First published in the Nov. 26 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
The South Pasadena High School cross-country program will wrap up its 2021 season tomorrow, as both varsity boys and girls teams travel to Fresno for the California State Finals.
It is not only the first time both halves of the squad have earned state berths together, but it’s also the first time the girls’ team has ever been invited to the Woodward Park race. The girls’ team finished fifth in the CIF-Southern Section Division 4 finals last weekend at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, while the boys placed in seventh.
“Three freshmen girls really stepped it up, and a sophomore boy stepped it up and scored for us,” Tigers head coach Mike Parkinson said this week. “We’re really senior-heavy, but we have a lot of freshmen and first-year sophomores, a lot of whom didn’t get that summer practice. It was very satisfying to see this work out.”
Leading the way for the girls was senior Sydney Morrow, who rebounded after heat sickness derailed her prelims race and posted an 18:22 finish for eighth place in the division last week. Those three freshmen — Amelie Geoffron (19:17), Abby Errington (19:35) and Saidbh Byrne (19:45) — followed, finishing at 31st, 42nd and 48th place, respectively. Seniors Gigi Rodriguez (20:05), Kerrigan Riley (20:18) and Mai Koyama (21:15) wrapped it up at 56th, 65th and 86th place.
Bolstered by a healthy Morrow and Riley (who didn’t run in the prelims because of illness), the girls’ squad leapfrogged from an eighth-place finish at prelims, which takes the top five teams from each of three divisional heats plus the fastest sixth-place team to the finals. The division’s top seven teams from finals go to state.
The girls improved their team time from 1:43:35 to 1:37:06.
“Everyone was super excited to race,” Morrow said. “We didn’t know if it would be our last one or not, so we were just looking to have fun.”
For the boys, senior Brady Nakamura set a new personal record with a 15:44 finish, good for ninth place in the division. Senior Liam de Villa ran 16:06 for 18th place, with juniors Jason Baek (16:35) and Jack Ishibashi (17:23), sophomore Keeran Murray (17:33) and seniors Noah Kuhn (17:34) and Kaden Chai (18:09) following at 38th, 76th, 85th, 86th and 106th, respectively.
The boys jumped from a No. 9 ranking out of prelims and improved their team time from 1:25:48 to 1:23:23. Nakamura shaved 47 seconds from his time at the prior weeks’ prelims, which also took place at Mt. San Antonio.
“The cold weather was a lot better for me,” he said.
As top 15 finishers in their races, Morrow and Nakamura also won medals last week.
The state berths fulfill a prediction — or hope, rather — by Parkinson going into the season, his third coaching the Tigers. He harbored a similar goal in 2019, but by his own admission worked the athletes too hard in the final weeks and came up empty. (Morrow qualified as an individual that year, running 18:48 and finishing 27th.) CIF canceled state championships due to the pandemic for the 2020 season, which took place in the spring and saw the Tigers win the Rio Hondo League title.
“When I started coaching in 2019, the year before the boys had made it to state for the third time, and we really wanted to go again,” Parkinson said. “We really wanted to make it with both boys and girls.”
The coach had his 2019 error in mind when prepping his teams this fall, which saw him scale back his speed workouts once CIF-SS prelims were the next mark. His reward is introducing the two varsity squads to the “electric atmosphere” at the Fresno meet.
“These last two weeks, we did regular recovery runs and we did one hard work out the Monday before prelims,” he explained. “We didn’t do any speed runs before finals at all.”
The state championships Saturday will be the first 5-kilometer race many of the younger Tigers will have run, after clocking in 3-mile races virtually all year. With ample experience at the Mt. San Antonio course — which is 2.93 miles but notoriously hilly — Parkinson said he felt his runners were better prepared than others to take on Woodward Park.
“Not nearly as bad as Mt. SAC,” he summarized. “They have a hill called ‘Killer Hill,’ and it’s really just a bump compared to anything at Mt. SAC. Any one of the hills here in South Pas” — he gestured toward the neighborhoods just beyond the track — “is worse than ‘Killer Hill.’”
Drawing back to her sophomore year, Morrow fondly recalled Woodward Park, calling it one of her favorites. She also ran it as a freshman, establishing herself as the team’s top girl with a 19:57 finish.
“I really like the course,” she said. “It has a good (number) of hills. I like the energy up there. It’s always cold, which is nice.”
Like Morrow, Koyama and Nakamura also ran the course as freshmen, for the 2018 Clovis Invitational.
“That was kind of my breakout race. I have fond memories of that course,” Nakamura recalled; he clocked in at 17:47 that day.
“The goal for me [on Saturday] is top 15, ideally, but I’m just going to run the best that I can,” he continued. “If I leave it out on the course, I’ll be happy. I just want to finish the race knowing I don’t have anything left in the tank.”