Mateo Bianchi did not envision himself as a runner coming into Laguna Beach High.
Bianchi was a soccer player, a defender on the pitch. He only tried out cross-country in the fall of 2017 to try to stay in shape for soccer.
The first race he ran for the Breakers as a freshman was on the frosh-soph team. The rest were on varsity. He had that kind of talent.
“It’s pretty funny,” Bianchi said. “Going into cross-country freshman year, I never would have thought that I’d end up in this position two years later. It’s nice that I found this talent of mine and was able to harness it.”
Bianchi fell in love with the sport, ditching soccer after his freshman year. And he has grown into a top performer for a team that is used to success.
He finished second in the CIF Southern Section Division 4 boys’ finals Nov. 23 at the Riverside City Cross-Country Course. Bianchi’s time of 15 minutes 3.3 seconds on the three-mile course edged out third-place finisher Joshua Villasenor of Ventura Foothill Technology (15:03.7), though two-time defending CIF State champion Anthony Grover of JSerra eased to a first-place finish in 14:53.9.
“I was super-happy with that performance,” Bianchi said. “My goal going into that race was to be top three or four for individuals, and everything just went according to plan. It’s always nice when that happens.”
Foothill Technology was able to wrestle the Division 4 team championship away from Laguna Beach, the defending champion which placed third. Still, Bianchi’s individual performance was impressive.
“I thought he ran a great, controlled race,” Laguna Beach coach Scott Wittkop said. “He got out in the main pack, and with about 1,200 meters left started pushing the pace. He just finished really, really strong ... We expected him to be in the top five, for sure. He’s in good shape and was ready to pop. That wasn’t unexpected at all for us.”
Bianchi was able to fit in among the crowd on last year’s Laguna Beach cross-country team, which won CIF Southern Section Division 4 and CIF State Division IV titles. He finished 13th at last year’s Division 4 finals at Riverside, his time of 15:33.9 placing sixth among Laguna Beach runners.
But then the Breakers graduated eight of their top 10 runners, including Daily Pilot Dream Team Runner of the Year Ryan Smithers.
“Last year, we just had that all-star team, and he was in that mix with all of those guys,” Wittkop said. “We knew that coming into this year, especially after track — he had a really solid track season — that he was going to be one of the top guys around. I wouldn’t say he emerged. He was always there. He may have just been a little bit overshadowed last year because we had such a talented team.”
The top two returners this year for Laguna Beach were Bianchi and senior Logan Brooks, who are each team captains this year. Brooks was the Wave League individual champion as the Breakers won their third straight league title, while Bianchi finished second.
Though Brooks had an off day at the CIF finals and finished 15th, both Wittkop and Bianchi said they expect him to rebound at Saturday’s CIF State championships, which will be at Woodward Park in Fresno.
“We’re trying to set a good example and show the underclassmen what to do,” Bianchi said. “It’s definitely been a lot different than last year. We’ve been trying to keep the same dynamic and work ethic, but it’s a much different type of team. It’s a generally younger team for sure, so it’s been a little different, but it’s still been super-fun.”
Laguna Beach will run in the Division IV race at state, which starts at noon Saturday. Wittkop said a return to the podium as a team is reasonable, while Bianchi said individually he is aiming for a top-10 finish.
“I think that’s a good goal for me, and Logan as well,” Bianchi said. “I want to try to PR for my Woodbury Park course PR. The last time we ran that course was the Rough Rider Invitational [on Oct. 18], but we ran a controlled race there. I haven’t had a chance to really PR there since state last year, so I’m excited to put down a fast time.”
The transformation from the pitch to the podium is complete for Bianchi.
Born: July 24, 2003
Hometown: Laguna Beach
Height: 5 feet 10
Weight: 135 pounds
Coach: Scott Wittkop
Favorite food: Pasta
Favorite movie: “Toy Story”
Favorite athletic moment: Winning the 4x1600-meter race at the prestigious Arcadia Invitational track meet last year with teammates Sebastian Fisher, Ryan Smithers and Logan Brooks.
Week in review: Bianchi finished second for the Breakers at the CIF Southern Section Division 4 finals, crossing the finish line at the Riverside City Cross-Country Course in 15:03.3.
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