SOUTH PASADENA — It didn't take long for South Pasadena High girls' cross-country Coach Patrick McGrail to realize what type of season he would receive from sophomore Helena Van Loan.
The youngster was a relative unknown last season who came on strong in finishing second (19 minutes and 35 seconds) at the Rio Hondo League finals and eventually leading the Tigers at the CIF Southern Section Division III finals at Mt. San Antonio College.
"There was an expectation that she would have a strong season, but again, she's only a sophomore and the progress she made this season was really impressive," McGrail said. "She went from probably being the best runner on this team to being the team leader. That's not something that's easy."
No area runner consistently posted better times throughout the course of the year than did Van Loan, who was the fastest area runner at the CIF Southern Section preliminaries, Southern Section finals and CIF-State finals.
So, it was no surprise Van Loan was selected the All-Area Girls' Cross-Country Runner of Year by the sports writers and editors of the Pasadena Sun, Glendale News-Press, Burbank Leader and La Cañada Valley Sun.
The Tigers officially kicked off their season at the Woodbridge Invitational in Irvine on Sept. 17.
Van Loan's Tigers competed in the girls' varsity race, where South Pasadena finished 14th overall with 330 points.
Not lost in the team action was Van Loan's individual accomplishment, as she finished eighth in 17:33, which as it turned out, was the fastest time ever posted by a South Pasadena girls' runner on any three-mile course anywhere.
"I knew I was having a good race, but I didn't think about any records," Van Loan said. "I was just focused on running and getting as many points for my team as possible."
Van Loan didn't lose her focus five days later, when she quickly showed herself as the frontrunner in league by winning the first league meet at Lacy Park on Sept. 22 with a then-personal course-best time of 18:46, ahead of runner-up Sonja Cwik (18:58) of La Cañada.
"Sonja is a great runner and makes me a better runner," Van Loan said. "You can't take it easy against her because she'll beat you."
The second league race at Crescenta Valley Park on Oct. 13 proved equally exciting, and awkward, as the race was delayed 40 minutes due to heat and then run as a combo race alongside the boys' competition.
This time, Cwik jumped out to an advantage in taking a three-second lead at the two-mile mark.
However, Van Loan caught her top challenger and surpassed her in winning in 19:10.
"Helena did a good job of coming on strong in the end," Cwik said after the race. "That's what makes her a tough runner. She seems to get stronger as the race goes on."
In between both league meets, Van Loan also finished fifth at the Clovis Invitational ran at Fresno's Woodward Park in the girls' varsity three race in 19:07 on Oct. 8.
The fifth-place performance was nearly matched at the girls' Division III sweepstakes at the Mt. SAC Invitational on Oct. 26, as Van Loan finished sixth in 18:52.
"Both races were special because they get you ready for CIF and hopefully state," Van Loan said. "When you run at both, you also want to do really [well] because you're running against the best."
Yet, Van Loan proved herself the best at the Rio Hondo League finals at Lacy Park on Nov. 3, this time with her biggest win in claiming victory in 18:20, 18 seconds ahead of Cwik, whose consolation was that her Spartans won the Rio Hondo League team championship.
"That was easily her most dominant win in league," San Marino Coach Eduardo Mundo said. "It really does make a coach's job a lot easier when you have a type of runner like Helena to lead the way."
While the Tigers finished second to La Cañada, they still advanced to the CIF-SS Division III preliminaries the following week back at Mt. SAC.
It was at the preliminaries that Van Loan again topped herself, placing third in her heat of the Division III competition with an area-best mark of 17:21.
Van Loan and her Tigers both qualified to the subsequent weekend's CIF-SS Division III finals.
At the divisional finals, though, the Tigers did not qualify to state, finishing 12th.
However, Van Loan continued her strong campaign by earning seventh (18:24) and qualifying to state as an at-large participant.
"I couldn't believe it when I qualified," Van Loan said. "This is where the season ended last year and to make it to state was amazing."
Van Loan was only one of two individuals, either boys or girls, from the Rio Hondo League to advance to the CIF-State Meet back at Woodward Park along with San Marino's Alissa Barraza.
Again, Van Loan proved herself the best in the area by posting the top local time of 18:48, which was good for 23rd place in the Division III championships.
"I'm very proud of this season because I improved from last year and so did the team," Van Loan said. "We made it to league finals and CIF finals and to win a league championship was great."