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Saugus duo has team vying for CIF title

Posted: November 21, 2013 10:19 p.m.
Updated: November 21, 2013 10:19 p.m.

The Saugus boys cross country team has been anchored by Alex Pearson, left, and Brian Zabilski this season.

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Lately, Brian Zabilski’s Facebook feed has been filled with inspirational links and photos.

It’s that time of year for him and the Saugus boys cross country team.

The next two weekends will determine the CIF-Southern Section and state champions, and this Saugus team believes it can win both.

“It’s hard for me to focus on school sometimes because I’m thinking about running so much,” says Zabilski, the Saugus junior who has skyrocketed to become the team’s top runner and one of the fastest in the state this year.

But not far behind Zabilski is an experienced runner who has played just as big of a role in Saugus’ emergence as a state title contender. And that’s senior Alex Pearson.

Together, the two have provided perhaps the strongest one-two running combination in California.

On one hand, you have Pearson as the veteran who’s been running competitively since seventh grade and is coming off a Foothill League championship and All-CIF track and field season in the 1,600-meters in 4 minutes, 21.47 seconds.

To counter that, there’s Zabilski, the younger and smaller one who hardly ran at all before high school. He turned himself from average to elite in two years at Saugus.

“Having two guys up there, it’s like having two aces, two starting pitchers where it doesn’t really matter,” says Saugus head coach Rene Paragas. “Brian’s taken a lot of pressure I think off Alex and it’s allowed Alex just to run his race and not have to worry.”

Coming into the season, Pearson looked like he was going to be Saugus’ presumptive frontman given his track and field credentials and his status as the team’s top returner from a team that finished second in the CIF State Division II race last year.

Pearson was the team’s No. 4 finisher and Zabilski was No. 6 at the state meet.

“After knowing that we had the potential to win and everything and then coming in second, it was a sting,” Pearson says. “It really did hurt. I would say that was motivation quite a bit — improving on last year but also just not letting that happen again.”

Since then, both runners have improved their times significantly.

Zabilski and Pearson were neck-and-neck early in the season, but Zabilski pulled away during Foothill League season and ended up winning an individual league title in a Central Park hill-course time of 15:13.72. At the three league races this year, Pearson finished second, second and third.

The relationship between the two remains strong, yet competitive.

“There’s a lot of mutual respect there,” says Steve Pearson, Alex’s father. “Obviously Alex wants to be the guy just like Brian wants to be that guy.”

Alex was tabbed by Paragas as the leader. He’s the senior with the most mileage clocked if you include his two years running competitively at the youth level.

Zabilski’s emergence has only made him better.

“Alex doesn’t have to bear the burden by himself,” Paragas says. “I think that’s what helped us the most. Those guys have been super consistent because they don’t have to be the one.”

At a younger age, Alex played football, the sport that his dad coaches. Steve Pearson is the JV football coach at Saugus High.

Back then, Alex remembers his favorite part of practice coming at the end when the team would do conditioning.

“We’d do the laps, and I’d always be the first one to finish so I said, ‘Hey, maybe I should do running,’” Alex says.

By his sophomore year, Alex started coming into his own right around the time Zabilski joined the fold.

The two helped anchor Saugus’ frosh/soph Foothill title that year, in 2011.

On Saturday, they’ll have a chance for something much bigger when they try for a CIF-Southern Section championships at Mt. San Antonio College.

They’re joined by sophomore Ryan Tate, junior Jordan Serrano and seniors Ethan Walker, Billy Anthony and Townsend Kanaversky to make up a group which is tied for a No. 1 ranking in CIF-SS Division II.

This team is fiercely focused on its goal of winning the first boys state crown in school history, especially after they came so close this time last year.

“We’ve been working for this not really since June, July, but more like last November,” Zabilski says.

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