RIO RANCHO — From one point to three blue trophies.
The transformation of the Pecos boys cross-country program into one of the elite in the state, much less Class 3A, stemmed from one ill-fated day four years ago when Josh DeHerrera, Michael Montano and Carlos Cordova were just freshmen. The burgeoning Panthers program came into the 2014 state meet in a neck-and-neck battle with Laguna Acoma, then the defending 2A (now 3A) champion. That 29-30 loss to the Hawks in the lowest-total-wins format became the flash point for a legacy.
Since then, Pecos has not lost at the state meet. The latest star turn came Saturday morning at Rio Rancho High School as the Panthers showed their strength as a pack, with their five scoring runners placing in the top nine spots to easily beat Zuni by a 25-63 margin for their third straight state championship. Not even Panthers head coach Patrick Ortiz was aware of the size of the victory as he prepared to watch his boys accept the blue trophy again, almost three hours after the race.
“I hadn’t even looked at the scores,” Ortiz said. “I told them at the end of the year, they were capable of getting our five in the top 10. That’s not easily achievable, but it can happen.”
The senior group of DeHerrera, Montano and Cordova completed their prep careers with three championships, a runner-up trophy and the confidence that they handed down their knowledge to the next pack of Panthers.
And the biggest lesson the seniors learned was that nothing is given.
“If we want to keep this thing going, we can’t be like, ‘Oh, we’re the state champs, we’re just gonna go easy,’ ” said Montano, who finished fifth individually. “We gotta go hard in practice. We can’t slack off and think, ‘Oh they’re just gonna give it to us.’ We gotta work hard as a team. We’re family and we gotta work as one.”
That means egos taking a back seat. There was no recrimination at sophomore Isaiah Armijo as he became Pecos’ No. 2 runner ahead of Montano. Armijo was third overall, and the second Panther to cross the finish line, just 2.35 seconds behind DeHerrera, who ran the 5-kilometer course in 17 minutes, 10.30 seconds.
Cordova was the seventh and final runner for the Panthers, taking 25th place, but you wouldn’t know it as he exchanged hugs with his teammates as they basked in the glory of blue.
“Everyone is family; we don’t hold anything against each other,” DeHerrera said. “We’re together, united. That’s what make this great.”
While Pecos ran away to the title, the 4A race lived up to its billing as the most competitive race out of all five classes. Navajo Prep repeated as state champion with a 78-point total, which was 11 better than runner-up Pojoaque Valley and 23 better than third place West Las Vegas. When the dust settled, the top five finishers were just 41 points apart from each other, meaning a dozen position changes could have had drastic effects.
In the case of the Elks, a healthy Avery Torrez could have meant the difference between a red and a blue trophy. The senior bolted out with the Dons trio of Miguel Coca, J.J. Esquibel and Isaiah Paiz plus Justin Angel of St. Michael’s, but he soon labored and faded slowly to 66th place.
Working in Pojoaque’s favor, though, were runners willing and able to step into Torrez’s shoes. Donovan Lujan, who ran with the varsity for the first time at the District 2-4A meet last week, was the No. 3 runner in the scoring ladder, taking 20th in 17:59.25. Senior Mario Santistevan finished his prep career with a 12th-place run to finish as Pojoaque’s No. 2 runner behind John Hall, who took fifth.
“Mario had a great run, Donovan — boom — and Jesiah [Martinez, who was 26th], they were great,” legendary Pojoaque head coach Allan Lockridge said. “Santi was usually my third runner, so … ”
West Las Vegas, though, made the work of Coca, Esquibel and Paiz hold up to edge Santa Fe Indian School for third. Coca won the race in 16:20.05 to lead a 1-2-3 West Las Vegas parade at the front. But the program’s struggles over the past few years came with its back-end runners — the Dons never had strong enough runners to finish what they started.
The trio waited anxiously at the finish line for their fourth and fifth runners, and the almost three-minute gap to Jarred Baca (53rd overall, but 47th for scoring purposes after eliminating individual runners from the scoring equation) and Omar Gallardo (54th and 48th) was excruciating.
“We were just hoping they would come in closer to us, just because we wanted to get on the podium,” Coca said. “We were craving it.”
Baca and Galardo helped West Las Vegas outpoint SFIS 101-108 for the green third-place trophy. As great a moment as it was for the Dons, the Braves were disappointed with coming so close to bringing home some hardware of their own. SFIS head coach Joe Calabaza said the week-long school break could have affected his runners, who did get workouts in on Monday and Tuesday before leaving the campus.
“The kids were really hyped up, but we gotta run,” SFIS head coach Joe Calabaza said. “Our No. 2 guy didn’t have a great race, but some of the kids stepped up, so that was great. Congratulations for the teams who finished ahead of us because we were gunning for them.”
In the 5A race, Los Alamos is used to neck-and-neck battles with Albuquerque Academy, but Kirtland Central intruded on that this year. The Chargers repeated as state champions with 37 points, but the Broncos slipped past the Hilltoppers for second with 61 points. Los Alamos took third with 63.
In the 1A/2A race, Mesa Vista could not overcome Navajo Pine taking four of the first six positions and acquiesced its state crown to the Warriors by a 37-69 count. Mora finished in third place with 96 points.
