SANTA CRUZ COUNTY — The Pajaro Valley High Grizzlies’ numbers didn’t just rebound. They exploded.
For the first time in the program’s history, according to longtime head coach Joe Reyes, Pajaro Valley has a roster well into the double digits.
The Grizzlies have 18 girls on the team, allowing them to run a full seven-person squad in both the varsity and the junior varsity ranks.
The last two seasons, P.V. didn’t have enough girls to place as a team at league finals — at least five runners are required to record a score — but this year Reyes and assistant head coach Christina Guerrero have the tough task of picking a starting seven.
It’s a good problem to have.
“It’s been fun,” said Guerrero, who joined the program late last season. “This is a change for P.V. and I couldn’t be happier with the effort from the girls. I love this team and the connections we’ve made this year. We hope we can keep this up.”
The Grizzlies haven’t had many pure runners try out for the team but they have had several stud athletes from other sports come out and show their stuff.
Junior Jayleen Solorzano is the lone holdover from last year and played a big part in the Grizzlies’ jump in numbers. The basketball team’s starting point guard, Solorzano said she ran cross country as a tune-up for the winter last school year and said she saw a big difference in her conditioning last hoops season. She pitched the sport to her friends, two of which play hoops and another two who play soccer, as such.
“A lot of them who play other sports said they saw the difference,” Solorzano said. “I just said try it and you’ll see what I mean. I’m happy they stuck around. It just feels better with a lot of girls.”
Having Guerrero, the program’s first female on-campus coach in recent memory, also doesn’t hurt. A King City High alumna, Guerrero was hired by P.V. as a physical education teacher in January of 2016 and helped a bit with cross country and track last season.
This fall, however, Guerrero has been gung-ho about the cross country program, throwing up posters on the school’s campus and chasing down would-be runners.
“Having that on-campus coach is super beneficial,” said Guerrero, who was a three-sport athlete at King City. “You get to be around the students. You’re in their face most of the day. They get to know who you are.”
With several newcomers to the sport, the Grizzlies don’t have big goals. In fact, they have only one: finish the season with a full team.
“As long as we see results — improvement — that’s good with me,” said junior Michelle Ibarra Castillo, who left the volleyball team for cross country. “I don’t know if we’ll make it to any of the bigger meets later in the year but if we did, it’d be pretty motivational for P.V.”
Across the city at Watsonville High, the Wildcatz moved back down to the Pacific division of the Monterey Bay League but were hit hard by graduation, losing three of their top five runners, including Stephanie Villa.
Head coach Rob Cornett and Co., however, were blessed on the second day of the school year when freshman Layla Ruiz tried out for the team, creating a tough one-two punch with star senior Daniela Salazar.
Ruiz, who began running at a young age through the Mini Mermaid Running Club, burst on to the scene by taking fourth in the freshman race of the prestigious Earlybird Invitational at Toro County Park in Salinas. She also took first place in the first MBL-Pacific division Center Meet of the season and is close to breaking the 19-minute mark in the 3-mile.
“We were worried with the losses that we had but when she came in she was just a little fireball,” Cornett said. “She showed it from Day 1. She said, ‘where’s Daniela? I want to find out where she is. That’s how good I want to be.’ She’s been doing it ever since.”
Ruiz said she didn’t run cross country in middle school save for her eighth grade year and she had no plans to run cross country in high school. But with a push from her father, Serafin, and uncle, Eder, Ruiz decided to run.
“My family knew that I’d kill it so I gave it a try,” Ruiz said. “I’m just falling in love with it.”
As a team, Watsonville, Pajaro Valley and Monte Vista Christian will have a tough time competing against Gilroy High, which is loaded with plenty of depth.
Sophomore Sophia Willoughby has impressed for M.V.C. early in the season, taking fourth in the first MBL-Pacific division Center Meet, and could very well secure a spot in the Central Coast Section meet scheduled for Nov. 11 at Toro County Park.
In the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League, Aptos High enters as the five-time defending league champ but Santa Cruz High and powerhouse senior Mari Friedman will be real challengers come league finals on Nov. 2 at Pinto Lake County Park.
A year after winning the program’s second California Interscholastic Federation state championship, the Mariners finished third in the state in the Division III race and also won their sixth straight CCS crown last season. But Aptos lost No. 3 runner Annika McBride to graduation and No. 2 runner Reina Garcia decided to not run this season.
Senior Marea Zlatunich, however, is back after last year’s magical cross country season in which she won the CCS D-III individual title, was named the section’s runner of the year, took fourth in the D-III race at the state meet and qualified for the Foot Locker Cross Country National Championships.
Head coach Dan Gruber said Zlatunich is not where she needs to be at the moment but expects her to round into form as the season progresses. The rest of the team, however, is young and several runners are dealing with early-season injuries.
“We lack a little bit of urgency and we lack a bit of leadership,” Gruber said. “I don’t want to sound too harsh but we’ve got a ways to go as a team.”
St. Francis High, meanwhile, returns junior Riley Croghan, sophomore Cami Ryan and senior Olivia Burke from last year’s CCS qualifying team.
In the MBL-Gabilan division, North Monterey County High once again has great numbers and a handful of runners that have improved over the offseason. Junior Faith Mora and senior Sarah Delgado lead the Condors, who have qualified for the CCS meet in every season this decade.