If cross-country is about running in a pack, then the pack needs leading.
Newport Harbor High has those positions filled, as two seniors demonstrated their capabilities on Saturday in the 35th annual Laguna Hills Invitational.
Seniors Alexis Garcia and Mia Matsunami both came away victorious in their first three-mile races of the season, winning their Division 2 grade-level races on the hilly course at Laguna Hills High.
After placing second in his grade-level race the past two years, Garcia, the two-time Daily Pilot Boys’ Cross-country Runner of the Year, cruised into the win column with a time of 15 minutes 39.3 seconds.
Coming off a junior year that saw him qualify for the CIF State cross-country championships, Garcia has earned the right to compete on some the sport’s more unique stages.
For the first time in his career, Garcia will run under the lights in the boys’ sweepstakes race of the Woodbridge Invitational at Silverlakes Sports Park in Norco next Saturday.
“I’m really excited for next week,” Garcia said. “My coach [Nowell Kay] gave me a chance to do it because it’s my last year. I’m very excited, and I want to [have] a good race.
“Last year, we didn’t go because it’s too far, but this year, I convinced him to go.”
As for the girls’ side, Matsunami made her long-awaited return to a three-mile course. Matsunami ran in the Fastback Shootout (a two-mile course) on Sept. 1. Prior to that, her last cross-country race had come on Sept. 2, 2017, in the season-opening Riverside Showcase.
A femoral neck stress fracture had kept Matsunami sidelined for all of her junior year, including track and field in the spring.
“I came into this just thinking, ‘I need to do what I can to just be in a respectable range [compared to] my sophomore times,’ ” a surprised Matsunami said after posting a winning time of 19:01.0. “To come back and win is a pretty amazing feeling.”
Costa Mesa’s Diane Molina was the area’s other runner to qualify for state as an individual. Like Garcia, she will also be competing in the girls’ sweepstakes race at Woodbridge for the first time.
“I’m pretty excited to be running with the big girls,” Molina said. “I’m just honored that [Mustangs coach Steve Moreno] has the confidence in me to get me into the races that are going to push me to do better. I’m really competitive. I feel like I’m going to do well since I always do well at night events.”
Molina won the Division 3 girls’ junior race in 17:53.3.
“I think [today’s win] helped boost my confidence since I broke 18 [minutes],” she added. “That’s really hard to do in a hill race. I just think it’s a good start.”
Ocean View’s boys’ cross-country team qualified for its first state meet last season. Parker Walpole contributed to that effort as a freshman, and he opened his sophomore season by winning his Division 3 race in 16:57.0.
“My team went to state last year, and the last couple of races, I wasn’t at my best,” Walpole said. “I’m looking for redemption. I want to try to be a top-three runner for us. I want to be ready, and I want to be at my best at the end of the season this year.”