles is showing improvement this year. At a meet against Irvine and University, Robles won the mile by outkicking University’s Tanja Brix, someone she had never beaten previously.

“Last year was an off year for Amy,” Varvas said. “This will be a great year for her.”

And, if hopes are realized, an even greater one for the Woodbridge team.

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