Woodbridge High has developed a reputation of success in cross country, but this season both the boys' and girl's teams are exceeding the expectations of many, including those of their coach.
Warriors Coach George Varvas believes in his team and knows each of his runner's capabilities. But even he had to pinch himself after the Pacific Coast League finals at Irvine Regional Park Nov. 4.
Woodbridge not only swept both the boys' and girls' team titles, but they set school records with their times — the boys running the three-mile course in a combined 76 minutes, 3 seconds and the girls in 86:28.
Woodbridge also swept the individual titles, as Dragan Simic won the boys' title and Molly Babcock the girls' title. Simic's time of 14:43 was the second best time in school history, behind Michael Hadden's 14:25 set in 2002.
Not to be outdone, Babcock's time of 16:33 also was the second best time in school history, behind her older sister Christine's time of 16:05 set in 2007.
Simic had his work cut out for him, specifically coming from University High's Charles Morgan, who had beaten Simic in previous races.
Blake Myers of Corona del Mar was another contender, but Woodbridge also had Brandon Ferguson in the mix.
"All four of them, you could have thrown a blanket over them, they were that close," Varvas said. "But they hit that hill and Dragan and Ferguson started pulling away. It was a great race from a spectator's point of view, and I was part spectator, part coach."
Simic won it, and Ferguson took second place in 14:46, which ranks as the third best time in Woodbridge history.
"Dragan put the mental part of his race together," Varvas said. "He needed to believe in himself. He dedicated himself to his individual goal to win the league championship and he was able to see it happen."
For Babcock, her challenge came from CdM's Ashlee Powers, whom Varvas says is a future NCAA Division I runner.
"Ashlee did a great job of pushing the pace," Varvas said. "I was worried she would break our kids."
Instead, Babcock came in four seconds ahead of Powers, and Babcock's Woodbridge teammate Nicole Evans finished third in 16:46.
As rewarding as the individual championships were for Woodbridge, Varvas said it was and will always be the team results that matter most.
"One of the nicest and special qualities about this year's team is that it has grown into this position," Varvas said. "Most of the kids are not stellar runners. Molly's first time on that course she ran it in 24 minutes. To improve her time to 16:33 is pretty impressive.
"They've all bought into getting better as a team. A team championship means more to the kids, including to Dragan and Molly."
Sweeping the PCL's boys' and girls' championships was a surprise to Varvas and others, despite the fact that both teams swept through the dual meet season going 10-0 in the PCL.
"Even though we knew we'd have success this year, they surpassed my expectations," Varvas said of the girls' team. "The Woodbridge Invitational is a huge barometer for distance running and we took third in the sweepstakes. In the Orange County championships we lost one of our key kids who was sick, and we barely lost that championship. They really performed well. It's a close group; they supported each other and encouraged each other."
Varvas said last year's boys' team fell short of expectations, so this year he didn't quite know what to expect.
"We did not expect this," Varvas said. "We had three new runners on the scoring team who had no varsity experience at all. For this team to out-do last year's team and every team in our league is a huge surprise."
As well as the top runners on Woodbridge's boys' and girls' teams performed this season, Varvas said the key to team success goes beyond the top tier of runners.
"You win championships — league championships, CIF championships — with your 3-4-5 runners," Varvas said. "We've had (individual) state champions and gone nowhere as a team."
On the girls' side, Annie Chan and Maddie Bradford have excelled in the Nos. 3 and 4 positions, and Alyssa Cerminara-Gutcher in the No. 5 spot. Alexis Abad and Olivia Rodriguez round out the top seven girls.
The boys' team has gotten key contributions from sophomores Jackson Marshall, Jake Suiste and Jared Klopfer, and seniors Daniel Toberty and Chris Taniguchi.
"Daniel leads the whole team," Varvas said. "He serves a dual role of keeping everybody focused and he understands running better than anybody."
The Warriors took all of their season's success into Saturday's CIF Southern Section Division II preliminaries at Mt. San Antonio College.
The girls' team won their heat and were third overall, qualifying for this Saturday's CIF Finals, but the boys finished sixth and did not qualify.
Individually, Babcock won her race in 16:33 and Evans was sixth in 16:53. Ferguson was Woodbridge's boys top finisher, taking seventh in 14:57.