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The Age of Excellence: Building an expectation

Beginning in 2005, Saugus High School has become a powerhouse in girls cross country

Posted: December 28, 2009 10:32 p.m.
Updated: December 29, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Saugus junior cross country runner Kaylin Mahoney, right, competes at the CIF State Division II championship meet at Woodward Park in Fresno in late November. Mahoney's third-place overall finish helped the Centurions win an unprecedented fourth consecutive CIF state championship.

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By now, even local sports fans who don’t follow cross country are probably familiar with the Saugus girls.

Their four straight CIF state championships are the first such run in girls’ state history.

They’ve broken the state record for fastest team time. Twice.

They’ve won four straight CIF-Southern Section titles and four straight Foothill League titles.

They’ve successfully defended Mt. San Antonio College – which they consider their “home” course – by winning the Mt. SAC Cross Country Invitational the past four years.

All told, it’s one of the most extraordinary runs in the history of Santa Clarita Valley athletics.

Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than the Centurions’ achievements is how unremarkable their approach has been.

“The desire to train every day for the entire year, that desire to outwork your opponent is the catalyst for our success,” says head coach Rene Paragas. “That speaks to their determination.”

Saugus has had plenty of talent, but Paragas’ point is that the program hasn’t lined up future college stars at every spot for the past four years.

The reality is that the top runners have been great and the fourth through seventh runners have consistently come through for the Centurions.

The 2009 CIF State Division II championship team exemplifies that makeup.

Saugus was led by junior Kaylin Mahoney, who was an individual state champion as a sophomore.

The No. 2 runner was sophomore Karis Frankian, who had been the No. 5 runner at the 2008 state meet.

The third finisher was junior Stephanie Bulder, who was fourth the year before.

Senior Amber Murakami, a member of all four state champions, pushed through injuries to finish fourth in 2009.

The remainder of Saugus’ lineup included Danielle Hernando, Merissa Kado and Nicole Penick, three juniors who were willing to push themselves, just like the rest of the team.

“We’re not drinking any magic potion or anything,” Mahoney says. “We’re getting up at dark-thirty every morning, pushing as hard as we can, keeping our minds on that one goal, the state championship.”

Paragas wanted girls willing to make those sacrifices when he took over the girls team in the fall of 2005.

Along with coaches Cal Linam and Christian Standley, Paragas actively recruited girls at Saugus High School, where he is a social studies teacher.

Some of them played other sports. Some of them had never run before in their lives.

But Paragas was able to get them to buy into the program.

A big reason for that was Shannon Murakami, Amber’s older sister.

The impact that Murakami and Paragas had together in cross country can actually be traced to track and field.

Paragas’ coaching career at Saugus began in the fall 2004 with the boys cross country team, and he served as an assistant coach for the girls track team in the spring of 2005.

During that spring he started working with Murakami, who was a sophomore at the time and ran the 1,600- and 3,200-meter races.

“Coach Paragas has told me numerous times that he had watched me my freshman year at league finals for track,” Shannon says. “He was watching me struggle and he told himself, ‘I can do something with that girl.’ We worked out an agreement where I could run with him and the guys team.”

Shannon says that she fell during her first run with the boys team and several of the boys expected her to start crying.

But Paragas helped her up, and she shook herself off and continued the run.

Shannon went on to set Foothill League records in the 1,600 and 3,200 at the league finals.

She later won CIF-SS Division I titles in both events.

“She had this breakout season in track,” Paragas says. “That was really the start of it all. It basically gave me credibility as a coach. That’s something that helped us recruit all those girls.”

With increased numbers in the cross country program, the competition for spots on the varsity team heated up.

Paragas says that competition is extremely important for a cross country team.

“Somebody has to win the race, but if you have 200 people in the race and there’s only one winner, does that mean there’s 199 losers?” he says. “Beyond the top seven, it’s important to have others because they’re going to get injured and they’re going to get sick. You need people to step in. You want your varsity to be nervous about losing their spot.”

Shannon’s individual success continued in the 2005 cross country season when she won the CIF State Division I individual championship as a junior.

The next year, the whole team had a breakthrough.

Saugus ended Canyon’s 12-year run atop the Foothill League, and behind Shannon Murakami and Katie Dunn, the Centurions won the CIF State Division I championship at Woodward Park in Fresno.

Thanks to the commitment of Shannon and Dunn, the program had taken off.

“They kind of mentored all these new girls in,” Paragas says. “These girls didn’t know any better.  They thought this is the way you did it. We had a recruiting frenzy and we had very, very good leadership.”

The following year, Dunn led the team to its second straight Division I state championship, with Mahoney as the team’s second finisher.

“She was my idol,” Mahoney says of Dunn. “She was the one I looked up to the most. I hope I can be another Shannon or Katie who has helped the team so much.”

Mahoney led the team to its third straight state championship in 2008, this time in Division II, and she helped the Centurions make history this past November.

Four state champions, each with a different captain. Each had a different nucleus.

Each time, it didn’t matter.

“When they graduate high school, everybody wants to say they left their mark,” Shannon says. “For a lot of the girls on (Saugus), their way of doing that is being on the team and contributing.”

Because of those contributions – and Paragas’ guidance – Saugus has now established itself as a cross country powerhouse.

The team has made the trip to the Nike Cross Nationals meet in Portland, Ore., the last three years, finishing second twice and fourth earlier this month.

So where does Saugus girls cross country rank with other great Santa Clarita Valley sports dynasties?

Paragas, a Hart graduate, isn’t combative about the issue.

But he does note that cross country’s postseason format, which pits all the top schools against one another, is more conducive to determining the best team than football’s postseason format, which doesn’t have a state tournament.

“We’ve been undefeated in California for four straight years,” Paragas says. “We’ve set state record times. You can’t really compare across sports. We certainly are a contender for being one of the best dynasties in Santa Clarita Valley history, if there is such a thing.”

In any case, Saugus will try to extend its record run in 2010, when the team returns all but one of its top seven runners.

If the Centurions win a fifth straight state title, they’ll have done so without any of the girls from the first state championship team.
At the beginning of the decade, such an accomplishment would have sounded impossible.

As the decade ends, it’s what we’ve come to expect from Saugus.

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