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Saugus cross country: A common thread

Alec Nelson has kept a watchful eye over the re-emergence of Saugus boys cross-country team

Posted: November 24, 2009 10:44 p.m.
Updated: November 25, 2009 4:30 a.m.

Saugus High senior runner Alec Nelson has helped lead the Centurions to the CIF-State Division II Cross Country Championship on Saturday at Fresno's Woodward Park.

 

The last time the Saugus boys advanced to the CIF State Cross Country championship was 1998.

Alec Nelson doesn’t remember what he was doing back then.

“I was probably playing with my Power Rangers in the backyard or something,” he laughs.

Now, 11 years later, the Centurions are headed back to the CIF state meet.

Nelson has been a big influence — and he vividly remembers how he got to this point.

When he joined the varsity team as a freshman, Saugus was at the bottom of the Foothill League, but the Centurions have since captured four straight Foothill League championships.

Nelson has been a common thread.

“He set the tone for the team,” says Saugus head coach Rene Paragas. “He never missed a day. He ran when he was sick. He ran when he was injured. I could always look to Alec doing that, and he’s the best on the team in the way he approaches races.”

Nelson says he learned from some of the talented runners who have come through the program recently, names like Matt “Bozzy” Bosnoyan, Baxter Frick, Bret Swinehart and Brandon Jauregui.

While those teams all managed to win the league title, none of them reached the CIF state meet.

Nelson says the growth process was apparent, too.

The team graduated several runners after his freshman year in 2006, and Nelson says the turnover disoriented the 2007 team, which didn’t make it out of the CIF prelims.

The 2008 team tied for seventh at the CIF-SS Div. II finals before losing to Ayala on the sixth runner, a result Nelson says was the final blow in a season that gradually fell apart.

This year’s team finally broke through.

For Nelson, though, it almost didn’t happen.

The senior captain suffered a stress fracture in his foot during track season last spring, but he expected to be fully healed in time to train for cross country over the summer.

But he re-aggravated the injury in early August, a setback that kept him out until after the season began.

“It was really frustrating,” Nelson says. “I took (being named captain) really seriously. I didn’t want to fail like we did last year. It was so depressing.”

Even though he wasn’t in peak condition, Nelson’s teammates say he found other ways to contribute.

“He’s been with us every single run,” says junior Robert Pion, who has been Saugus’ top finisher for most of the year and is good friends with Nelson. “He gave us a rally cry. He’s given everyone very good energy, things like that.”

Nelson worked his way back and finished 15th at the first Foothill League meet at Central Park.

More than a month later, he finished seventh at the league finals on that same course and improved his time by 34 seconds.

As elated as the Centurions were after winning the league title, they rocketed back down to Earth at the CIF-SS Div. II prelims.

By nature, prelims are little more than a glorified qualifying race, but the Saugus boys still had people scratching their heads after finishing fourth in their heat.

Nelson took responsibility for the performance.

“I don’t think we took it seriously enough,” he says. “I’m a lot to blame for that. I was just telling them it’s no big deal, it’s prelims. I made a big mistake.”

In many ways, Nelson says, the Saugus boys team has been defined by overcoming setbacks during his four years.

Last Saturday, Nelson turned in what could be the defining performance of his career.

His time of 15 minutes, 30 seconds at Mt. San Antonio College was good enough for 13th place in the Division II race, and it led the way for the Centurions’ fourth-place overall finish.

Paragas says the team emulated Nelson’s cool, confident demeanor.

“Last year, the team wasn’t that way,” he says. “The team was apprehensive, nervous. This year, that’s not how it is because that’s not how he is. He relishes it when the chips are down.”

Now that Saugus is headed back to the state meet, things are looking up for Nelson and the Centurions.

Still, it begs the question: With all the recent talent, why is this the team that made it?

“These guys are crazy, Nelson says. “They just go out there and fight. They don’t read the Web sites. They just go out there like maniacs. They just want to win. That’s all they know.”

They also know the magnitude of Saturday’s state meet.

For a change, Nelson can breathe easier.

“We’re all ready to go this week,” he says. “I don’t need to tell them much of anything.”

 

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