RIO RANCHO — Cora Cannedy’s voice couldn’t disguise the battle between body and mind on Saturday morning.
The low, almost hushed tone when the Taos senior spoke stemmed from a four-day battle with a cold — not exactly the ideal time for a cross-country runner with the State Cross-Country Championships at Rio Rancho High School ahead of her. Yet, Cannedy braved the 5-kilometer course, giving it her all for the Lady Tigers in their quest to repeat as state champions and win their fourth in the past five seasons.
Lucky for Cannedy, Taos was blessed with runners. So freshman Ella Katz took the point at the halfway through the Class 4A race and led a top-three sweep, which included Cannedy, to help the Lady Tigers fulfill their destiny. Taos’ low score of 31 points beat runner-up Albuquerque Hope Christian by 45, and Katz became the third girls individual champion in the program’s history. She joined Cannedy, who won it in 2014, and Alicia Torres (in 2001) in that special group.
Katz, though, didn’t know she would be the headliner on this day. She figured the race would go as usual for the girls.
“I just started off and said, ‘I’m gonna stick with Cora, because she’s gonna win,’ ” Katz said.
That plan changed as the lead pack came down from the hills behind the football stadium, as it was clear that Cannedy was laboring.
“I just had to stay mentally strong,” Cannedy said. “It doesn’t matter how much it hurt, you’ve got to stay focused.”
Katz took over at that point and steadily pulled away over the last half of the race. Katz was no stranger to being the lead runner — the freshman won the District 2-4A meet last week as Cannedy sat out to prepare for a state soccer tournament match. However, this was the first time in a big meet — try the biggest — that Katz found herself in this position.
“It was nerve-wracking because I didn’t know if I could do it, and I wanted Cora to be there,” Katz said. “It’s really exhilarating, and you feel like you can do anything.”
Katz won in 20 minutes, 18.80 seconds, but she is a part of a lineup that is predominantly freshmen and eighth-graders. The young runners showed throughout the season they were capable of being the No. 1 runner. Eighth grader Alyx Mastor was third in the race, while freshman Erin Manchester-Jones took 10th a week after finishing runner-up to Katz.
Cannedy sees a bright future for Taos, even with the impending alignment and classification plan from the New Mexico Activities Association expected to shake up schools in 4A.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better group of girls to follow in our footsteps,” Cannedy said. “I know they smart and very talented. They’ll continue to do great things through their high-school career.”
The youth movement is already paying dividends for Peñasco in 1A/2A. The Lady Panthers also breezed to their second straight state title, and Carly Gonzales added a second individual crown to her resume as she continued her quest to add to her family’s legacy.
Her aunt, Elizabeth Gonzales, was a four-time state champion at Peñasco from 1982-85, and Carly Gonzales wanted to one-up her. However, her runner-up finish to Mora’s Natalia Marrujo last fall upset those plans, as well as lit a fire under the younger Gonzales.
“Last year, I felt like it was just luck [that she won in 2015],” Carly Gonzales said. “I felt like I wasn’t part of my team, like I really didn’t help them last year. I don’t know why, even though I was the top runner. I guess I felt like I didn’t do my best.”
Carly Gonzales left no doubt this time, winning in a time of 20:36.55 that was exactly 27 seconds faster than Alamo Navajo’s Kenette Eriach, who took second. Meanwhile, the Lady Panthers nabbed five of the top 14 spots before any other team could its No. 3 runner across the line.
Two sophomores and two eighth-graders were a part of Peñasco’s scoring ladder, which means the Lady Panthers will be among the favorites in 1A/2A next fall. Peñasco head coach Ben Sanchez said he built up the regular-season schedule to challenge his team to improve.
“I told them we don’t have to win every race,” Sanchez said. “Just improve throughout the season, and that’s what they did. We went to districts and won that, then we came here and ran real well.”
If Peñasco watched the 3A race closely, it saw what might be in store for 2018. A three-team battle among Albuquerque Cottonwood Classical Prep, Pecos and Academy for Technology and the Classics ensued, with the Lady Coyotes prevailing thanks to sweeping the top three spots.
The Lady Panthers tried to keep up, placing three runners in the top 10, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Cottonwood Classical’s trio.
“We needed a little bit of help from other schools. but that never really happened,” Pecos head coach Patrick Ortiz said. “But I think they did a good job. They’re kinda where the boys were a few years ago, knocking on the door.”
Meanwhile, ATC rebounded from a rough start in which most of its runners were closer to the back of the pack than the front. The Phoenix got three runners in the top 13 and finished third with 77 points.
“The realistic goal was third,” ATC head coach Tim Host said. “Obviously, the hope is a state championship, so there’s disappointment in that. We’re young, but we’re experienced. These girls have run in the 4-by-4 [-hundred] state finals, and one girl plays volleyball at Capital. It’s crazy how young they are, but how experienced they are at the same time.”
Pecos and ATC appear like candidates to move down to 1A/2A next year, and Host said it will make next year’s race all the more competitive.
“It will change things up a lot, but the level of competition will be pretty comparable,” Host said.
In the 5A meet, Los Alamos took second with 69 points, trailing Albuquerque Academy by 31 points.