Gabe Collison taking the lead for Crescenta Valley cross-country

Even a pack as tightly grouped as the Crescenta Valley High boys' cross-country team needs a standout to lead the charge.

Junior Gabe Collison has emerged as the standard bearer for a surprising Falcons team that has risen from the disappointment of last year's down season and vaulted itself right back into contention for a Pacific League title and a CIF berth.

By design, it's been a consummate team effort, but Collison has consistently been the first Falcon across the finish line throughout the team's timely progression this season.

"He's running very well and looking at him in workouts, he's very strong, he's very motivated," veteran Crescenta Valley Coach Mark Evans says. "He really wants to do well."

No small part of that motivation comes from the bad taste left in the mouths of Collison and his fellow returners after the 2011 season that saw the Falcons finish out of the top three in league before their season ran into an early end in the CIF Southern Section Division I prelims.

Unranked in Division I to start the year, the Falcons have already made a statement to the rest of the division and league by beating out both state top-ranked Arcadia and Burbank, which was ranked fifth to start the year, in the first league meet at Griffith Park on Sept. 20.

"I think we all just want to show Arcadia and Burbank that we're not going to be pushed around," says Collison, who finished second overall in 15 minutes 54 seconds to pace a Falcons win that vaulted CV into the No. 8 ranking in the division. "We're going to do some of the pushing and the shoving. At Griffith Park we were able to do that.

"We all know what we can do and we know we still have a lot of improvement ahead of us. That's what's driving us right now."

Improvement also characterized Collison's offseason, which started with a breakout track season in which he cut his time in the 3,200 meters below 10 minutes. After mostly finishing behind last year's No. 1 in cross-country, the graduated Mike Duncan, and alternating the No. 2 and 3 spots with Aaron Esparza, who is back for his senior year, Collison has quickly taken the mantle of No. 1 this season.

He took second overall at the season-opening cluster meet on Sept. 6 at Mission Oaks Park in Camarillo in 15:54, leading Crescenta Valley to a team win, finished first in the juniors race at the Woodbridge Invitational on Sept. 15 in 15:07 and was the Falcons' top finisher at the 45th annual Staub/Barnes Invitational at Crescenta Valley Park on Sept. 29, placing fourth overall in 15:53.

"[This year] once I started to get first and first and first [on the team], it's getting kind of addictive," he says.

Collison's upswing continued Saturday at the Clovis Invitational in Fresno, site of the CIF state meet, where he knocked 57 seconds off his 2011 mark at the same course in placing third overall in 15:32 to pace the Falcons' third-place showing in the Division I Boys' Extra Large race.

"I think he's gotten stronger, he's matured as a person and as an athlete," Evans said. "He's a year older, able to handle more workouts and handle a little bit more mileage.

"Gabe, at the end of track season, had some really high aspirations and set some personal goals for himself and what he wanted to accomplish. We went into the cross-country season this summer trying to meet those goals and we said let's really try to focus on our team."

That's been key for Collison this year. As good as he's been individually, it's because of his readiness to buy into the team packing concept laid out by Evans at the beginning of the season that the Falcons have been so successful.

"He's a really good teammate, he tends to lead by example," Falcons junior Nick Beatty says. "He's kind of quiet, but he's always there doing the right thing, working hard just trying to get out front and lead the way.

"We're definitely all trying to work together. We're all right behind him, we're just trying to stick together in a pack. We're really, really tight together."

The value of team running was never more clear to Collison than at Griffith Park when the Falcons topped the Apaches with teamwork, forming a pack that placed four runners in the top eight within 15 seconds of each other en route to edge the Apaches, 26-29.

"I think we all know that it's going to work, but sometimes I just want to get out there and I need to relax," Collison says. "Aaron and I and Nick were all shocked at how slow Arcadia was taking it in the beginning.

We had to restrain ourselves a lot going slow in the beginning, but I think we got a chance to see how effective that could be. It feels like you're just standing there and waiting to be passed. We're all on board with it, but we're going to need to actually apply it a little harder."

From getting under 15 minutes this season to some course and school records he's got his eye on breaking before he graduates, Collison has some definite individual goals and could one day set him a class of his own.

But for now, you'll never find Collison too far away from the rest of the Falcons' pack, nor far from the front of the race.

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