By Karen Billing
Staff WriterLa Jolla Country Day’s boys cross country team has unfinished business.
Last year, for the fifth year in a row, the team won the CIF, conference and league championships in Division IV, earning them a trip to the California CIF Cross Country State Championships. But it was a frustrating meet — top runner Noah Wolfenzon went down with an injury and they finished 15th. There’s a nagging feeling among them that they didn’t get as far as they could have and a growing confidence that this could be the year they take home a significant trophy.
“We want to make a name for ourselves at the state level. This team is by far the most prepared to do that,” said senior Jake Mack.
“They’re ready,” said Coach Scott Sanders, LJCD’s cross country coach for the last 13 years. Sanders has overseen 10 championship seasons. “I would love just to see everyone run their best race (at states). And hopefully that means there’s a podium in our future.”
The swift squad is ranked fifth in the state, with six guys returning from last year’s run at state championships. This year they aim to improve their state standing and get five guys in the top 10.
La Jolla Country Day’s top seven includes seniors Jake and Noah, junior Jeff Clancy, sophomore David Castillejos; junior Ariel Smotrich; Darin Wong; and J.J. Juarez-Uribe.
That number five ranking is a factor of a few things — Darin says it’s perseverance, Ariel says it’s their work ethic and that they “run hard day in and day out.” But it also may be the brotherhood created by running in a pack together for two hours most days.
They have their fun sides (believing their post-race horchata has super-human powers and growing rat tails or attempting to grow mustaches for race days), but they also push each other.
Jake said there have also been two constants in Country Day’s winning ways: the solid values instilled in them by the school itself and their coach.
“Clearly he’s doing something right — in 13 years he’s won more than any other coach,” Jake said. “He brings out the best in us.”
“The cross country team has one of the highest GPAs — if not the highest — in all team sports in the school,” said Noah. “Running is a sport driven by self-motivation, which is just like school. You’re the only one making you run, the same with working hard in class. We’re all willing to put in the work.”
A testament to the group’s drive is how their goal times keep shifting down in a good way. In the past years, Sanders would be happy if a runner could break 18 minutes in their 3-mile race. Last year, several runners broke 17 minutes and now expectations are for sub 16-minute races.
“This is such a terrific, easy group to work with,” Sanders said. “They work hard, get along so well and listen to instruction. They respect their team captains (Jake and Noah) who know what to do and how to get things done in the most effective way.”
On their own, the team organized summer workouts to prep for the upcoming season. Since July 4, they’ve been running optional training sessions that each runner has accepted as mandatory to reach their high goals.
“I know the work they’ve done this summer has gotten them ready for this season,” said Sanders. “It’s clear that Darin (the youngest of the top seven) has been working this summer to make varsity. He’s gunning for that spot.”
The boys’ favorite spot to run was the Los Penasquitos Canyon, washed down with burritos at Nico’s Taco Shop in Piazza Carmel. They’d also hit Mission Bay Park, logging heavy mileage and staying off concrete to save their knees and ankles. Jake estimates they ran up to 50 miles most weeks over the summer.
Cross country is a long season, from summer through late November if all goes well — long months of tired, thirsty and hungry miles. The boys will tackle their first race this Saturday, Sept. 10, at the Bronco Round-Up at Rancho Bernardo High.
The team’s favorite course is Mt. Sac, which they will race in October.
“I love the down hills,” gushed David.
“You fly,” remarked Ariel.
Of course, downhills couldn’t happen without uphills, which also makes Mt. Sac the most challenging course they run during the season. Jake said in addition to the steep uphills, it’s also “hot, dusty, dry and crowded.”
Despite its toughness, it remains their favorite meet because it features the best competition and if it hasn’t been made clear, these guys like to compete.
This early in September, the team has not yet come to terms with what it will be like without captains Jake and Noah next year.
“Both Jake and Noah have been role models for the rest us,” Jeff said,
As for Jake, he’s confident that the cross country team’s tradition of winning will continue.
“I think these guys are ready to win at least another five CIF championships,” Jake said, prompting his friends to laugh at his fuzzy math.
“I don’t want to be here that long,” quipped junior Ariel.