Falcons rally for share of crown

LA CRESCENTA — With their backs against the wall and their string of Pacific League titles hanging in the balance, the members of the Crescenta Valley High girls' cross-country team came through in the clutch once more.

In a race decided by the slimmest of margins and the fleet feet of every Falcon from lead runner Claudia Pham to No. 6 runner Ali Johnson, Crescenta Valley nudged past archrival Arcadia, 31-32, at Thursday afternoon's Pacific League finals at Crescenta Valley Park, thereby earning a share of its eighth straight league title in the process.

"We didn't talk too much about the streak," said Falcons Coach Mark Evans of his team's focus entering the meet after having finished behind Arcadia in each of the first two league meets. "We talked about wanting to win league championships, beating Arcadia and running to our capabilities."

Pham led the Falcons' charge, finishing second in 18 minutes 54.28 seconds behind league champion Catrina McAlister (18:52.59), but the race came down to the very end and then some, as Johnson's 11th-place finish in 20:29.24 saw her cross the line in front of Arcadia's No. 5 finisher at 12th. Had the roles been reversed, the teams would've tied at 31 and Arcadia would have won the title outright.

"We all knew we really had to push it and go for it," said Pham, who missed last season's league finals due to an injury and was forced to watch as the Falcons came up huge to win the title after splitting the previous two league meets. "We wanted it and we had to go for it."

In contrast to the ultra-close girls' meet, was the boys' meet, one in which Arcadia flexed its might at an alarming rate, taking five of the top six slots and seven of the first eight. The Apaches won with 18 points, while Burroughs took second with 59, followed by Crescenta Valley (87) edging Burbank (91) for third for the first time this season.

"They just keep improving every year," said Burroughs' Anthony Monroy, the reigning All-Area Boys' Runner of the Year, who was the only non-Arcadia runner in the top eight, taking third in 15:32.05.

The Apaches, ranked second in the nation by ESPN RISE and first in CIF Southern Section Division I, were led by league champion Ammar Moussa (15:26.11), who cruised across the finish line right next to teammate Sergio Gonzalez (second, 15:26.32).

Monroy came in shortly thereafter and more than 25 seconds in front of the fourth-place finisher.

"I'm happy," said Monroy of his performance. "I was just trying to keep it under control. It's kinda hot today, I didn't want to go out too fast."

On the girls' side, after the Falcons edged past the Apaches, Burbank, led by a fourth-place finish from McKenzie Paul, took third with 71 points, with Burroughs a distant fourth with 119 points.

Traditionally, McAlister and the Apaches are known for taking out races fast and that didn't really change this time around, but the Falcons matched their aggressiveness.

"[McAlister] got a good start," Paul said. "After that, CV pretty much took over. I think it was who had more heart and guts because of the heat. I guess I could've dug down deeper.

"I guess it was a good end to the season. I just have to look forward to CIF.

"I can't hold back from now on."

Crescenta Valley's motto going in was exactly that, to hold nothing back, which was a direct contrast to how the Falcons usually run, with the Apaches more of a speed team and the Falcons favoring to come on late. However, in the past the approach had hindered the Falcons, who had lost too much ground to catch their rivals in most races.

"We weren't really sure how this one was gonna go," Pham said. "Our coach was just telling us you should go out and push it from the start. …It worked out."

Added Evans: "We talked about really taking a chance and having nothing to lose."

Running one of her best races to date, Pham stayed close to McCalister throughout as she set the tone for the Falcons' triumph.

"This was definitely one of her best races," said Evans of the reigning All-Area Girls' Runner of the Year. "She did a great job. When it's on the line, you want Claudia there."

After the first mile, aside from Paul, the top 10 runners were all Falcons and Apaches. With one mile left to go, the race was scored as a dead heat. It turned for good with the emergence of Johnson, as she moved up and into the 11th spot to secure the victory.

But she was hardly the only Falcon that came up clutch, much less the only Johnson.

Freshman Erika Johnson took fifth overall in 19:20.72, just in front of usual Falcons No. 2 Anneke Kakebeen, a senior who finished sixth in 19:30.17, solidifying a turn in the scoring as CV's No. 3 finished in front of Arcadia's No. 3 after the Apaches had won the first two slots.

"The big story for us is Erika Johnson," said Evans, who also got a big contribution from junior Brooke Moultrie, who took eighth in 20:01.02. "Brooke came up and ran one of her best races all year."

With Arcadia's fourth runner following Moultrie in, it was up to sophomore Cali King and Ali Johnson to clinch the win, which they did, as King took 10th in 20:18.44 and Johnson took 11th in 20:29.24.

Sophomore Hannah Ruby also ran well, taking 13th in 20:41.94, just in front of Burbank's Christina Shamirian (14th, 20:53.60).

Hoover's girls' team took fifth with 155 points, while Glendale was sixth with 171. Hoover senior Frances Ramas led the Tornadoes with a 22nd-place mark of 21:53.88, not far in front of Glendale's Fabiola Naranjo (24th, 22:09.09).

In the boys' race, in the shadows of Arcadia's dominance, Burroughs was once more impressive in firmly entrenching itself as the No. 2 team in league, with Charlie Camacho running an impressive race, taking 10th in 16:42.60. A pack of Indians soon followed with Alex Quispe (14th, 17:00.15) and Kamal Chahal (15th, 17:06.89) finishing just in front of CV's Bob Anderson (16th, 17:10.77) before Burroughs' scoring five was closed out by Alex Martinez (17th, 17:15.91).

"We're doing really great," said Monroy of the Indians, who are striving to advance as a team to the CIF finals after falling short a season ago. "We just keep improving. We just keep practicing and we're hoping to make it even farther than we did last year."

The Falcons and Bulldogs tied for third in the season standings on the strength of CV's third-place finish on Thursday. It came a bit surprisingly as Burbank's Sergio Fraire ran one of his most impressive races to date, finishing ninth in 16:37.98 with teammate Jacob Jun not far behind in 12th at 16:46.71. In contrast for CV, lead runner Mike Duncan (11th, 16:44.55) struggled by his standards, but Anderson and the rest of the Falcons' scoring five came up large.

"We ran probably our best race as a team, they really stepped up," said Evans, who got 19th-, 20th- and 21st-place marks from Aaron Esparza (17:22.30), David Owens (17:23.33) and Jordan Miller (17:23.56). "We got five guys in front of [Burbank's] third. That's what we've been trying to do all year."

Hoover took fifth with 156 points, paced by the 27th-place finish of Rafael Manzo, who clocked 18:01.32. Glendale was sixth, garnering 166 points and led by a standout performance once again from Chris Canlas, who was 13th in 16:57.33.

Next up for the top four finishers in league will be CIF prelims on Nov. 13 at Mount San Antonio College.

"Our goal is always to run better at the end of the season than the beginning," Evans said. "We really want to build on this."

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