ENCINO — For most of the year, the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy and St. Francis High cross-country teams train on hilly terrain, as both campuses are tucked away in the hills of La Cañada Flintridge.
The Tologs and Golden Knights found themselves on unfamiliar ground when they opened their Mission League seasons Thursday at Woodley Park in Los Angeles, which is a much flatter course than they're accustomed to.
“This is a new course for us so we're trying to adjust to that,” said Sacred Heart senior Gabby Fitzpatrick. “It's different from what we usually do, it's a completely flat race. We usually do hills in some of our races so it's new for us, but I think it will help us with our times. It will be really fast once the weather cools down.”
The heat, which was in the high 80s, a new course and a lot of new varsity runners led to results Sacred Heart Coach Kirk Nishiyama and St. Francis Coach Patrick Donovan were a little disappointed with, as both teams matched their overall finishes from last year.
The Tologs took third with 73 points, behind Sherman Oaks Notre Dame (30) and Harvard-Westlake (40). Chaminade (108), Louisville (117) and Alemany (188) rounded out the bottom half of the girls' competition.
“I expected to take third [coming into today], but we wanted to be closer,” said Nishiyama, who returns just three girls with varsity experience this year. “For a lot of the girls it's their first varsity race, so I'm not discouraged, a little disappointed but not discouraged. I think this gives us something to work on.”
St. Francis came in sixth on the boys' side with 109 points. Loyola finished in first place comfortably with 27 points, while Crespi (58), Harvard-Westlake (88), Notre Dame (92) and Alemany (106) fell in line behind them.
“We are much more of a hill-based squad and that bodes well when we go to courses like Mt. SAC, but on a flat course like this it's a rough transition,” Donovan said. “We tried to gear up for it, but just kind of looking at them out there today it looks like we still need to do some more focus training to come back stronger next time.”
A Harvard-Westlake runner won each race individually, as Lizzy Thomas took the girls’ race in 18 minutes 26 seconds and Ben Weissenbach won the boys’ race in 16:02.
Nishiyama knows his Tologs will have to pack better next race in order to move in closer on the Knights and Wolverines. It all starts with Fitzpatrick, who was Sacred Heart's frontrunner with a 10th-place finish. She was just edged out by Chaminade's Mary Catherine Larson for ninth with both recording times of 20:45.
“I am hoping to get faster, obviously,” Fitzpatrick said. “I am hoping to stay with the front of the pack next time with the Harvard-Westlake and Notre Dame girls.
“We are just focusing on the pack. That's basically our key to trying to win.”
Maddie Peterson and Noelle Niederhaus weren't far behind at 12th (20:59) and 14th place (21:08), respectively, for the Tologs. Kayla Graham and Riley Gilmartin rounded out Sacred Heart's top five at 17th (21:33) and 19th (21:51), respectively.
Senior J.D. Kieffer crossed the line first for the Golden Knights in 17:02 for 14th place.
“I was happy with our first couple placements,” Kieffer said. “I think we just need to take some time to think about it, recover and improve on it. We learn so much from the first race of the year, we can only get better from here.”
Max Sinclair was the next for St. Francis (20th place, 17:27) with Nick Sanchez (24th, 17:35), Chris Rodriguez (29th, 17:55) and Griffin Taylor (32nd, 18:18) rounding out the top five.
While Woodley Park proved a challenge this time around, Donovan expects his Golden Knights to be up to the task when they return for the next Mission League race.
“There's no excuses for not being familiar with the course then and not knowing what it takes,” Donovan said. “I think we'll move up in the next few races, I certainly expect to.”