WALNUT — Flying toward the second-fastest girls' time of Saturday's CIF Southern Section cross country preliminaries at 16 minutes, 13 seconds, Newport Harbor High superstar runner Paige Tennison won her heat in dominating fashion.
But that wasn't the best news Tennison and her Sailor teammates received at Mt. San Antonio College, although the junior's teammates congratulated her soon after her 2.91-mile run.
It was the fact Newport Harbor qualified for next week's finals, which will also be held at Mt. SAC. The Sailors made it to the Division II finals by qualifying fourth in their heat with 91 points, as four teams per heat qualified for the finals. It was the first time the team reached the finals in Tennison's career.
"We're really excited," Tennison said. "I'm proud of our team. Just seeing all the runners prepares us for next week."
Tennison heard Simi Valley sophomore Sarah Baxter set the fastest time of the day (16:09, which she could be competitive with on Saturday.
Newport Harbor got great support from Leah Van Dyke, who finished 19th (17:47), along with Katelyn Mead (25th, 17:59), Katherine Maddox (26th, 18:00) and Maggie Goodson (28th, 18:01).
Every runner who ran Saturday was handed the challenge of having to run the shorter, much flatter 'rain course', which featured more parking-lot running, along with running on the track at the halfway point in front of thousands of fans. There was a slight uphill with around 800 meters left.
Most coaches and runners weren't told until the morning of their races, as the rain didn't hit the regular hill-featured course until late Friday night, which drenched the dirt on the hills on the regular course.
"I knew right when I got here and I saw everyone running it," Tennison said. "We were training to run the regular course. I was happy about this course."
Tennison won her heat by 27 seconds over Serrano's Melissa Fairchild, who pushed Tennison before the Sailor turned on the afterburners after the second mile.
Throw in the fact that Newport Harbor's Jake Barber finished third in his heat to qualify for the boys' finals as an individual — he had to qualify at least eighth — and the Sailors had a banner day.
In other races, both Corona del Mar teams and both Sage Hill teams also qualified for Saturday's finals.
Corona del Mar also produced a dominant top qualifier in a Division III girls' heat, as Ashlee Powers finished in 17:13. Powers' closest runner was Jeanette Zambrano of Bolsa Grande (17:35) and Powers was sixth overall in the prelims.
Costa Mesa's Robert Blackwell finished fourth in a Division IV boys' heat (15:28), completing a long list of local runners who qualified for the finals.
"The flat course is hard, because you have to work harder," Powers said. "There's no one that was my competitor. They break it down into heats, so the [best] runners are split up. Once I got a good distance, I turned it off."
Both Sea Kings teams qualified for the finals and the girls' team finished second in its heat in a close one to Northwood, who beat them 61-62. Corona del Mar was third overall in its division. Kristen Rivera (eighth, 17:42) and Ellen Naruse (13th, 18:10) formed a strong 1-2-3, followed by Shelby Perez (20th, 18:21) and Kirsten Hansen (26th, 18:40).
"Today was one of those days where we said, 'Let's just turn this into a practice,'" Corona del Mar Coach Bill Sumner said. "We don't want to leave anything out here that we'll need next week. We came out here and we ran hard but conservative. I'm happy with it. Northwood never beat us, they did a great job. We'll have a better week next week."
The CdM boys were led by Blake Myers, who finished fifth in his heat (14:46). Spencer Keith (24th, 15:30), Teddy Parks (29th, 15:38), Tanner Love (47th, 15:47) and Greg May (50th, 15:49) were the scoring runners as the team had 148 points.
Sage Hill freshman Brittany Andressoo perhaps put it best about the surprise of having to run the rain course. She helped her team qualify for the Division V finals by stepping up to finish as the Lightning's first runner (19th, 19:31 in her heat). Sophia Witte (21st, 19:41) ran with a slight illness but still ran strong, with pack running by Naomi Granados (22nd, 19:50) and Caroline Grant (23rd, 19:59). Lili Mora (38th, 21:04) rounded out the fourth-seed scoring of 113 points.
"I was surprised," Andressoo said. "I thought we were going to run on the regular course. We were sitting on the bus (when we were told about it). Everyone was like, 'No!' Apparently everyone prefers the other course."
The Sage Hill boys also qualified in its Division V heat, scoring 72 points, just one point behind Thacher. Dylan Thies, Chris Andras and Jack Percival were all 1-2-3 at the halfway mark, but St. Margaret's runners ended up first, second, third and fifth to win the heat.
Thies finished a strong seventh (15:49), Andras 10th (15:54) and Percival 11th (15:54).