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La Jolla High duo prepares for state meet

Niyal Kayali and Tess Plant-Thomas have never competed in the California Interscholastic Federation State Championships track meet before, so the pair could be considered short on experience.

But the two La Jolla High School juniors have both run in the state cross country championship, a factor that Vikings coach Roger Karnopp thinks will help.

“I always try to get as many of my girls as I can in the big invitational meets,” Karnopp said. “They just learn how to handle themselves. The more times you’re in them and the older you get, the more you can be cool and calm when you get there.

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Kayali and Plant-Thomas have both qualified to run in the state meet, scheduled for May 30 and 31 at Cerritos College in Norwalk. They did so with outstanding performances in the CIF San Diego Section Finals on May 24.

Kayali ran the 1,600 meters in 5 minutes, 0.80 seconds, finishing second among Division II competitors and third overall while also setting a personal record and school record.

Plant-Thomas placed first in Division II and second overall at the Finals with a time of 2:14.38 in the 800 meters. The time set a new personal record for the junior by three seconds.

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Kayali and Plant-Thomas have pieced together superb track seasons, ones that have seen them steadily improve throughout the spring to the point where they are among the state’s best.

Kayali’s best time last season was 5:02.69, and throughout the spring, she has steadily whittled that number down. She honed her skills by competing in some high-level invitational meets.

“She’s a competitor and a half,” Karnopp said. “When everything is on the line, you just know that she’s going to come through and do it. She did it in the CIF Prelims, when it was really hot. And she did it in the CIF Finals, when she was primed and ready to roll.

“She’s always competed really well.”

Plant-Thomas has also improved greatly throughout the season. Her top time in the 800 meters last year was 2:18.07. She knocked off a little more than a half second on that time at a meet earlier this season, and improved drastically against top competition in the CIF meet.

“She’s improved by about 3 1⁄2 seconds from one year to the next, which, in a race that short, is a lot,” Karnopp said. Plant-Thomas missed two of the season’s more competitive invitational meets this season - Mt. Carmel and Arcadia - due to other commitments, but that hasn’t slowed her progress throughout the season.

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Karnopp said the reasons for Plant-Thomas’ improvement have been threefold - she has gained training and race experience while also becoming stronger and improving her endurance.

“Like Nihal, she just comes through when things are on the line,” Karnopp said. “She simply gets the job done.”

Karnopp said that both runners have benefited from concentrating their efforts on track and cross country. Both Kayali and Plant-Thomas also play soccer, and with their high school schedule as well as a club soccer schedule, there is little time remaining for training during the offseason. Playing soccer helps with leg strength and some endurance, but the short bursts of running required don’t translate well to long-distance running.

Karnopp said both runners did more work in the offseason, and each took time off from their club teams.

The state meet begins May 30, with running events starting at 5 p.m. Cerritos College is located at 11,110 Alondra Blvd. in the Orange County city of Norwalk.